Some of my criteria:
1. Gilly (or other animals over the years) likes not only the vet(s), but the techs. That’s a tricky one sometimes, since he doesn’t like going to the vet at all, and generally holds the vet responsible for anything bad that has ever happened to him. Even so, he does his best to be polite and submissive with most vets, so if he’s really showing a lot of fear or dislike I figure something’s off: he has the right to be more comfortable than that , so if there’s an option I should find it.
2. The techs are professional and reasonably kind – ie: not hostile, rude, or generally behaving as though their primary duty is to block access to the vet from all these distasteful clients (I don’t know why this is ever tolerated by a business owner, since it’s a lousy model, but I’ve run into it in several places). Also, if they’re that rude to me, I don’t trust them behind closed doors with my animals. Finally, these are the people I’m going to be dealing with every time I call for any reason (including to assess whether or not I need to bring someone in), and they’ll be the ones I have deal with when I have to make end-of-life decisions which are excruciating enough without the involvement of mean people.
3. Definite no-no: the vet is so over-committed I can’t get an appointment (or, more commonly, I run into #2 any time I call). I’m perfectly happy to schedule check-ups/yearly visits well in advance. In an emergency or sudden illness, I want to know that they’ll be there for the animal without question.
4. The office smells clean, I can see the surgery and it’s clean, etc.. If the place reeks of old urine, something isn’t going right in that office. If it’s visibly unsanitary, forget it.
5. The vet is clear with me about what to do in an emergency, and has a decent answering service (or a willingness to address the problem if their answering service sucks). Gilly could have died because the bonehead who answered the after-hours emergency line could not, apparently, process what “emergency” meant (or how to use her own phone equipment): his vet, however, figured out that there was a problem and addressed it with the service so it wouldn’t happen to anyone else.
6. The vet takes the time to explain things to me: not only what is happening and why, but what the options for treatment are, including what s/he thinks is best for the animal in any given situation, what is absolutely necessary and what isn’t, and what the various costs are.
Some newer vet grads seem hugely enamored of nifty new gadgets and tests. While I’m enormously grateful veterinary medicine is advancing and treatment options are increasing, and I want to be careful about how I say this, I also know there’s sometimes an increasing disconnect between what is possible and what is necessary – and that can create unnecessary experiences and suffering for the animal. For most of us, it also causes financial hardship that will hurt both the animal and the person in the long run.
Gilly’s had honest, clear, and realist vets, and he’s still a $10,000 dog at this point (it’s his extreme-sports habit: it’s like being responsible for Jackie Chan, only without health insurance).
I will move mountains with my bare hands to get Gilly what he needs: I’ll not buy myself groceries, I’ll cancel holidays, I’ll beg and grovel and pick up extra jobs and do whatever I have to do. Because this is true, because I’ll put anything on the line for his well-being and I am not wealthy, I have to be able to trust my vet to tell me what really is necessary (and what isn’t) – without inhumane profit-motive.
If they want to chew people up and spit them out, paving the road to personal wealth by creating unnecessary and invasive suffering, I hear there are some openings on Wall Street.
7. The vet and staff are committed to the animals’ well-being over and above strict adherence to some policy/billing procedure/convenience for them. That is increasingly hard to find, and tells me a lot.
Couple of stories about why:
When Gilly was waiting for emergency surgery in 2007 the Burlington Emergency Veterinary Clinic doc gave him his painkiller then put both me and him in a huge cage right in the treatment area. They told me he was going to be loopy, and maybe pukey, and that I should hold him to keep him comforted until they could start his surgery. As high as Gilly was on the drugs, this probably meant more to me than it did to him; but every time they stepped over my feet to continue saving another dog’s life while I held the bleeding and barfing Gilly, I loved them a little more for not making him bleed and barf alone (and I know his anxiety was lower than it would have been otherwise, because loopy or not, he could smell me right there).
On the other side of things, a different animal hospital insisted they were the only place that could do his eye surgery when he scratched his cornea and it ulcerated: they wanted a thousand dollars, and up front. ‘Our business is expensive to run,’ they informed me. I didn’t have it. They told me he’d go blind in horrible pain, that only a specialist could fix it, and tough luck or pay up. I called around to his old vets in a panic: my all time favorite vet (a State away in New Hampshire, but worth the drive) made an appointment for him the next day, told me he’d done several of these and he was not only confident he could fix it but glad to do the surgery since it was an interesting one, and that there was no reason it should cost more than $250 or so for his time and the meds. The bill came in at $230. Gilly healed beautifully.
Emergency situations with individual animals don’t adhere to policies. A little flexibility goes a long way toward taking some of the horror out of it for everyone.
The vet I love best is in a clean, large, bright animal hospital. He’s an older gent who started out as a country doc working with large animals as well as small: he did mornings in barns and fields and afternoons in the surgery. He still does some large animal work, though he says he likes to tromp about in the ice less than he used to.
He’s basically something out of James Herriot. He is kind to Gilly and my cat Peep, and approaches them in a way that leaves them feeling entirely un-pressured. He’s intellectually curious in a way that means every health issue is an interesting puzzle. He’s communicative, and neither presumes I know what he’s talking about or that I don’t. When I ask a question, he explains in greater detail and with greater gusto than I even wanted sometimes.
My cat Peep has a common chronic viral respiratory disease he’s had since birth that causes him bouts of nasty congestion: these can turn into bacterial infections that are pretty difficult to treat. I asked him to explain it to me, since no vet ever really had gotten me clear on what I should be doing: he went off and got a cat skull and a magnifying glass and gave me a full lesson on feline nasal anatomy and why it’s so easy for bacteria to entrench in a cat’s nose. I worried aloud again about how long it was taking for the antibiotics and nose-drops to work, he pointed out that snotty or not my cat was very happy so I probably shouldn’t worry too much. Skilled information and calm common sense: what any animal lover needs in a vet.
Gilly was once stung by some nasty arachnid and had a violent and terrifying allergic reaction which lasted several days: it required antihistamine shots, sub-cutaneous hydration, 24-hour monitoring since the hives were all over him (including in his throat). Since Gilly was miserable but not at risk of death once the initial swellings came down some and he had nothing left to come out at either end, the doc suggested I keep Gilly home with me where he’d be happier. I brought him in for daily treatment, brought him home for rest.
The first night, the doc called me at 2 a.m. to see how Gilly and I were doing. He knew I’d be awake, and he was on call, so he checked in: I updated him on Gilly’s condition, he told me what to do, confirmed our appointment for the next afternoon, and had my adoration and loyalty from there forward. That level of calm, committed care is so rare.
The other thing I love about him is that in addition to his own obvious curiosity and constant learning, he has hired a bunch of hotshots fresh out of school to fill out his practice: between them, they have the best of new and old worlds. Knowledge of new technology and techniques, folk wisdom, decades of experience, energy to spare. It’s a great place. The techs are friendly and very evidently competent and enjoying their jobs. The reception lady is kind of scary, but nothing is perfect – and she almost adds a necessary spice to the place. Surrounded by excellence and warmth, she becomes comic relief.
That vet is an hour and a half away from where I am now.
The place is so great and I trust the vet so much that for anything that doesn’t require emergency treatment, that’s still where we’ll go.
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