In the previous article we looked at decisions to be made, and some of the thought processes required, when choosing a new pet. Assuming you have now made that choice and brought your new puppy or kitten home; this time I thought it would be a natural, logical progression to look at how to choose a veterinarian for your newest family member. In fact, choosing a vet is something that should happen before your new friend arrives home. If you then experience an early concern or health problem, you won’t be scrambling to find the vet that’s the right fit for you.
To work as a veterinarian in Australia one must firstly have a veterinary degree that is registerable in Australia. This means a degree obtained at one of the Australian Veterinary Schools or from an overseas school that has been assessed as providing training to the required standard. The reciprocity of degree acceptance between countries allows Australian trained vets to work abroad to gain experience, undergo further advanced training and try different aspects of veterinary work.
With an appropriate degree vets must then be registered with the Veterinary Surgeons’ Board (VSB) in the state, or states, they wish to work. The VSBs are independent organisations responsible for not only maintaining the register of practising vets but also the parallel registers for veterinary nurses and veterinary specialists. In addition, they are responsible for ensuring the maintenance of professional standards by application of the Veterinary Surgeons Act (1960) and the Veterinary Surgeons Regulations (1979). As part of this role the Board will investigate complaints made to them about the professional conduct of practicing vets and submit those found to constitute unprofessional conduct to the State Administrative Tribunal, or through the judicial court system for action. As a prospective client it is very easy to check the registration status of any veterinary surgeon by searching the online register, made freely available to the public. A further requirement of practicing vets is to display a current registration certificate in a prominent position, usually reception, within each practice in which they work.
In just the same way as vets and nurses must be registered to work so to must their clinics and hospitals. Here the VSBs are again responsible and inspect all prospective practices prior to their opening as well as every five years thereafter. By overseeing the operating environment and facilities on offer the VSBs are actively maintaining the standards of the profession as a whole and you should be assured that your chosen veterinarian and practice are working to an acceptable level of care.
This is not to say that all vets or practices are the same and some investigation on your part is required to help you find the right one for your situation. As previously suggested these enquiries should occur before you take ownership of your new pet, so you are ready to hit the ground running when he or she is brought home. You may already have a preferred veterinarian from previous or current pets, in which case your decision is an easy one. For a lot of people however the choice is made solely on which is the closest practice to their residence. Whilst this is an important consideration, especially in an emergency, there are other factors to look at. An obvious example is whether the practice treats your chosen species of pet. This is maybe less applicable in rural areas where veterinary services can be few and far between and vets by necessity tend to treat across a broad range of species but is important in urban and city settings. So, what are the various options available?
For some owners a mobile vet may be an ideal solution. Lack of transport, or personal health and mobility issues may be an overriding factor in this decision. No stressful car rides or waiting in reception with a multitude of other nervous patients may be very appealing. Perhaps your dog suffers motion sickness, or your cat always soils the transport cage. Having a vet visit you in your home at a prearranged time definitely seems to have a lot going for it. The limiting factor here is, ironically, likely the lack of bricks and mortar infrastructure restricting the level of diagnostics and treatment that can be offered. In an effort to overcome these issues mobile vets may have an arrangement with a traditional practice to accept their patients, or they may choose to rent surgical and diagnostic / imaging facilities as required. Combined with an ability to transport animals to and from your home, mobile vets may indeed meet your requirements. Be sure to check hours of operation and the provisions made for after-hours care.
Veterinary clinics are generally small, one to three veterinarian practices with a similar or slightly larger number of ancillary staff. The vet nurses commonly double as receptionists and will further multitask as kennel hands and cleaners in addition to their nursing duties. As a small team, clinics generally have a friendly approachable feel and provide an opportunity to develop one on one relationships with staff members. Commonly stable, owner operated practices, these relationships can last the pet’s lifetime and lead to a vet heavily invested in the care of your pet. This is important not just for owners, but for the pet and veterinarian alike and this continuity of care can be a big selling point for choosing a veterinary clinic. One very important distinction between clinics and hospitals however is that clinics are not permitted to keep patients overnight, or more correctly beyond their normal hours of operation. If your pet requires twenty-four-hour care as a result of illness, trauma, or for postoperative care, veterinary clinics are obligated by law to arrange for the overnight care to be administered by a veterinary hospital. As a result of this stipulation and the fact that clinic staff likely already work long hours in the course of their normal duties, clinics will commonly not offer an after-hours service; choosing instead to direct after-hours calls to a dedicated emergency service. If a clinic is your preferred vet you should make yourself familiar with the after-hours options available in your area, where they are located and expected transport time: Critically important in a life-threatening situation. Choosing the preferred after-hours facility should be an integral part of selecting the clinic. The clinic will have a preference in this regard and their after-hours phone service will direct you accordingly.
