Selecting a Veterinarian

Susan Brown, DVM
From the RMCA web site, July 2004

Selecting a veterinarian for your pet, whether it is a rabbit, ferret, dog, cat or a bird, can be often be a difficult task. The following information will give you some useful guidelines when making this important choice.


The most important thing you can do is to educate yourself before you acquire a new pet and before you seek a veterinarian. Often pets are acquired as “spur of the moment” or emotional choices and all too often little or no information is given at the time of acquisition regarding proper care. If you are interested in a species of animal educate yourself first! Sources of information are varied and include the library, bookstores, pet associations or clubs, veterinary offices, pet stores and the Internet. In addition, if you can find an experienced owner of the species in which you are interested, try to spend some time visiting and gathering first-hand information. It is unlikely that you will find only one source with all the most relevant information therefore it is useful to consult several sources before making your purchase. The Internet is a rapidly growing source of information on a variety of subjects and can be most helpful. There are web sites that contain huge amounts of information. However, please be aware that the information on the Internet is not censored or edited in any fashion and therefore there is a great deal of incorrect, old or altered information as well as factual material. PLEASE BE CRITICAL in your assessment of data gathered in this area and compare several sources before accepting “facts.” In addition, be cautious about fully accepting all information from people whose sole economic purpose is to encourage you to buy a pet. Sometimes information from these areas will not mention or will downplay the “negative” side of the pet. In order to be a responsible and loving pet owner you must be able to accept a pet for all its qualities, both joyful and troublesome. It is no fun to be “surprised” after acquisition by a normal yet, what you may find to be, annoying behavioral trait. Be sure to ask the question “Why wouldn't I want this pet?"

There can be human health risks to owning a pet. Some people are allergic to animals and it is important to check with your own doctor about the feasibility of adding a certain species to your household. You can have allergy testing performed before acquiring a pet if you are unsure. The other health risk is the spread of a specific disease from an animal to a human. Although the great majority of transmissible diseases are preventable by practicing good hygiene, such as washing your hands after handling a pet and not cleaning pet cages, bowls, litter trays in the same areas where human food is prepared, there are some individuals that are going to be at higher risk. Humans suffering from AIDS, hepatitis, some forms of cancer or any other immune suppressant disease should be very cautious about the pets they acquire.

It is important to educate yourself throughout the life of your pet so that you can be a better caregiver. In addition, you may have access to information that your veterinarian does not and sharing this can ultimately improve your pet's health care.

Always ask if you do not understand instructions or information given to you by a veterinarian or staff member. They cannot read your mind and they may think that the situation is adequately explained unless you tell them otherwise. It is your responsibility to make sure that you clearly understand instructions or information before you leave the veterinary office or hang up the phone.

Hopefully you will find a veterinarian before you need one. An emergency is not the time to be flipping through the phone book looking frantically for help. Ideally you should find a veterinarian even before you acquire your pet. In addition, if you are looking for a specialist for your pet, be prepared to drive some distance to get the best for your pet.

It is a good idea to have an initial post-purchase health checkup of your pet (best done within 48 hours of purchase) with your new veterinarian before you have a sick pet visit. This will give your veterinarian a chance to see if you indeed have a healthy pet and for you and your pet to establish a working relationship with your veterinarian.


There are a variety of places find a veterinarian. My suggestion is to use several of these because you might be able to narrow your choice when the same name or names come up more than once. Veterinary sources include:

  • Local and state veterinary associations
  • Veterinary schools
  • Internet
  • Local and national pet groups
  • Animal shelters
  • Pet owners
  • Pet breeders
  • Pet stores
  • Yellow pages/newspaper

The number for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is: 847-925-8070. The AVMA can give you the numbers of state and local veterinary associations as well as the names and numbers of various specialty groups and veterinary schools.


Once you narrow your choice to one or more veterinarians, it is time to ask some questions before you make your first appointment. Since this pre-visit interview might take more than a couple of minutes, it is helpful to tell the receptionist of the clinic that you would like to ask a number of questions which might be lengthy. In this way, the staff member can decide if they can take the call right away or if would be better if they called you back when there was a more relaxed time to speak. Another option is to FAX or email your questions to the hospital ahead of time and then conduct a phone interview after the veterinarian and staff have had a chance to review them. This will save a lot of times at both ends. The veterinary staff can usually answer these questions and you may not need to speak to the veterinarian directly.

