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