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Five Red Flag Indicators That It’s Time to Find a New Vet

When someone learns that I’m a veterinarian, their face predictably light up with a smile. It appears that most folks believe that vets are wonderful. After all, we clearly love animals and we must be very smart- everyone knows how difficult it is to get into veterinary school. In fact, people seem far less skeptical of their vet’s capabilities and intentions than they are of their own physician’s.

Time for a reality check. Not all veterinarians are deserving of such benefit of the doubt. Official veterinary disciplinary boards exist for a reason, and I certainly had a few vet school classmates I wouldn’t let near one of my own sick animals with a ten-foot syringe, then or now!

Five red flags

How can you know if your vet’s performance is unworthy of your patronage? Here are five red flag indicators to prompt you to consider looking for someone new:

1. Your veterinarian is a 100 percent do-it-your-selfer, refusing to enlist help from other veterinarians, particularly specialists, within the community. Gone are the days of All Creatures Great and Small when it was reasonable for one doc to handle all medical maladies, great and small. Advances in diagnostic and therapeutic technologies have made it impossible for any individual to be proficient at everything. If your family vet has been unable to arrive at a diagnosis, your pet’s condition is worsening or not improving in spite of therapy, or a complicated procedure has been recommended, enlisting help from another veterinarian makes really good sense. If such discussion is not forthcoming, your vet is likely a do-it-your-selfer.

2. Your vet prefers telling you what to do rather than discussing options. This “paternalistic” style of communication hinders your ability to ask questions and make well-informed choices, and successfully serve as your pet’s medical advocate. Sentence starters from your vet such as, “You need to…”, “You should…”, “You have to…”, or an unsolicited, “If I were you I would…” are clues that you are dealing with a paternalistic provider.

3. Your vet doesn’t comply with current professional standards. For example, he or she insists on annual vaccinations (parvovirus for dogs, distemper for dogs and cats). The research supporting extension of the interval between these vaccines from one year to three years first became public knowledge approximately ten years ago. A vet who continues to administer them annually is completely missing the boat in the continuing education department or is eager to collect fees from unnecessary procedures. Neither explanation is remotely reasonable.

4. Your vet has made a significant error while working with your pet. A botched surgery, a missed diagnosis, a medical prescription error are examples that should cause consternation. Yes, mistakes happen, but they warrant some face time with your veterinarian to receive an explanation and determine if you will be staying or taking your business elsewhere.

5. You or your pet simply don’t feel comfortable with your vet. Does your normally delightful dog or cuddly kitty transform into Kujo the minute your vet walks into the exam room? Do you feel uneasy asking questions and openly discussing your worries or concerns? Pay attention to your observations and gut feelings. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right.

Your exit strategy

If you are planning to leave a vet you’ve been with for years, chances are you’re concerned about how to do so gracefully, without hurting his or her feelings. In response to this concern I quote my favorite line from the movie Moonstruck. Cher demands, “Snap out of it!” as she briskly slaps Nicholas Cage’s cheek. In this situation, I completely concur with her sentiment. After all, what’s more important, your pet’s health and your own peace of mind or your veterinarian’s feelings?

To expedite a smooth transition, obtain a copy of your pet’s entire medical records including: doctor’s notes, laboratory test results, imaging studies (ultrasound, X-rays), and vaccination history. Simply ask the reception staff to provide this for you. This should be a no hassle process as you are legally entitled to all you are requesting. If asked why you are moving on, I encourage you to provide an honest, constructive response.

As the captain of your pet’s health care team, it is your responsibility to determine who your teammates will be. Choose them wisely and remind yourself that the opportunity to care for you and your pet is a privilege that should be well deserved.

Have you ever had to divorce your veterinarian?
Nancy Kay D.V.M.

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Website: http://www.speakingforspot.com
Spot’s Blog: http://www.speakingforspot.com/blog
Email: dr.kay@speakingforspot.com

