Healthy Living
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Looking for Dr Right

Kay says vaccinations are a good example of that.

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) revamped its list of recommended vaccinations, and the intervals at which they should be administered, 11 years ago. But, Kay notes, some vets still routinely over vaccinate based on the old recommendations. Many a client, after receiving a cute reminder postcard in the mail, still brings his or her dog in annually for distemper and parvovirus vaccinations, even though the AAHA now recommends those vaccinations be given at three-year intervals.

The AAHA also now recommends that vaccinations for parainf luenza virus, bordetella and leptospirosis be administered only after looking at an individual dog’s risk of exposure. But some vets—either not up on the changes or not wanting to pass up potential profits—tend to take a more blanket approach to vaccines.

“Some vets either don’t know better or they want the money,” Kay says. “They over-vaccinate to subsidize their other services, disregarding the potential risks to the animals, and people are catching on to that.”

As they do, suspicion can spread and public faith can erode, just as it can in any occupation. A few bad apples, uninformed apples, careless apples or greedy apples, can—especially in the Internet age—taint how the public sees the whole barrel.

So how do you find Dr. Right— that vet who’s the perfect combination of compassion and clear-headedness; one who, when it comes to finding answers, isn’t wholly holistic or wholly high-tech; one who exhibits not simply heart, and not simply brains, but that much-desired combination of the two?

Two things to keep in mind: First, one pet owner’s Dr. Right may not be every pet owner’s Dr. Right. Second, you might have to go through a few Dr. Not-Quite-Rights along the way.

Let your own head, and your own heart, be your guide.

Do some research. Get input from friends. Get input from strangers. Pick the brains of your fellow dog-park denizens. Ask people not just if they like their vet, but why they like their vet. Volunteer at your local humane society, and see whom they trust and turn to. Check into complaints filed with state veterinary boards or Better Business Bureaus. Go online and read customer reviews, but take them, like everything else on the Internet, with a grain of salt. Visit and interview vets. Chat up the support staff. Bring a notepad. Ask vets where they got their training. Do they have a dog? Do they do any pro bono work, such as helping homeless dogs in the community? Are they, when it comes to technology, up on the latest or living in the past? See if you feel a connection, and—as perhaps you might do with a potential suitor—let your dog give them a sniff and offer an opinion.

Some vets might be smooth talkers who say all the right things but fail to make a connection with your dog. Other vets might have a near-magical ability to empathize with your dog, but no people skills at all.

One paradox of veterinary medicine is that many of those who go into it do so because they prefer dealing with animals to dealing with people. They find out pretty quickly—year one in most veterinary schools—that it’s not going to work that way. While they examine animals, they have to communicate with humans—often, anguished, demanding or sobbing ones.

“What all vets have in common is we love animals, but the majority of our time is spent dealing with their humans,” says Kay, who spent 32 years in private practice. Some veterinarians are better at that than others.

As with medical doctors, veterinarians generally adopt one of two styles of communication. In the paternalistic model, the doctor is clearly in charge, does most of the talking and, generally, keeps some emotional distance. Under what’s called the relationship-centered model, the vet looks at the bigger picture— the dog and the dog owner, and the bond between them. Clients are encouraged to share facts, express opinions and help decide on a course of action.


John Woestendiek is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, editor of the website Ohmidog! and author of Dog, Inc.: How a Collection of Visionaries, Rebels, Eccentrics and Their Pets Launched the Commercial Dog Cloning Industry.