Here are a list of potential questions that you might consider asking in a phone interview: (Dr. X refers to the doctor or doctors in question and the pet refers to the specific species about which you are asking)

  • What species of animals does your practice see?
  • How long has Dr. X been in practice?
  • Does Dr. X have any specialty training?
  • What veterinary or pet organizations does Dr. X or the hospital belong to?
  • To what veterinary or trade publications does Dr. X or the hospital subscribe?
  • Does Dr. X or the hospital have access to the Internet?
  • How many hours of veterinary continuing education pertaining to the type of pet in question does Dr. X receive a year?
  • How do you handle after-hours emergencies? (You don't want to find out later that the hospital you selected is completely unavailable after-hours.)
  • Are there other veterinarians in the practice that can treat the pet in case Dr. X is not available? (Some doctors in a practice only treat certain species.) And if not, then to whom do you refer these cases?
  • Does Dr. X refer difficult cases to anyone else? (There may be no one else, or Dr. X may actually be the referral clinic for the area.)
  • Does Dr. X or the hospital work with any pet groups or shelters? (Not a requirement, but if they do work with these groups you have a source of opinion on this veterinary clinic.)
  • Do you have any printed material on your practice and/or on the type of pet I have? (If they do, you might want to stop by and pick it up or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope so the staff can send it to you.)
  • Can I briefly meet with Dr. X prior to my first pet visit and/or have a brief tour of the hospital? (This is good idea if you still have any questions in your mind about your choice. Please respect the veterinarian's time when scheduling these appointments and realize that this is to be a brief visit and be prepared with your questions.)


Once you have made your selection you might want to visit the practice and make some observations. This could be on the pre-pet visit interview, or it might be on your very first pet visit. There are a few things that you should observe to determine if this veterinarian is right for your pet.

  • Cleanliness of the reception area, exam rooms and staff - If these areas/staff members are reasonably tidy, then it is more likely that attention is also paid to disease control and to clean medical and surgical habits.
  • Ability and willingness of staff to answer your questions
  • Printed material available on your pet species
  • Skill with which the pet is handled


Your veterinarian's personality should be one with which you are comfortable. Fortunately humans come with all different types of personalities from talkative and amusing to quiet and serious and all varieties in between! However, there are some common characteristics of a health professional that we feel are universally important. (And this goes for human doctors as well!) These characteristics are also important in the veterinary staff members that you deal with on your visits to the hospital as well.

  • Compassionate
  • Handles your pet with respect and care
  • Interested and knowledgeable about your species of pet
  • Is a good listener
  • Is willing to answer your questions
  • Is interested in client education and encourages the educated client
  • Is willing to accept/review information you may have collected on your own
  • Is willing to admit when they don't know the answer
  • Is flexible with developing plans for treatment based on medical and financial constraints for each individual pet
  • Is not offended when a second opinion is sought


Often clients will want to know if they can restrain their animals during a variety of procedures. Although this may be comforting to their pet, the veterinarian unfortunately has to consider some serious legal implications. By law, injuries that occur in the veterinary hospital are the responsibility of the hospital or individual veterinarian. One of the most common law suit situations seen every year is when owners sue veterinarians for medical damages after they are injured by their own pets during procedures where they were helping the veterinarian. Veterinarians are all advised by their malpractice insurance providers not to allow owners to assist in any procedures in the hospital. You need to respect this difficult position. In addition, some animals become more frightened and difficult to handle if they are restrained improperly by a nervous owner rather then by an experienced, calm assistant.

Veterinarians also need to have a high level of focus when performing certain procedures and it can be distracting to have an owner there that may be asking a lot of questions and who is nervous. This can seriously detract from the ability of the veterinarian to do his or her job well. Of course in cases where the animal is anesthetized for a procedure it is not necessary to have an owner present, as the animal will not be aware of their presence.

Finally, there can be disadvantages of being present as an owner during an unpleasant procedure. Some pets, notoriously birds, will then associate you, the owner, with the unpleasantness and it may be a difficult process to reestablish the good relationship you had prior to the incident. In some ways it is better to have the veterinary staff be the "bad guys” and then when the pet is returned to you, you are the “rescuer!”

Ultimately it will be the result of the relationship you establish with your veterinarian that will determine in what capacity you will be allowed to be present with your pet during treatments or diagnostics. If you develop a very trusting relationship, you may be allowed to assist in a wide variety of procedures. However, at all times, please defer to your veterinarian's judgment on when and where you can help. He or she is ultimately responsible for your pet's well being and also to protect you from physical harm.


When it is time to make the final decision on a veterinarian use your observations and intuition. It may be necessary to use a less experienced vet simply because are no other choices in a reasonable travel area. Pick one with enthusiasm for learning and develop your education as a team. Never be afraid to seek a second opinion if you are in doubt.


As a pet owner you have certain responsibilities to your pet and to the veterinary staff. If you follow through with these you will have a richly rewarding relationship with your pet and his or her health care team.

  • BE EDUCATED – This is a continuous process throughout your pet's life
  • BE PREPARED - Have your questions written down / bring a notebook to record answers
  • ASK QUESTIONS - If you don't understand something ASK!!! Veterinarians and their staff are not mind readers.
  • REPORT PROBLEMS PROMPTLY, RESPECTFULLY AND TO THE PROPER PERSON - If you have a problem with a veterinary practice, please do them a favor by reporting it right away. Often the problem is simply a miscommunication and can be cleared up immediately making it unnecessary for you drive off in anger to another hospital. Most veterinarians want to know about problems so they can be cleared up. Be prepared to discuss the problem openly and as calmly as you can so that a reasonable solution can be reached. Don't be a complainer without some thought for positive improvement.

Copyright 2001 - 2004 by Susan Brown, DVM. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission from Dr. Brown's Small Mammal Health Series.