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Protecting Our Loved Ones From Careless Vets
Posted by J. Diane Parrish, Esq. on Oct 1, 2003 - 8:22:00 AM

UNITED STATES—Many of us spend more time picking a pair of socks than we do the doctor who takes care of our beloved animals.  We usually end up going to the one that’s most convenient or to the one that does what I call the “smooch and sell.”   (One well-known veterinarian gives seminars to other vets on how to “sell” surgeries, reminding them to “be sure to refer to owners as mom and dad.”)

Although vets are licensed by the state, we cannot rely on governmental regulation to ensure their competency and ethics.   And given the permissive atmosphere in which vets practice (vets are not held accountable under the law like medical doctors are) there is no motivation for them to regulate themselves.  The result is that lots of bad apples remain in practice and we have no way of knowing who they are.  Avoiding them, and the needless suffering and death they can cause, is therefore up to us.

Here’s how:

Get over feeling embarrassed—your best friends are counting on you.

Get in "shopping" mind-set.   Walk in during off hours and ask to speak with the veterinarian.   If he or she is unwilling, go someplace else. (A willing vet that’s busy will offer to set up a time to talk.)  Do this before you need one. That way you won’t be making a critical decision in an emergency situation when there’s no time to consider the facts and you’re just too stressed to think straight.
Photo by Brittany Crouse

Ask to see the facility including the operating room (notice if instruments are left out, if there are blood-stained papers or cloths around, if the surfaces look clean), the sick animal area (notice if there are charts near each patient, if the cages are clean, if the water bowls are clean and full),  and the well-animal area (notice how close is it to the sick animals)  Use your nose and your eyes.  If they won’t let you see "the back," go someplace else.

Ask the hard questions even though they make you sound distrustful and unfriendly:

1. How long have you been in practice and how much of that time has been spent as a “small animal” vet?  If he or she is new (practicing less than 7 years), we and our animals won’t get the benefit of experience, which counts for a lot.  If they practice with another vet who does have years of experience, the time factor is less important.  

2.  Where did you go to school?  If it's UC Davis, that’s good because you can be assured he or she knows about small animals.  But some schools focus on farm or food animals.  So if he or she went to an out of state or out of the country veterinary college, ask about their education and training in small animal medicine.

3.  Do you specialize in any areas of veterinary medicine?  If so ask for details, like how did they learn that area of veterinary medicine and how much experience they have in it.  Vets, like other professionals, are continually offered weekend courses in various procedures and there are no rules stopping them from trying them out on Fluffy or Fido. (One of the saddest cases I’ve had concerned a vet that took a one-day seminar on canine dentistry and the next week attempted to do a root canal on a very old dog with a heart condition!  Doggie died and my clients’ hearts were broken. The California Medical Board refused to discipline him saying there wasn’t enough "evidence."   He’s still in practice and his clients have no way of knowing about this incident.)

4.  Do you have a registered veterinary technician on staff?  This is important because “registered” means they have completed a course of study approved by the state.  Vets let their techs do a lot of the critical work and that makes their qualifications just as important as the doctor’s.

5.  Who does your anesthesia?  Even though the law prohibits anyone but a licensed veterinarian—or a registered technician working under a vet’s direct supervision—to handle this critical procedure, many vets put anesthesia into the hands of unregistered and inadequately trained assistants.  Losing a beloved companion animal due to anesthetic death caused by carelessness can be devastatingly painful.

6.  Who does your dental work?  Most vets leave this work to their assistants but since it’s usually done under anesthesia, the risks are significant.

7. Do you offer 24-hour care?  If so, what are the qualifications of the person who stays on the premises at night, on the weekends, on holidays?  If no one stays, ask how post-op patients are monitored.

Asking questions won’t guarantee you don’t get a “bad apple”—but it will reduce the risk significantly.  And be sure to write down what you see and hear—so when it comes time to choose you know which vet said and did what.

Our animals trust us to take care of them, so please choose wisely in placing that trust in a veterinarian.

(Ms. Parrish dedicates her practice to developing the rights of companion animals, including the right to competent and compassionate veterinary care. She can be reached at

The materials contained in Speak! are intended for general information and should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice or opinion. Readers are urged to consult legal counsel concerning particular situations and specific legal questions.


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