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How to Choose a Veterinarian

Every animal owner must sooner or later face the problem of selecting a veterinarian. In every way it is as personal a decision as the selection of a family physician, dentist, or attorney. The veterinarian is not only the man or woman who will guide you in the day-by-day care of your pet but the person who will make that animal well in the event of an emergency, and who should at least be willing to attempt to ease the mind of the troubled owner. On the day a favorite pup gets hit by a car and the mother is rushing it to the hospital with two sobbing children in the back seat, the veterinarian be comes one of the most important people on earth. It is far better if the wise selection of a family veterinarian is made in advance, before an emergency arises.

Before you pick a veterinarian, it is a good idea to know what has gone into the making of this scientist. A veterinarian is a man or woman who has had a minimum of two years of undergraduate college and four years of veterinary training. In fact, though, very few students get into veterinary school after only two years in undergraduate school, and most veterinarians have had three, four, or more years. Students who, after four years of college, are not accepted for veterinary training may elect to go on to a master’s and perhaps even a doctorate, usually in biology, applying to veterinary school each year until they are accepted. One young woman I know of was turned down for six straight years before being accepted and becoming, I am told, an outstanding practitioner. But many would-be veterinarians finally give up and become physicians instead, not the other way around, as some people seem to expect. The acceptance rate for medical school in this country is 37½ percent, while the acceptance rate for veterinary school is 12½ percent.

Thirty-two of our fifty states do not have veterinary schools. There is none at all in the heavily populated New England states, and Cornell — at Ithaca, New York, in a state of eighteen million people — can accept only seventy- two new students a year. They take fifty-seven from New York and fifteen from the rest of the world, including New England.

The schools in the western states (the University of California at Davis and the University of Colorado at Fort Collins, for example) will not even send a catalog to a student outside of their own region, much less seriously entertain an application. Most schools in Europe will no longer accept American students for veterinary training, figuring, quite rightly, that we should be able to educate our own. Their available openings go to students from developing nations.

There is, then, a critical shortage of schools and of new veterinarians. Cornell, the first university in the world to award the D.V.M. degree (in 1876), still can graduate only an average of 6 students a year. Recently, for the 65 graduating students, 360 jobs were posted. Some of these were criti cal, offerings from established veterinarians whose health was failing and who needed people to move in and take over their practices.

Once a student graduates as a D.V.M., he or she might get a residency in one of the small number of very highly desirable research hospitals or key clinics such as the Animal Medical Center in New York or the Angell Memo rial in Boston. Few do. Others go right to work for other veterinarians (after passing boards that are at least as brutal as those faced by new M.D.’s). Sooner or later, though, the young veterinarian is likely to look to his or her own hospital.

Unlike the M.D., the D.V.M. can’t go into practice with a desk, an examin ing table, and a blood pressure sleeve. A veterinary hospital needs cages, isolation facilities, outside and inside runs, an X-ray machine, medical and surgical equipment and supplies costing tens of thousands of dollars, and kennel help at least. The young D.V.M., unless from a wealthy family, starts out after perhaps eight years of college by going deeply into debt.

I have detailed all of this to explain if not justify the cost of veterinary care. It is a constant source of lament among relatively inexperienced animal owners, rarely among professionals or long-time animal lovers and fanciers. Those who set a veterinary career as a goal take great risks of failure, then work like the very devil for years after getting into a school, and start out their professional lives heavily in debt. It is no wonder that their expecta tions of reward are high. If they were lower, we would not be graduating even the 1,600 new veterinarians we now do each year. The risks and expense of the costliest and most strenuous of all careers to launch simply would not be worth it.

None of the foregoing justifies a poor veterinarian, however, or a dishonest one. There are perfectly dreadful practitioners of veterinary science just as there are of medicine, dentistry, law, or any other profession. Every pet owner should be able to spot these bad ones or, more importantly, the good ones.

Most people define a good veterinarian as the person who was apparently skilled enough to solve their pet’s problem when it arose. But this does not take into account a lucky guess or an animal that has a self-limiting condition and would have gotten better anyway.

Since my family has six or more dogs, ten or more cats, and a horse or two as a normal population, I spend rather a lot of my time (and money) with veterinarians. Before finding our regular veterinarians, whom we count as close personal friends, we learned over the years that there are certain signs to look for. What are they?


Are you comfortable with your veterinarian? If you do not feel that you can have meaningful communication or if you feel that he or she will not be even reasonably sympathetic to you as an individual and to your concerns, break it off. The relationship will be one of distrust, and you will end up in claims that you were overcharged and your animal killed. Successful pet raising is a kind of partnership between the animal’s owner and doctor. Very often you have to go almost on blind faith, and the D.V.M. may have to depend on your superior knowledge of a pet’s day-to-day patterns. If you two can’t work things out together, the pet may suffer.


