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How to choose a vet

CL 3-11 Vet Examining dogVet Neil McIntosh shows his claws on the subject of the new kind of veterinary practice and suggests some questions to ask before choosing

So. How do you choose a vet? Here is my strong advice: Search the countryside for an amiable, suave and sophisticated looking bald chap wearing a striped open neck shirt and blue jacket. Simples! Job done! Ok, Sorry. I got carried away. Let’s start again. Before you can make a decision, you need to understand a little of the structure of veterinary practice in this country.

This used to be easy. In good old James Herriot’s day, vets owned and worked in the practice. Older vets mentored the young, who gradually grew in experience, injected (pardon the pun) new ideas and eventually took over the mantle of owner. These guys were in it for the long term. Their job was a vocation. They knew you, your pets, your kids and your kid’s pets. They were there when your puppy was vaccinated. They were there in the middle of the night when it was sick and they were on hand, holding your hand, when finally, painfully, the last day arrived. These guys still exist and you really don’t have to look too far to find them.

Now, however, there is a new kid on the block. Full of fancy frontage and special offers, corporate veterinary practice has come to town. These are large chains, owned not by vets but by businessmen, who franchise the name and provide the back up for single vets who buy in and follow a business model. They are under pressure, these vets, to earn income. Unlike conventional practice, they have an additional tier, the money men, to provide for. And don’t let them kid you. Despite the apparent gloss, these are strictly one-man bands, often with a tell-tale high turnover of nursing staff.

So. Back to the beginning, how do you choose a vet? Frequently, it starts with a phone call to the surgery. “Hello, how much does it cost to vaccinate a puppy?” The distinct impression is given that if you are not the cheapest, the caller is not going to be coming to you. But what sort of question is that to ask? Would you go to a doctor because he was the cheapest? Isn’t there so much more you would want to know before making a decision?

Like maybe how much experience do you have? Are you trusted by people in the area? Do you have a track record of providing decent veterinary treatment at reasonable cost? Is your vaccine so cheap because everything else is so expensive? Are you really going to look after me and my pet?

And there is so much more. How clean are your premises? What facilities do you have? Do you provide an emergency service and, if so, who will I see, where will I see them and how much does it cost? Would you show me round your surgery, behind the consulting room door, when I arrive with my new pup? If you are a single man practice, what on earth happens if my pet needs complicated surgery and there is no one to help? Does your staff include a variety of vets with different attributes and interests? (I have yet to meet a vet who is great at everything.) Do you employ registered veterinary nurses or are you winging it with someone untrained who just happens to be wearing a smart green uniform? If you shut at 7pm, where will my pet have to go if he is being hospitalised?

I could go on and on but I guess you get my message.

How would I choose a vet? I’d want someone I could trust; someone who was in it for the duration and not just out to make a fast buck. I’d want someone who was honest about where his emergency service was provided because that could be crucial some night for my pet’s survival. I’d be totally averse to choosing a vet who paid his staff a percentage of the money they charged his clients. (Yes, it happens.) And I would not be interested in a single vet practice because there is just no back up for even the smallest problem. Often, two hands are just not safe enough. We recently carried out an emergency caesarean section on a bitch. Four vets, five nurses and two auxiliaries were involved and they collectively ensured the six pups’ survival. A patient with a ruptured spleen required the same level of input.

The bottom line is I would choose a vet who treated my pet the same way he would treat his own. In the meantime, you have a lot of questions to ask…