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Looking for Dr Right

“One of the vets I frequented for almost 20 years I am leaving because they are changing their paradigm from service to business,” she added. “The front desk is no longer attended by caring staff, and making money seems to be the major concern. Needless to say, they are losing clients, including me.”

Call a medical doctor when you’re seriously ailing and, with some luck, you’ll get an appointment—say, three weeks from Thursday. Call a vet about your seriously ailing dog and you’re likely to hear “bring ’em right in.”

Visit that medical doctor—arrive 30 minutes before your appointment, please—and the receptionist may or may not issue a friendly greeting, and may or may not make eye contact before handing you multiple forms to be filled out while you wait, 45 minutes or so, before being shown into an exam room, where you wait some more.

Visit that vet and you and your dog will more likely be greeted with some excitement, get a pat on the head, maybe get a treat, and have but a brief wait to see not just an assistant, but the actual doctor—all of which sometimes happens, unlike with human medical care, even before the question is asked: “How are we going to be paying for this?”

In some ways, at least from a consumer perspective, human medical care could benefit by becoming more like traditional veterinary care.

From all indications, though, the opposite is happening.

With large corporations running a growing percentage of veterinary practices, with those practices becoming larger, with treatments becoming more sophisticated and expensive, with pet insurance creating more hoops to jump through, with everybody running to keep up with technology, there seems less time for niceties, or empathy.

The way things are heading, one often doesn’t get to choose a veterinarian these days as much as a veterinary practice. You might find the veterinarian of your dreams, but then actually get an appointment with the one who’s available. As pet health insurance slowly catches on, you might find the practice of your dreams, only to learn it doesn’t honor the particular brand of pet insurance you’ve purchased.

And, as veterinary practices become more like big businesses, that quality time you spend with your vet might dwindle—maybe at that vet’s choice, maybe due to corporate orders.

“It’s not the profession I went into 25 years ago,” says Nick Trout, a staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston and a contributing columnist for The Bark.

Traditionally, Trout says, vets have been seen as “having an animal’s best interest at heart rather than being out to make money.” Given that their patients can’t talk, vets spend more time examining them, “as opposed to the seven minutes you seem to have with an MD who’s watching the clock and having to crank through on the cases.” Vets, generally, have been seen as more accessible, patient and understanding than the average medical doctor.

Trout, who has authored three nonfiction books, has also written two novels. In the first of those, The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs, the main character, Cyrus Mills, a veterinary pathologist whose career has kept him in the laboratory, takes over his father’s small town veterinary practice and, through connecting with dogs and people, finds his life changed for the better. In its sequel, Dog Gone, Back Soon, slated for release this spring, Mills copes with pressures stemming from what Trout calls the “corporatization” of veterinary care.

While the book is fiction, the trend is real, and global.

For example, Trout says, “Small mom-and-pop practices no longer exist in Sweden; they’ve all been bought out by corporations” that operate under a “colder, more clinical” business model. “What worries me is that takes away that one-on-one, that ability to put in more time with an individual … When you’re accountable to a bigger business model, you’re not going to get away with that.”

Technology is playing a big role, too. Keeping up with it can require large investments—the kind that small, independent veterinarians are hardpressed to make.


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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