Healthy Living
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Looking for Dr Right

A reader named Robin said she chose a veterinarian who exhibited superior listening skills and a high degree of dedication to her job. Because Robin’s pup, Ali, suffers seizures and gets stressed out by office visits, Robin made an appointment with a mobile vet. Despite some dauntingly inclement weather, Dr. Joan showed up.

“So there she was, on my birthday, when we had a surprise snow storm overnight, and the snow was approaching hip height,” Robin said. “And she backed her trailer up our driveway for a NAIL TRIM …”

While accessibility, technical know how and communication skills were among the qualities readers listed as most important in a veterinarian, compassion may rank even higher. Dog owners want a veterinarian with heart. They put a premium on empathy, and perhaps rightly so, given that a vet’s patients can’t talk. Dog owners get some reassurance when they see vets connect with their dogs in a non-verbal way.

A reader named Jen said the vet of her dreams has a good reputation for his surgical skills, and his office has low staff turnover, another good sign, she says. But “first and foremost” is “his genuine affection, care and liking for the animals he works with. He gets down on the floor and hugs them if they are comfortable with that, lets them lick his face and talks to them before any examinations or procedures …

“My most recent favorite Dr. Todd tale was when I took my dog, Inca, in for a checkup. The day before, she and my other dog, Domino, had discovered an old slug trap in the strawberries filled with sour beer and rotten slugs. Unbeknownst to us they (delightedly, I’m certain) rolled in it … When I warned Todd not to hug Inca this time and told him what she had done, and that we hadn’t been successful in getting the stink off her, he got down on the floor, hugged her, looked into her eyes and said, ‘Good dog, Inca!’ In other words, ‘way to act like a dog.’”

We don’t expect to feel the love when we go to our own doctor; we do at the vet’s office.

Why? In part, it’s because we’re jaundiced by our own medical experiences, conditioned to not expect the surest, swiftest, most compassionate and fairly priced service. Most of us wouldn’t dream of asking our family doctor to meet us after hours at the office, much less grant us a same-day appointment, make a house call, cut us a break on the price of treatment or let us run a tab. We don’t require our pediatricians to “ooh” and “ahh” over our human babies, or to pat them on the head or toss them a treat. But a vet who treats our dog aloofly may be on the way to becoming our former vet.

Rightly or wrongly, we tend to see veterinarians as a warm-hearted bunch —people who got into their field not for the money, but because of their deep and abiding love for animals. We’re not so sure that a love for humans is what motivates most doctors.

Maybe that’s one reason veterinarians in the past decade have generally shown up above doctors in polls ranking professions for honesty and ethical standards. Dr. Nancy Kay, recently retired from veterinary practice, and author of the books Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect from Your Vet, is among those who sense that a shift is under way in the public’s perception of veterinarians.

“Maybe we’re still held in higher regard than medical doctors, but not by very much,” she says. “It used to be veterinarians were revered and given the benefit of the doubt.” Now, she says, it’s more common to hear criticism from people who feel vets are “not embracing enough of a holistic approach” and are “out for the money.”

Kay also says that, in some cases, the criticism is merited.

The average vet school student graduates with $150,000 worth of debt, according to Kay. They go into a job earning maybe $50,000 a year. Meanwhile, clients are turning elsewhere for some of the products and services that traditionally brought in profits for veterinary practices—to low- or no-cost clinics for spaying, neutering and rabies vaccinations, or to Wal-Mart and online discount stores for prescriptions.

Add in the high cost of keeping up with technology, and conditions get even riper for questionable behavior, such as a vet recommending a procedure or test that might not be necessary.


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.


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