Only Your Pet Knows for Sure

Worried about taking your pet to the vet? Here's how to avoid the heartbreak of worms and other dilemmas.

THE DOOR OPENED. I SAW the high metal table. I can run with the fastest, leap fences with a single bound, but have to be hoisted like a bag of potatoes onto that cold shiny surface. Last time I got frisked, I'd been busted for possession of fleas. This time it'd be worse. A busload of parasites had been shacking up in my stomach. The vet gave me a reassuring wink and I passed out.

Choosing a vet is a crisis that comes between every good master and his pet. Many people are scared to move to a new city for fear of not finding a good veterinarian. I interviewed a couple from Paris, France who said that this was the case.

But let's say you have to move. You arrive in a new town and your pet starts wretching. What should you do? Well, you could try the yellow pages, pronouncing each name slowly to your animal and watching for a gut reaction. Unless there is a vet named Dr. Downboy or Dr. Outboy, Dr. Sitlay or Dr. Herekittykitty, the animal probably will ignore you or answer, "None of the above."

The sensible thing to do is to become an extrovert for a day. While walking your dog take the opportunity to stop and talk to fellow dog owners. Do like a dog and sniff them out (figuratively). If they are walking a healthy looking animal, say, "Oh my, what a healthy looking animal. Who is his doctor? Oh, is he good, really? Is his office nearby? Are his prices reasonable?" If the owner is walking a mangy black-toothed animal, you could also find out the name of the vet, but be sure to ask the date of the dog's last visit. (I'll wager it was probably in the early puppy years and not since.)

Once you have a name that you can dig your teeth into, you can make an appointment. The most essential outer sign to look for on that first visit is cleanliness —a necessary but not sufficient requirement for a good vet. After all, there are clean, bad vets.

But now you and your animal are summoned into the examination rooms. Is the examining table clean; how does the place smell to your limited nose? Many vets if asked will even give you an informal tour and explanation of their facilities. But don't expect this on a Saturday morning or during an emergency.

The extent and breadth of the facilities should not be the determining factor in choosing a vet. The doctor's skill is the most important element, with cleanliness and staff running a close second and ambiance a distant third.

Check-out the room for surgery. The machine that looks like a sci-fi pressure cooker is an autoclave which autoclaves, or sterilizes, all the instruments and garments used in surgery. If a vet offers to pay a house call and do surgery on your kitchen table, tell him thanks, but no thanks.

Although you may imagine you are paying through the nose for an operation or a shot, you are not only paying for a few slices and stitches, or 80¢ worth of medication, but for your surgeon's essential skill and sterile equipment.

In some facilities there are ultrasound dentistry instruments. Cats and dogs don't get cavities, but they do collect a lot of tartar on their teeth which makes their gums recede, their teeth fall out and en route produces a gargantuan case of halitosis. It's a glum prospect, cleaning the teeth of an old animal who hasn't had time to brush after every meal. Animals are given an anesthetic before the tartar is removed, and the vet, a nose plug.

Some facilities have incubators where serious cases can curl up in a quiet environment while their wounds and traumas subside. Cultures of germs from your animal's body are grown in the lab and treated with an assortment of pills to see which antibiotics will cure the infections. That way you don't have to pay for unnecessary shots. In the lab, blood and stool samples can also be checked to detect lurking diseases. X-ray facilities are provided to find a missing puppy in the womb or a fracture in the pelvis.

There are a complex of cages in the back where your animal is taken if he must spend the night. This hotel facility comes with daily maid service, continental dining, the works. There usually are separate wings of cages for the contagious cases and for animals who have not yet been examined, but who have a suspicious glint in their eyes. This is to make sure your animal will not exchange a gimpy leg for a kennel cough or diarrhea.

When your animal is being examined, ask the vet any questions you may have; pump him a little, but don't try to take a crash course in animal husbandry in one office visit. Judge him by the way he treats the animal and not on how well he runs a talk show. A good vet will make sure you understand the procedures and will show you little tricks of the trade such as wool-gathering in poodle's ears, flushing out abscesses, or cutting toenails so as to refrain from cutting the nerve. Length of time spent examining the animal should be no criteria since some problems take longer; some shorter. You wouldn't want the vet futzing around just to pad a visit out and make you feel happy. Every second on that examination table your animal is suffering from cowardice and nervous exhaustion.

In choosing a veterinarian be sure to get one who is available for emergency calls—24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. Accidents don't follow a forty hour week and when you need a doctor for an emergency, you don't want an answering service that tells you to call back in the morning. You want an answering service to connect to a live vet.

Expect to pay a little more

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