There are veterinarians — most, I like to believe — who care very much about animals. Some, however, are in the field because it can be a profitable business with a built-in position of prestige in the community. It is not very difficult to determine which category a person falls into. Veterinarians obviously cannot sit down and weep with owners when a decision or outcome is negative, any more than doctors can. But they should care because they like animals.


This point is controversial, and some veterinarians will disagree with me, though I consider it one of the most critical yardsticks. I do not deal with a veterinary installation on a regular basis (hit any port in a storm) unless there is a way of reaching the staff twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. Disease and trauma do not follow schedules posted on clinic doors, and no pet or animal found injured by the road should have to die because of a golf tournament or a bridge game.

This is not to suggest that the privilege be abused. No pet owner has the right to call a doctor away from his or her Christmas dinner because a dog may possibly have ringworm. Everything but the real emergency should wait for normal office hours, but conditions like bleeding and convulsions and rat poison ingestion cannot. When I call a veterinary office and a ma chine tells me to call back after nine A.M. the next working day, I have called that number for the last time. On this point I am firm, and have terminated relationships with veterinarians over it. The team of four D.V.M’s we use now and have for over a decade are always available, and on those one or two occasions every five years when we need them at some punishing hour of the night, they come or meet us at the hospital and never complain. They know the measure of our gratitude and they care about our animals. They also know we care about them as individuals with rights to be respected.


A veterinary hospital should have the right ambiance. It should feel efficient and clean, and it should inspire a visitor with confidence that this is a place where things are done right and where things are likely to go well.

A place that is too dirty, too smelly, too casual — and where movements and decisions are not crisp, concerned, and designed to make you and your pet feel better, or at least safe, instantly — is probably not going to provide you with a positive experience. Everyone from the receptionist to the kennel boy to the reigning veterinarians themselves should inspire calm and confidence. Without that there may not be such good medicine either.


There are also fine details to look for, which make up the ambiance. I expect a waiting area and treatment room to be clean and orderly and I do not expect to find debris from previous patients. It should also be comfortable. I am impressed by the presence of humane society literature and a bulletin board for information about lost pets and pets up for adoption. I would like to see evidence that the veterinary staff is involved with some humane work.

I expect a veterinarian or technician to clean off the examining table with a disinfectant before putting my animal on it.

I expect a veterinarian’s clothing and hands to be clean.

I am highly suspicious of veterinarians who are quick to suggest the hospitalization of cats for any longer than is absolutely essential. Cats are usually miserable in cages and they are highly susceptible to airborne viral infections. No cat should be caged near other cats any longer than can possibly be avoided.

I am, in fact, highly suspicious of veterinarians who call for what seems to be an unusual amount of hospitalization. Young friends recently called to say they were worried about their young bloodhound bitch. She had had a rash and they had taken her to a local veterinary hospital. The examining doctor said the animal would have to be hospitalized for at least a week and would need elaborate chemical baths every day. They left their pet but called us. Bloodhounds often do not do well when left like that, and when stressed may be more susceptible to a potentially deadly condition known as bloat. It all sounded suspicious. We told the couple to reclaim their animal immediately and go to our veterinarians instead. When they got there, they were given a tube of salve and sent on their way with their pet. Evidently the first veterinarian had had some empty cages and decided to put one of them to work earning revenue. Although this kind of thing unfortunately can happen, it is far more the exception than the rule.

I do not trust veterinary hospitals where boarding animals and sick animals are housed or exercised close to each other. If you have a pet you must board, there is no justification for its being put with animals that can infect it. If a hospital does not have boarding facilities, it should not take in boarders. Further, there must be adequate runs for large animals as well as small.

A word of qualification here: if you do board a dog you may get it back with a mild cough. This is called a kennel cough and is extremely difficult to avoid since it is caused by an airborne virus. It is a mild, self-limiting condition and is not fairly blamed on the veterinarian. He or she should be willing to treat it, though, if it was contracted while boarding. With new immunization it may soon be a thing of the past.


In connection with the last two points, the ambiance and the details, be cause I am very much interested in animals, I expect a veterinarian early in our relationship to invite me to see the hospital, out back where most of the important things are done. A veterinarian who refuses me a tour when I request one (allowing for busy limes, isolation problems, aseptic areas, and other reasonable considerations) is suspect. I want to see cleanliness, bright ness, and I want to know where and how animals are maintained when they have to stay behind. I want to see how the staff handles animals. I want to see clean runs. A room full of animals has an inevitable smell, but it is neither stale nor rotten. There is a world of difference between the smell of animals and the smell of neglect.


Although veterinary bills are a major expense in my family’s annual budget, I do not expect to waste money nor do I expect to be “taken.” I expect to pay a veterinarian for his or her valuable lime and I expect to pay for materials used in making the animals I bring in well. All of that within reason. But I also expect a veterinarian to warn me in advance if a situation, in his or her professional estimation, is going to assume the proportions of the national debt. Clients should be advised in advance of the expected price of surgery and special care and of procedures where the expense is likely to soar. Sometimes, unfortunately, we have to make decisions based on our ability to pay, and we should be provided in advance with the information necessary to make those decisions.

