Whether you’re a first-time dog or cat guardian, or are re-locating and looking for a new veterinarian, learn how to find the best match for you and your animal.
Choosing the best veterinary practice for your dog or cat can be challenging. There are so many factors to consider beyond the practical aspects of location and hours. Do they offer the types of service you may need? Does their philosophy of practice match your lifestyle and personal beliefs? Does the veterinarian have experience with any rare or specific conditions that may need specialized care? With a little knowledge and by asking the right questions, you can find a practice that will best ensure the health and well-being of your dog or cat.
Types of veterinary practice
There are generally three practice options: conventional (Western, allopathic), holistic (complementary or alternative medicine) and integrative (a mix of the first two). While every veterinarian and practice is unique and will have its own practice philosophy and mix of services, some universal characteristics can help you determine which type of practice would best suit your needs and lifestyle.
- Western or conventional medicine practices can vary widely, but most will offer basic preventative and diagnostic services, such as vaccinations, medications to prevent parasitic infections, radiology and laboratory testing, as well as basic surgical services, including dentistry and neutering. Some facilities may offer extended hours or 24-hour emergency service to accommodate unexpected and inconvenient problems. Others may offer an array of specialty services; these practices tend to be some of the largest and can house a dozen or more practitioners who specialize in areas similar to those in human hospitals, including orthopedic surgery, radiology (including MRI and CT scans), internal medicine, dermatology, nutrition, physical therapy and oncology.
- Holistic practices also offer a variety of services. Some may practice Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM), which includes acupuncture, Chinese herbal therapy, food therapy, and Tui-Na (TCVM massage therapy). Other services may include energy medicine, such as Reiki and kinesiology, or manual therapies like chiropractic and massage. Alternatives to conventional pharmaceuticals may include homeopathic remedies and herbal therapy. Practitioners of holistic medicine may also offer nutritional counseling and dietary supplements.
- Integrative practices can potentially offer any combination of the above options. Some may offer mostly conventional services with holistic therapies as an adjunct. Others may offer a great array of options and combinations, attempting to maximize results while minimizing side effects. For example, an integrative practice may recommend the same vaccinations as a conventional practice, but recommend tailoring the schedule or number of vaccines. They may also offer homeopathic remedies following vaccination to mitigate any discomfort and inflammation associated with the injection. If you are interested in having access to Western medicine and surgery while also exploring alternatives options for treating common ailments, integrative practice is the right fit for you.
While every veterinarian and practice is unique and will have its own practice philosophy and mix of services, some universal characteristics can help you determine which type of practice would best suit your needs and lifestyle.
The house call practice
Another category of veterinary practice involves how the services are delivered, namely via house call. As the name suggests, these practices offer veterinary services in your home. House call veterinarians may offer any combination of the above services, but with certain limitations due to the nature of providing care in the home environment. House call veterinarians usually have a cooperative relationship with a local clinic or hospital that can perform basic surgeries and diagnostic services for clients.
A final practice type offers more specialized in-home services: hospice and end-of-life care. These practitioners can offer advice and services for animals that are facing a terminal diagnosis or are in their sunset years. The goal of these services is not to cure but to maintain and maximize quality of life and ensure the pet’s comfort in his final months, weeks or days.
Questions to ask when looking for a vet
- How many veterinarians are at the practice? Large practices may offer the convenience of longer hours, but some people prefer a closer relationship with just one or two practitioners.
- What types of animal do they see? Most practices provide services for dogs and cats, while some will also see exotic pets, such as ferrets, chinchillas and rats, as well as reptiles and birds.
- Do the veterinarians have experience with particular conditions or breeds? Some breeds are prone to specific conditions that may be difficult to spot or treat. Finding a veterinarian who is familiar with a certain breed’s medical quirks may save some headaches down the road.
- What happens if my pet has an emergency after hours? Some practices have a veterinarian available after regular hours, while others will recommend the closest emergency practice. While you may never need this service, it is best to know the options beforehand rather than try to figure it out during an emergeny situation.
What to expect at your first visit
No matter what type of practice you select, the veterinarian will perform the same basic procedures at your pet’s first visit – a thorough history and examination. During the history-taking process, he or she will determine the basics regarding your dog or cat’s vaccination and travel history, current diet and any medications or supplements. This is the best time to express any concerns or questions you may have. A thorough exam includes getting basic measurements, such as weight and temperature, and looking the pet over from head to tail. Again, any concerns should be pointed out during the exam to ensure the veterinarian gets a good look.
The next step will be to develop a preventive care plan, or a diagnostic plan if there is a health problem to address. Ideally, any preventive care plan should be tailored to match your dog or cat’s lifestyle and potential exposure to infectious diseases and parasites, and may include vaccinations and medications to prevent fleas, ticks and heartworms. Holistic and integrative practices try to minimize the use of vaccines and meds. Once a plan is in place, the last step is to carry it out, which sometimes involves needles or some other unpleasant procedure. Your pet is likely to be an unwilling participant, so sometimes restraint is needed. As his person, you can be a source of support and comfort for your dog or cat. The important thing to remember is these more uncomfortable moments are few and brief, so be strong for your pet, and treat yourselves to a reward afterwards!
Selecting the right veterinarian and practice for you and your pet will help ensure your peace of mind, and your dog or cat’s health and well-being. Doing your homework and asking the right questions (see sidebar) will help match a practice to your needs and expectations and maximize your ability to work together to achieve the best results for your animal companion.
Veterinarian Dr. Erin Mayo graduated from the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. She received her veterinary acupuncture and Chinese herbal certification from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, and provides holistic and TCVM services for companion animals in central New Jersey.