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Looking for Dr Right

At the same time, we and our dogs are hanging around the planet longer in part due to all those new drugs, tests and procedures. The longer life is prolonged, the more tough decisions we face, weighing questions about the promise of technology, risks and side effects, the quality of life, when to try to buy more time, when enough is enough, and how to afford it all.

Managing our dog’s health care seems well on the way to becoming as tortuous and frustrating a struggle as managing our own.

Many of the procedures and services once available only to human patients —once seen as unimaginable or frivolous when applied to canines (except to test on them first to make sure they’d be okay for us)—are now routinely offered for dogs. They are referred to specialists. They go to psychiatrists. They undergo chemotherapy. They receive bone-marrow transplants, and dialysis, and “bionic” prostheses.

Many of these carry price tags so frightening that increasingly, we’re turning to health insurance for our dogs. We fear that, just as with our own health, it would only take one medical disaster for our dog to bankrupt us.

Obamacare for dogs? It may be laughable now, but will it still be in 50 years? Truth be told, some old-school veterinarians have long been practicing a version of it (unofficially and without the aid of insurance companies or websites), charging clients, of all things, what they can afford.

With independent veterinary practices dwindling and facing more pressures, such kind-hearted vets are becoming harder to find, and are finding it harder to be kind-hearted. Veterinary care is becoming colder, more complex and more expensive, a big business that, if it’s not careful, may soon come across as looking that way—as being much more concerned with its bottom line than all those creatures great and small.

Between our high expectations and veterinary medicine’s changing realities, a shift in our generally favorable view of veterinarians wouldn’t be all that surprising. On the other hand, they help animals, and we love them—nearly unconditionally—for that. Maybe that’s enough to keep vets from falling out of our good graces and joining the ranks of other once-beloved professions.

In any case, a new era has clearly dawned for veterinary medicine, one that includes corporately owned mega-practices, pricey technology, life-prolonging treatments and its own almost-as-perplexing version of health insurance. It’s enough to make some pine, at least a little, for the days of James Herriott, the semi-fictional country vet who, though he never attempted anything as cutting-edge as stem cell therapy, could always be counted on to be gentle, to be considerate, and to be there.

For now, based on some nonscientific opinion gathering by The Bark, most dog owners still seem to think that while not all vets are perfect, the perfect vet is out there. We think we know what makes him or her perfect. And, based on comments solicited from readers, most of us still manage, eventually, to find him or her.

“Why is my vet perfect? He is knowledgeable and experienced … unfailingly gentle and kind with animals and courteous to their owners,” wrote a reader named Frances. “He always explains everything in detail and is never, ever patronizing or dismissive of anxieties … [He] always comes across as someone whose priority is the welfare of the animals in his care, not profits or kudos. If I had to choose just one criterion upon which to base a choice of vet, it would be trust—trust in their expertise, their advice and their ability to care for my animals.”

When The Bark asked readers to describe their ideal veterinarian, they responded in large numbers, and quite passionately. They seemed, nearly unanimously, to appreciate a vet who hears them out, realizing the value of their observations and opinions about their companion animals. Most veterinary clients would rather feel part of a team, as opposed to following the dictates of a vet who comes across as one not to be questioned.

Based on the comments (read them all at thebark.com/finding-dr-right), dog owners place a priority on reasonable rates, as well as accessibility and flexibility. Readers also seemed to appreciate the veterinarian who offers weekend hours and is willing to stay open late, or go the extra mile … or 15 … or 20.

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