On the other hand, I do not expect a veterinarian to tell me that an animal is not “valuable enough” to warrant surgery or therapy. I will determine what an animal is worth to me, for that is a decision of the heart, not of the wallet. The animal’s general condition and age will often be the basis for my decision, at least in part, and not its price tag. I also expect a veterinarian to tell me frankly how much an animal will suffer if we go forward, for that is usually the most important factor of all.

Exotic animals represent a whole new set of problems. I am opposed to

the keeping of wild animals as common pets except under the most unusual circumstances, but the need can arise.


I am highly suspicious of any veterinarians (and I have known very few such) who are afraid to admit that they lack certain training and experience.

When a serious zoo veterinarian faces a probable breech delivery in a gorilla or orangutan, he or she will seldom hesitate to yell for the help of a good obstetrician or perhaps an entire obstetrical emergency team. While obstetricians have had endless practice bringing animals very much like apes into this world, a D.V.M. is quite likely to have never seen this problem before.

Most serious veterinarians I know will call on a dentist for a peculiar or difficult mouth problem. Many zoo veterinarians, faced with a multitude of species they learned little or nothing about in school, will also do so. A Texas zoo director, who also happens to be a veterinarian, recently used his own dentist to help him do root canal work on a leopard.

Small primates, particularly infant apes, are often as much pediatric as veterinary problems. A fine southern zoo uses a prominent pediatrician from the community to work with the veterinarian on the young primates. This is not unusual nor does it reflect badly on the D.V.M. It represents, instead, good common sense and real concern. It also works both ways. I know a medical school that has a veterinarian lecturing on dermatology because of his special skills and knowledge.

Unfortunately, there are some veterinarians who will not admit that they lack the skill to do a certain job. They may be from another era and not recognize that there are now veterinary neurologists, veterinary eye sur geons, and superb veterinary orthopedic surgeons. Good veterinarians, like good M.D.’s, use their own skill to maximum effect but will call upon any one and everyone who will help fill the gap in their knowledge or experience. Wild dogs and cats are not much of a problem for veterinarians since their diseases (and anatomy) are the same as those of our domestic varieties. Skunks are susceptible to feline diseases and a veterinarian will know what immunization regimen they require.

The one area where the pet owner is most likely to get into trouble finding veterinary expertise is with reptiles. Most veterinarians will have information at their disposal on the weasels (skunks) and on birds, but the literature on the care (and certainly surgery) of captive reptiles is sparse and on relatively few practitioners’ shelves. Reptile owners, unless they are lucky, may have to turn to a large zoo for assistance with their snakes, lizards, and turtles. Amphibians will be even more trouble.


We are fortunate in that our family four-man veterinary team handles both large and small animals. -They do care for our companion animals and our horses and the odd zoo orphan we are asked to raise. It should be recognized, though, that very often, perhaps most often, small animal and large animal practices do not go on under the same roof. It is no reflection on a veterinarian if he or she does not want to see to your horse, cow, or pig. In a very real sense, they are specialists who have focused their attention on small companion animals, domestic dogs and cats, and you may need two separate veterinary relationships if you have both kinds of animals. Since it isn’t always easy to find an equine practitioner within a reasonable distance, this should be considered before you buy a horse or other large animal.

Among the small animals, fish are a very big problem and most veterinarians have relatively little experience with them. As suggested elsewhere in this book, you may have to seek help at a veterinary college, school of marine biology, or wildlife service. The small rodents, lagomorphs (rabbits), and the birds should be within the experience of almost any practitioner, with birds being their most likely weak spot. Zoo veterinarians, of course, will be able to fill in almost everywhere, and there are some practitioners who do specialize in birds almost exclusively. You may have to ask around, and professional breeders and zoos are the likely places to start.

Not to coin a phrase, some of my best friends are veterinarians. They are the veterinarians we use at home and many others I know in other parts of the country. In candor and disgust they have told me of charlatans and worse who have somehow managed to get into the field. I don’t want that kind of man or woman near my animals, and you don’t want them near yours. Fortunately, they are in the minority. Most veterinarians I have known have been skilled scientists, honorable and sensitive men and women with very strong humane feelings toward all animals. The hard shell of detached involvement they sometimes are forced to affect is for preserving their own sanity. I respect this profession more than I do most others, and I feel a strong sense of obligation to the many men and women who down through the years have saved my animals and all of the other animals, whoever they may have be longed to, who came under their care. I am very demanding, though, in the standards I expect from the practitioners of this great healing art. No fool and no fraud will ever touch an animal of mine if I can prevent it. Every animal lover owes his friends this same consideration.

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