Fido feeling feverish? Getting him help might be harder than you expect these days, as the lingering aftereffects of the pandemic continue to take a toll on veterinary practices. Many are shorthanded because older vets retired in significant numbers to avoid pandemic risks…and some veterinary support staff left for better-paying careers in this hot job market. Meanwhile, demand for vet services has surged—more than 11 million households acquired pets for companionship during the pandemic. Together these factors have resulted in months-long wait times for rushed routine vet visits with inexperienced staff…hours-long waits for emergency service in animal hospitals…and “24-hour” animal hospitals that no longer stay open overnight.
The challenges facing the veterinary sector may make this a good time to reevaluate your pet’s health-care providers and consider other area vets. In fact, it’s worth selecting both a vet and an emergency animal hospital—these providers serve different functions, just as a primary care physician and a hospital serve different functions for you. Here’s how to find the best options for your pets…
Selecting a Local Vet
Your local vet will provide your pet’s routine checkups, prescription refills and vaccinations as well as treat minor injuries and ailments. How to find the best one…
Ask local pet-sector professionals, such as the owners of pet-supply stores, kennels and pet-grooming businesses, which local veterinary practices they trust most. You also can ask friends and neighbors who have pets for their opinions, but individual pet owners can share only their own experiences, while pet pros have a broader sense of vets’ reputations. Also ask these people why they trust the vets they recommend—it’s a great sign if you hear things like, “The practice has a wonderful way with animals”…“You can tell how much they care”…and/or “They take the time to answer my questions.”
Search for online customer reviews. But like all online reviews, these should be taken with a giant grain of salt—glowing reviews could be fake…and negative reviews might be because the vet couldn’t cure an individual pet’s complicated health problem. Even the best vets inevitably receive some bad online reviews, but if you see a pattern of similar complaints, that could suggest a legitimate problem. Examples: Multiple reviewers complain that their pets were harshly treated at the vet’s office…or that they rarely get to see the same vet twice because of rapid turnover in the practice or frequent use of temporary vets.
Drop in to the vet’s office, take a seat in the waiting room, and spend a few minutes observing. It’s a good sign if everything looks and smells clean—a lack of cleanliness is among the most telling signs of a poorly run vet practice. Watch how the staff interacts with the animals—the office should be staffed with people who love animals. Also try to determine whether the practice has fallen far behind schedule—an organized practice shouldn’t leave its customers sitting around for long.
Tell the receptionist or another employee that you are shopping around for a vet. Wait until someone appears not to be busy or asks if you need assistance. Ask if someone can spare a few moments to answer some questions. Prior to the pandemic, prospective clients often could speak to a vet and tour the facilities, but these days most practices don’t have time for that. Still, it’s worth asking a staff member the following questions (if you can’t talk to someone, you may be able to find the answers to some of these questions on the practice’s website)…
What’s the typical wait time to get an appointment? The best vet in town might not be the best vet for your pet if it takes days to get an appointment when the animal is under the weather—delays can be dangerous in the world of health care. In an obvious medical emergency, you should be able to take your pet to an emergency animal hospital for speedier treatment, but not all medical emergencies are obvious—your pet’s seemingly minor ailment could escalate into something serious while you’re waiting for a vet appointment.
Does this practice do blood and urine tests, X-rays and ultrasounds on site? It could lead to dangerous treatment delays if the practice must send out samples to be tested and/or send your pet elsewhere when he needs scans. Exception: It is unlikely that a local veterinary practice will have in-house MRI scanning capabilities.
Is my pet likely to see the same vet for most visits? Building an ongoing relationship with a vet has multiple advantages for your pet. It is a big plus if the vet is familiar enough with your pet to know when he is behaving out of sorts. And the more your pet sees a particular vet, the more comfortable he is likely to become with him/her, potentially reducing anxiety. Just like many humans, many pets find doctor visits stressful.
Is this practice privately owned or part of a chain? Large corporate chains such as VCA and Banfield have bought up hundreds of veterinary practices and pet hospitals across the US. These chains tend to be well-financed, so their locations generally are well-equipped, but they often experience significant vet turnover, reducing the odds of building a long-term relationship with one particular vet. Also, these corporate chains often have strict protocols that their vets must follow. Example: If the protocols say the vet must run a particular test when a pet displays a particular symptom, the vet will insist on performing that test—even if the pet owner does not believe the test will reveal enough new information to justify its cost.
How often does this practice treat chickens (or iguanas or hedgehogs or any pet species other than a dog or cat)? Virtually any vet will be very familiar with dogs and cats…but if you have a less common pet, seek out whichever vet in your area has the most experience with that species. A more conventional veterinary practice likely will offer a referral for your unconventional—yet much beloved—pet.
Does this practice (or its vets) have Fear Free Pets accreditation? This accreditation means that a vet and/or his staff have made a special effort to learn how to reduce the anxiety of the animals in their care—and that’s a sign that the practice cares deeply about animal welfare. But: Not having this accreditation should not be taken as a sign that the practice doesn’t care about animal welfare—Fear Free Pets accreditation is a relatively new program that’s only beginning to gain traction. Helpful: To find vets and practices with this accreditation in your area, click “fear free near me” at FearFreePets.com.
Choosing an Emergency Animal Hospital
Emergency animal hospitals are equipped to handle pets’ serious injuries and health problems. Most have specialists on staff, including oncologists, eye-care specialists, dermatologists and neurologists. These facilities tend to be open long hours…in some cases, 24 hours a day.
Again, it’s worth finding a facility that looks and smells clean, and that has a good reputation with local pet-sector professionals. It’s also worth asking an employee the following questions if you can’t find the answers on the hospital’s website…
What are your hours for emergency care? Many facilities that previously advertised 24-hour availability now are not seeing patients late at night or early in the morning due to staffing shortages.
If the hospital your pet depends on is not seeing patients 24 hours a day, ask which animal hospitals in the area still are. You need to know where you can bring your pet if he needs medical care at 2 am—don’t wait until an emergency occurs to try to figure this out.
Who looks after overnight patients, and how closely are they monitored? Even if an animal hospital isn’t currently open to incoming patients 24 hours a day, it should provide 24-hour care to patients that aren’t healthy enough to be sent home. Ideally a vet will be on duty at all hours…but if not, there should be at least a registered vet tech (RVT) on the premises overnight. That tech should be awake and actively monitoring patients, not just sleeping on site.
What certifications and experience does the specialist have? If your pet has a specific health issue, such as eye problems or cancer, the qualifications of the hospital’s specialist in that field are crucial. He should have completed a residency and earned “board certification” in the specialty—you can confirm this at VetSpecialists.com.