Life is full of choices, some easy, some not so. Some choices mean little - they are merely a matter of personal preference with little or no long-term consequences. But some, like choice of a dentist, a physician, or a veterinarian, can be critical to the family health and well-being.
Veterinarians are medical doctors for animals and should be chosen with as much care as a family practitioner or specialist. Fortunately, there are many good veterinarians to choose from, so there can be no excuse for not providing a dog with top-notch preventive care or treatment of illness or injury.
Some veterinarians are equivalent to general practitioners in human medicine: they may limit their practices to dogs and cats but cover a broad range of services, including annual physicals, vaccinations, diagnosis and treatment of many illnesses and disorders, and do x-rays, some surgeries, and in-house diagnostic tests. Some small animal clinicians continue their education in areas of special interest to sharpen their knowledge and skills in orthopedics, reproductive work, skin diseases, behavior, etc. These vets do not seek certification as specialists but use their expanded knowledge to help clients and their dogs.
The number of certified specialists with practices limited to dermatology, dentistry, surgery, internal medicine, or eye problems is relatively small, and dog owners often have to travel to find a specialist if one is needed. Some specialty practices provide office space to traveling vets who spend a day or two a week seeing appointments in two or three different areas in an effort to bring the specialists to the patients. Thus the clinic may have appointments for orthopedic patients on Thursdays, dental patients on Mondays and Wednesdays, behavior consultations on Tuesdays, and allergy patients on Fridays.
Most veterinarians belong to a local medical association. Along with constantly improving their proficiency and level of education, veterinarians participate in community events designed to educate pet owners, work with area animal shelters, and keep abreast of laws that affect their profession. All veterinarians are required to attend continuing education programs in order to maintain their licenses.
Veterinarians are as individual as the rest of us. There are those who have an easy bedside manner and those who are brusque; those who explain every detail about Rover's illness or condition and those who are too busy to do so; those who calm your fears and grieve with you and those who brush off your concerns or seem callous to the loss of a pet. There are some who are prejudiced against certain breeds, and some who refuse to do certain procedures such as ear cropping dogs or declawing cats. Only you know which one meets your needs as a pet owner.
Some veterinarians are higher-priced than others. Some have limited office hours and others provide 24-hour service. Some are part of multi-doctor practices and some run one-man clinics. Some are excellent diagnosticians or proficient in OFA hip x-rays; others are especially well-versed in parasitic diseases or orthopedic problems; and still others are well-versed in puppy problems or autoimmune diseases.
If you are new in town, have acquired your first puppy or dog, or are simply looking for a vet closer to home, contact a couple of clinics and ask questions. Don't hesitate to ask about prices: if money is a problem, price may be a major consideration. But find out what you'll get for the money - a $40 or $50 spay surgery does not generally have the same preparation, anesthesia, monitoring equipment and aftercare, as a $90 or $100 spay. (see "Dog Owner's Guide: Spay/Neuter Surgery" at http://www.canismajor.com/dog/spayneut.html)
Be aware that veterinary technicians do many procedures from preparing dogs for surgery to drawing blood for heartworm tests, so it is important that they are adept at handling dogs and putting them at ease and that they work well with the clients. A clinic that pays its technicians well will keep good ones for years, but the clinic prices will reflect the salaries and benefits paid to staff members. (see "Dog Owner's Guide: Veterinary Technicians" at http//www.canismajor.com/dog/vettech.html)
Don't forget to ask about emergency care for those times when Fluffy begins to vomit blood a half-hour after the clinic closes for the day. Once you find out where your veterinarian refers patients for emergency care, it's a good idea to make a dry run to the emergency facility so you'll know where it is when you need it. (see"Dog Owner's Guide: ER for animals" at http://www.canismajor.com/dog/emermed.html)
Do set up a regular program of preventive care for Spot so the veterinarian will be familiar with and have records on the healthy dog to compare with the sick dog. If you hop from one clinic to another, skip vaccinations, or forget to tell this doctor about the medication prescribed by that doctor, the veterinarian who treats your pet for an injury or illness will be at a disadvantage and the animal may suffer.
Ask about vaccination protocols for puppies and adult dogs. Many veterinarians are getting away from automatic annual vaccinations for adult dogs because of evidence that immunization lasts longer than 12 months for some vaccines and research that links too-frequent vaccinations with immune system disorders. (See "Vaccination: Shield against canine diseases" at http://www.canismajor.com/dog/vaccine.html and "Annual vaccinations come under scrutiny" at http://www.canismajor.com/dog/vacci01.html)
If possible, make sure every vet in the practice has met your dog at least once so that both dog and doctor will know what to expect. Be prepared, though: some dogs may take a dislike to a particular vet for no discernible reason. In that case, make sure your appointments are with a vet who can put your pet at ease.
Veterinarians never stop learning. State veterinary associations host conferences that include dozens of sessions in various aspects of animal medicine; veterinarians and technicians attend these sessions to earn the continuing education credits required to maintain their licenses. In addition to state conferences, the American Veterinary Medical Association also hosts an annual conference and several regional sessions each year, and local associations often get together to discuss particular subjects or cases. (see the AVMA website at http://www.avma.org)
Veterinarians and veterinary technicians have dangerous jobs. The animals that visit vet clinics are often anxious and difficult to handle. Even the sweetest dog can panic and struggle or even snap during an exam or treatment. Owners who prepare their pets for the vet visits can lower the level of anxiety for the dog, allowing the veterinarian or the technician to complete a procedure more quickly and safely.
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