Not to long ago, my cat started throwing up a lot. After expensive tests and X-rays, it turned out she just had a minor thyroid condition. The tests weren’t a bad idea, but they did make me second guess my relationship with my vet. If you’re looking for a new vet or just curious if your current one is right, here’s what you should know.
To practice, all veterinarians need a license in their state (you can look them up here). If you’re looking for accreditation beyond that, you can start with the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). They require veterinarians to meet a specific set of standards in their practice. They also examine vet offices and equipment every few years to ensure they hold up to those standards.
Vets aren’t required to hold this accreditation and many of them don’t. If a vet isn’t AAHA certified, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but when a veterinarian is certified, you at least know they stick to certain standards. You can look up AAHA-accredited vet hospitals here.
Some vets are also members of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). It’s basically like American Medical Association membership for vets. Again, AVMA membership doesn’t necessarily mean better, but it shows that your vet is dedicated to the practice. Still, AAHA accreditation is probably a better indicator, as they have a specific set of guidelines offices have to pass to stay accredited.
In some cases, you might need a veterinary specialist. If your pet has specific health issues, like a neurological disease, you probably want to take it to someone who has extra training in that area. A veterinary specialist should be accredited by The American Board of Veterinary Specialists (ABVS). The ABVS ensures your veterinarian has met specific requirements for their specialty and studied longer to become an expert in a specific area. The ABVS also works for species-specific vets. If you need a vet that specializes in birds, reptiles, pigs, or other “exotic companion animals” (turtles, parrots, and snakes for example), you want to make sure they’re certified to handle those animals, and you can look them up on the ABVS website. You can search by specialty and species here.
Look into veterinary networks like VCA and Banfield, too. These are sort of like chain offices that usually offer lower prices and have their own set of guidelines for vets to follow. They don’t always have the best reputation, though. Here’s what one writer and pet owner had to say about them over at Petcha:
These chain hospitals can often offer lower prices by spreading out overhead and leveraging their purchasing power to strike deals with drug manufacturers. But the trade-off, at least in my experience, is that you may not see the same veterinarian and staff members during each visit. I prefer to have a veterinarian who really knows me and my pets.
This isn’t always the case, of course. My cat goes to a VCA hospital and we see the same doctor every time. In fact, it feels just like an independent vet’s office, except they tried to get me to sign up for their CareClub once. To their credit, they only mentioned because my bill was super high and they thought it might save me money.
When you go through a network, the same rules apply, though. Your vet can still be AAHA and AVMA accredited. But beyond the letters behind their name, you want to make sure the vet and their office is the right fit for you.
You don’t want to wait until your pet is really sick to visit a vet’s office for the first time. You need time to make sure you actually like and trust a vet before you come to them with a life-or-death situation. The AAHA recommends asking the vet for a “get acquainted” meeting to meet them and see if the office is the right fit. You could also just schedule a checkup, though, which can actually let you see the vet in action, observe how they interact with your pet, hear how they communicate with you, and so on.
Here are a few specific considerations to think about when you visit:
Ask some questions while you’re at it. Here are a few specific ones the AAHA says you should throw out:
You can—and should—ask about money, too. Ask what kind of payment methods they accept and what kind of payment plans they have available, if any. Check to see what they charge for routine procedures like checkups and vaccinations.
Beyond that, when you actually meet with the veterinarian, you want to make sure you’re on the same page. A veterinarian might be great technically, but if he or she doesn’t communicate the way you like to communicate, they might not be the right fit.
For example, I used to take my cat to a vet that was really sweet and gentle with her, but when it came time to discuss the tough stuff, she hesitated a lot instead of giving it to me straight. Another vet over-explained things so much that it frustrated and annoyed my husband, but I actually preferred that level of information. The point is, there’s definitely a personal preference factor to consider when you deal with your vet, so don’t be afraid to ask questions, talk to them about your concerns, and examine how they interact with your pet.
Everyone seems to have a veterinary horror story and 20/20 even did their own expose on the industry a few years back.
The problem is, when your vet suggests your pet’s vomiting could be something serious and recommends a series of tests that cost several hundred bucks, you feel like a bad pet parent if say no. But you feel like a sucker if they come back and it’s nothing. In most cases, the bottom line is that the vet is more concerned with your pet’s health than your budget.
One vet summed up this disconnect pretty well over at Slate:
“The veterinarian is on the cat’s side, not yours.”
While there are definitely legitimate horror stories, most vets just want to do what’s best for your pet, regardless of the fact that it may be expensive. In my cat’s case, the tests may have been overkill to some, but those tests alerted me to the fact that she had kidney issues, so I changed her diet to keep her healthy. Without them, I wouldn’t have known better. If you think your vet might be gouging, you, though, dog site Speaking for Spot says to look for these red flags:
Before you decide on a vet, Consumer Reports recommends asking what their physical exam fee is, then calling around to compare prices. This gives you a good idea of what you can expect to pay before you’re hit with a more serious situation.
Vet costs can be expensive, but that doesn’t mean your vet is trying to pull one over on you. Still, you want to make sure you’re working with a vet you trust, not just for the sake of your finances but for your pet’s sake, too.
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