By Nancy Carlson • Columnist • 

Vetting your vet


I was intrigued by an article in the spring 2014 issue of BARK magazine, “Finding Dr. Right,” by John Woestendiek. Roughly half was about the changing state of veterinary medicine, and the remainder about how you and I choose our veterinarian. I hadn’t given either topic very much thought, but I think maybe I should.

I don’t know if it’s my own cynicism, the state of health care in the U.S., or some combination of the two, but I realize that I have higher, and possibly less realistic expectations of my veterinarian than I have for human doctors.

I exclude my primary care physician from the above statement, as she has become something of an esteemed friend as well as a healer in the many years we have known each other. But I am of an age when I see a fair number of specialists. And the connection I make with those doctors is often more like a business arrangement.

Most of them are quite personable, but with any luck at all, we will meet only a few, infrequent times. I tell him or her my health problem, and he or she tries to fix it. I may need to return once or twice for follow-up, but chances are slim that we will be lifelong friends.

On the other hand, I expect that my veterinarian be warm and friendly to me, and ecstatic over the chance to see my dog. She will fawn over him, give him treats, tell him how smart and handsome he is, and perhaps even get down on the floor for pets and kisses. Hardly what I would expect, or even want, from my own doctor.

My vet should be young enough to be knowledgeable about all the modern developments in veterinary medicine, but not so young that she hasn’t gained the wisdom that comes withexperience. She should have a vast knowledge of all the intricacies of veterinary science but never sound arrogant, and she should always be willing to admit when she is unsure and suggest I get a second opinion. She should be an exceptional listener when I describe in great if not especially relevant detail my dog’s malady, but also be extremely intuitive, since the patient himself doesn’t talk. When she explains her plan of treatment to me, she needs to be clear but never condescending.

And my vet must have complete and sincere empathy for both me and my pet. Never mind what kind of a day she is having; she must share my joy when my dog is in his prime and my sorrow when it is finally time to say goodbye. Oh, and did I mention that I would like my veterinarian costs to be affordable, to be seen on time, to have her available in emergencies — and if there’s adequate parking at the clinic, all the better. Now what’s unrealistic about all that?

Especially when you consider that the universal reason men and women give for choosing a career in veterinary medicine is that they love animals, not necessarily the people who own them. The cost of veterinary school usually leaves them about $150,000 in debt, by the way — this for a job that involves long hours, very hard work, and pays about $50,000, at least for the first few years.

In spite of the fact that I expect the veterinarians to whom I entrust my pets to pretty much walk on water, most of them manage to meet my expectations with a surprising degree of success. In truth, the veterinary practices in Yamhill County seem to be a reputable bunch, and I rarely hear anything negative about any of them. So if you just randomly picked one, you would probably get good care.

But if you wanted to be a bit more methodical, here are some of the suggestions offered by the BARK magazine article.

Ask around town — most of us are all too ready to extol the virtues and skills of our own vets, and/or share any negative experiences we may have had.

Check into any complaints made to the Oregon state veterinary board or Better Business Bureau. You can also check online customer reviews, keeping in mind that there’s no way to verify their reliability. It would certainly behoove you to take the time to meet the vets you are considering, and their staffs, and to inquire about their training. I also take into account the pro bono service a vet does for various animal rescue groups in the county. To me, such evidence shows a good heart toward all God’s critters, even when it doesn’t make good business sense.

Speaking of which, I struggle with the cost of veterinary services, as perhaps you do, too. Since I am now retired and on a fixed income, I am less shy about saying so and asking the cost of recommended procedures and medications before I need to pay for them. I am not above doing some price comparison for things like dental cleanings or flea-control products, and if I feel my dog or cat will get adequate care, I’ll go with the cheaper one.

However, I have to admit that most of the time when I take the trouble to do this, the difference in the prices among the vets is hardly worth my trouble. And I have to keep in mind that my vet needs to make a living in a profession where the cost of equipment, ongoing education, facilities and supplies keeps rising.

I suspect the economics of a veterinary practice is a constant juggling act, and that my doctor probably needs to overcharge for some things in order to keep others affordable. There is a trend in more urban areas for large corporations to run a number of veterinary practices, which comes with its own challenges. We haven’t seen much of that in our communities, nor do I hear rumors of such. By and large, our local practices are still owned by the vets themselves.

There you have it. While I don’t think reading the BARK article will cause me to make any drastic changes in where I take my pooches for their health care, it did help me appreciate how good I’ve got it.

Nancy Carlson can be reached at

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