Veterinary hospitals are, as outlined above, the level of practice required to keep patients overnight. Clearly this more complete level of care may be a deciding factor when looking to choose your veterinary practice. Some veterinary hospitals may still elect to outsource their after-hours work and again not hospitalise patients outside of their normal operating hours. Don’t just assume – ask. Veterinary hospitals that offer a twenty-four-hour service must have a veterinary surgeon in attendance at the registered premises for the full twenty-four-hour period whilst those that offer an after-hours service can either be in attendance or available to attend the practice at short notice. In line with this increased level of cover, hospitals are generally larger organisations with more staff. The division of labour may be more defined such that reception is manned by dedicated staff. Kennel hands and bespoke cleaners may be employed, and this frees up the nursing staff for nursing duties. The trade off is that with increased staffing and increased hours of operation you may not be able to consult with your preferred vet, on your chosen day, as they rotate on and off duty and share the various shifts according to the practice roster. Whilst this may be of little consequence for routine care you can lose continuity for ongoing or more chronic conditions. Good record keeping and discussion between the vets treating your pet will minimize this, but you may feel that you are bringing each new person you see up to speed. The flip side of course is that the more vets on the team the greater the knowledge and experience base to draw upon. Most vets will have an increased interest in certain fields, feel more confident in some areas, less so in others and large practices can potentially refer to other team members within the practice to benefit from everyone’s individual strengths.
Depending upon your chosen pet and local availability you may have access to practices specifically tailored to certain species or a narrow spectrum of species. In recent years we have seen increasing numbers of cat only practices, avian and exotics vets, rabbit practitioners and holistic veterinarians. Some practices will choose to develop certain aspects of their work and offer additional services such as physiotherapy and rehabilitation complete with laser therapy, acupuncture, therapy pool or water treadmill. Looking to breed your pet? Chances are a practice offering enhanced reproductive services is only a quick Google search away. Again, it boils down to an awareness of what is available and what best suits your needs moving forward. Perhaps you will choose to use different practices for different aspects of your pet’s care and with good, open communication and a mutual respect between the individual parties this may work well. If you do choose multiple vets be aware that whilst the VSBs encourage dialogue and exchange of clinical notes between practices veterinarians are not currently obligated to provide patient histories.
One last factor you may wish to consider is whether your preferred practice is independently owned and operated, or part of a corporate body; with multiple veterinary practices all operating under the same name. With the growing number of corporate owned practices, it is increasingly possible to attend a similarly branded, operated and priced practice should you be travelling with your pet or indeed move location permanently.
So, this outlines the types of veterinary services that may be at your disposal. Whilst you may have a clearer idea as to who you intend to use how are you going to make the final decision? There are three pieces of advice I would offer. Firstly, talk to as many local pet owners as you can: Talk to your neighbours, talk to people walking their dogs at the park. Ask who they choose to use and why and get a feel for their experiences. Secondly read the on-line reviews. Whilst not an alternative to direct first-hand experience reading the good and the bad can help you build a picture of the practices standing and reputation. Lastly, and most importantly go introduce yourself and talk to the staff members. If time permits, see if someone can give you a tour of the facilities and outline the types of services on offer. Is the practice open to familiarisation consults whereby your pet can visit, be suitably spoilt, but not subject to any medical intervention? In deference to The Castle’s Dennis Denuto get a feel “for the vibe”!
This article has looked at primary care or general practitioner level practices. For completeness veterinary specialist practices are another growing feature of the veterinary landscape. As they invariably work on a referral only basis and will not accept appointments from the general public they are not discussed here. A singular exception is the specialist emergency and critical care veterinarian. Suffice to say that as a client you are always entitled to ask for a referral to see a specialist. Indeed, vets are required to make clients aware of the potential for referral as part of their duty of care to provide “gold standard” treatment. In this way their clients are informed of all options and can make informed choices about their pet’s care.
I hope this has been useful and made you think a little bit more about your choice of vet. Having made this choice next time out we will look at what to expect during your early vet visits regarding the preventative care measures we need to implement for your pet.