Written by

Dr. Nancy Kay wanted to become a veterinarian for just about as long as she can remember. Her veterinary degree is from Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, and she completed her residency training in small animal internal medicine at the University of California-Davis Veterinary School. Dr. Kay is a board certified specialist in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and published in several professional journals and textbooks. She lectures professionally to regional and national audiences, and one of her favorite lecture topics is communication between veterinarians and their clients. Since the release of her book, Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, Dr. Kay has lectured extensively and written numerous magazine articles on the topic of medical advocacy and veterinarian/client communication. She was a featured guest on the popular National Public Radio show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Dr. Kay's newest book is called, Your Dog's Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet. Her award winning blog, "Spot Speaks" is posted weekly (www.speakingforspot.com/blog). Dr. Kay was selected by the American Animal Hospital Association to receive the 2009 Hill’s Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award. This award is given annually to a veterinarian or nonveterinarian who has advanced animal welfare through extraordinary service or by furthering humane principles, education, and understanding. Dr. Kay was selected as the 2011 Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year, an award presented every year by the American Veterinary Medical Association to a veterinarian whose work exemplifies and promotes the human animal bond. Dr. Kay has received several awards from the Dog Writer’s Association of America. Dr. Kay's personal life revolves around her husband (also a veterinarian), her three children (none of whom aspire to be veterinarians) and their menagerie of four-legged family members. When she's not writing, she spends her spare moments in the garden or riding atop her favorite horse. Dr. Kay and her husband reside in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
  • Julie Wright June 10, 2014 at 10:06 AM

    Great article – I would like to add that those of us with a lot of dogs often need a variety of services that are not provided by the average practitioner. We also tend to need them on weekends and holidays. Therefore I keep a ‘pool’ of 5-6 practitioners that I have a relationship with and can call on when needed. I have had to ‘exit’ several over the years due to their failure to provide quality care, but I am careful not to burn bridges just in case I someday need the one thing that practitioner is good at…..I also make a habit of getting copies of tests and treatment records so that I have a file for each dog across various practitioners he may have seen.

  • Mary Yeakey June 10, 2014 at 11:29 AM

    I recently fired my vet of some 25 years. The breaking point came when he allowed the nitrogen in a canister of frozen semen to leak out so that when he went to inseminate my bitch, the collection was very warm and very dead. The capstone to the piece however was when he blamed his tech for the mistake… I told him that was way above her pay-grade.

  • Froilan M. Santos June 10, 2014 at 12:56 PM

    A must read for all pet owners! Dr. Nancy Kay has done justice by putting it out there as honestly and forthrightly as she could in all conscience with the truth! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this! Your colleagues may not be as happy for such revelations but the public needs to be aware, especially red flag no. 3, here in my country (Philippines), vet practice is so commercial that they still recommend annual “booster vaccinations!” Yes, they still do it EVERY YEAR! And I personally know of a case of vets confidently injecting expired vaccines with the claim that “THE ONLY EXPECTED SIDE EFFECT OF EXPIRED VACCINES IS DIMINISHED VACCINE POTENCY!” An Oh my gosh moment as I am a Doctor of Medicine, I know this is FALSE! “Res ipsa loquitur” the mistake speaks for itself! It is unbelievable that some vets practice this way!Thank you so much Dr. Nancy Kay!

  • Camille McArdle, DVM June 10, 2014 at 2:46 PM

    Excellent article that more people need to see. A few other red flags might be:
    6. You never get the same vet twice but, instead, encounter a revolving door of new graduates. This practice pays terrible or else is an awful place to work so only the desperate or gullible will stay; the rest move on.
    7. Your vet seems offended when you ask questions or want to know about alternative treatments, etc. Some vets have a God syndrome or else are too insecure to work WITH their clients.
    8. You are made to feel guilty if you indicate that you may not be able to afford “the best”. ALL options should be discussed, not just the Cadillac version.
    9. If you are given an attitude when the staff finds out you are a breeder. Some vets only want “pet people” who do not question them. They don’t realize how much can be learned from a good breeder.

    If you want to find a good veterinarian who will partner with you to do the best for your dogs, check out those who show their dogs. That group “gets it”.

    • Robin June 11, 2014 at 3:42 PM

      #9 in the comment has been a make/break item for me. Seems a lot of the current crop of new Vets have been prejudiced by AR ideology and feel all breeders are evil.
      And I’ve run across a few Vets that are so arrogant that they feel the only input they need from me comes from my wallet….grrr!
      My preference is for a Vet who respects my observations, knowledge and goals, and will work with me to attain the best care I can do for my dogs.

  • Lilian Barber June 10, 2014 at 9:46 PM

    Great article! The #1 reason Dr. Kay gave for changing vets really hit home. A good friend of mine had a middle aged dog from me that became extremely ill. Her elderly vet of many years was puzzled when “Angel” did not respond after he had tried several medications. My friend called me to talk about the situation and I suggested that, since she lives near a university with a veterinary department, she should take Angel there and ask for their help in identifying the problem. When she asked her vet for a referral, he insisted that he would find the cause of Angel’s problems and to just give him a little more time. He tried several more remedies, but Angel continued her downhill path. In spite of everything the vet kept asking to be given a chance, that he was sure he would find a cure. Eventually Angel died. She might have had a few more good years had she been referred to someone with more up to date knowledge.

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