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 for emergency calls, since in the middle of the night you are slicing into a vet’s dream life. Veterinarians have wonderful dreams in which they are being nuzzled by wild and woolly things that never bite and always pay up.

Emergency calls are a lot different ballgame, and sometimes involve three or four treks out to the animal hospital in dankest night. Many times the doctor is dealing with people who are not his regular clients, and whom he may never see again. Some of these people in the frenzy of night cry, “Do anything to save Henry, Doc.” But when the time comes to pay, they ‘walk the bill,’ (slang for not paying) or if the animal ups and dies, they may grieve for twenty years but feel no obligation to compensate the doctor for his effort.

Vets run the gamut from pediatrics to geriatrics. A veterinarian is a broad generic term which covers a multitude of virtues. A vet is an animal dermatologist, hematologist, dentist, plastic surgeon, psychologist, gynecologist, pharmacist, eye, nose and throat man, podiatrist, obstetrician, radiologist, and anesthesiologist.

A vet can limit himself to either a large animal practice (swine, horse, cattle) or a small animal practice (poodles, Dobermans, Siamese, tabbys, etc.) or half a dozen of each and be a general practitioner. But at least by specifying, a small animal practitioner does not have to worry about cows in the waiting room.

In small animal practice, puppy vaccinations, spays and accidents take the biggest chunk out of the vet’s day, but in-between duties range from the sublime to the ridiculous. There are such esoteric jobs as medicating poodle scrotums, cleansing infected cat bladders, deworming, treating rattle snake bites and gunshot wounds, telling the facts of life to reluctant studs, giving hormone shots, artifically inseminating animals, performing cosmetic surgery, giving flea shampoos, and advising parents on how to explain puppy deaths to children. (A good vet recommends that you do not try to replace an animal with its exact copy, as though it had come out of a duplicating machine.) Declawing cats is a no-no from a humanitarian standpoint, though vets will do it if it becomes a choice between no cat at all and a living clawless one. Declawed cats fare worse out-of-doors, but are okay indoors.

Vets have become pushers; they’re trying to sell ovario-hysterectomies or spay operations, as they are called. They’d also like to get their scalpels on boy dogs. It’s not that they have castration complexes, but they do want to get those male dogs too. The common enemy to animals is overbreeding. A good percentage of a stray puppy’s life span is from the womb to the decompression chambers of the animal shelters, a kind of animal Buchenwald.

The spay operation stops all the cruelty at the source. It’s not a difficult operation for a pro. In the morning when the female is brought in, she relaxes in a cage and listens to Muzak. The doctor has given her a complete physical examination. He goes back to the cages and says, “Morning, mama.”

Mama is then brought into the examination room where she is given an anesthetic. There’s a good half-hour prepararation in which her belly is shaved as though she were being readied for a burlesque act. A tube is placed in her trachea to allow the passage of anesthesia, or air if it should be necessary, into her lungs.

Then she is taken into the operating room and tied securely on a table slightly downward so her womb will be accessible, and her intestines will not crowd it. The animal is washed again around the belly with more antiseptic. The area is covered with a surgical sheet. (But for the furry paws sticking up, no one would know this wasn’t a human operation, and in fact, this operation is equivalent to a human hysterectomy.)

The doctor and his assistant, in surgical mask and gown, operate, make a small incision and go in to remove the uterus and ovaries. Stitches close the incision and leave a minor scar.

The record for spay operations is held by a doctor I saw in Austin who can do it in six minutes and make it look as easy as cat’s cradle. The smaller the amount of time the animal is opened to the world, the better.

Of course the operation becomes more difficult and expensive on older, fatter animals who have already experienced motherhood. It takes several extra minutes to slice through all the fat and find the reproductive organs. The price of the operation usually costs an average of $35-50 but this depends on the poundage involved. At the price though, it’s a bargain.

The success of a small animal practice depends on pets always being a pleasure and not a pain. Unless you are a glutton for punishment, you wouldn’t be likely to rush out and buy another animal if you’ve had nothing but heartache and indigestion with your first animal. Vets are the arbitrators between love and necessity, evaluating the chances of survival of a sick animal, and then helping both the animal and the human. The vet can say, “If this were my animal I wouldn’t let it suffer…” Mercy killing is the hidden card that separates vets from regular doctors and animals from misery.

All vets implied that people should buy a pet the way they would buy a pure and complete luxury. If you can’t keep up the monthly or yearly payments on their health and maintenance, in the form of vaccinations and spaying, then don’t get a pet. Yearly vaccinations against rabies and distemper cost about $11, less than $1.00 a month. Where else can you get such mileage? Some misguided masters willingly spend money to get their pets groomed at clip joints but balk at spending money for vaccinations. They stamp their feet and say, “Millions for beauty and cosmetics, but not one cent for vaccinations.”

But vaccinations given yearly to your dog and cat can mean the difference between life and death. For less than $30 you can get a year’s worth of puppy and kitty vaccinations; for less than $11 you can get a year’s worth of adult dog and cat vaccinations—with a physical exam included in the price. Since distemper is the number one dog disease, and since it kills 80 percent of all puppies that get it, you need to give your puppy three shots to ward off the disease: at six-eight weeks a shot for distemper and hepatitis (DH); at 12 weeks a shot for distemper, hepatitis, and leptospirosis (DHL); at 16 weeks a DHL shot and a rabies shot.

The major cat killer is known as panleukopena, a disease which can occur in epidemic form and spread like wildfire to all unvaccinated felines. This disease, popularly known as “yellow vomit,” “cat plague,” “feline enteritis,” or “cat distemper” is not the same disease as dog distemper. Kittens need two shots for panleukopena: one at 6-8 weeks and the other at 12 weeks. At 16 weeks, not before, they will also need a rabies shot. Neither kittens nor puppies can develop a lasting immunity from a single shot, no matter how strong the dose. That’s why your vet gives more than one. It’s not just a vet rip-off.

So after you’ve given your puppy and kitten its shots it’s really easy to keep up the same yearly insurance for your adult animals, with only two booster shots: a DHL and a rabies for dogs and a panleukopena and a rabies for cats.

Look at it this way. If the T.V. goes on the blink, picture starts fluttering up and down, zigzagging in and out, you don’t sit there night after night crying over spilled news and watching the ole T.V. die. No, you’re up in a flash, calling the repairman and giving him his $10 an hour and glad of it. But next to you is this dog, on the blink, who doesn’t want any more bones and keeps asking for a priest, and you ignore him. Don’t wait ’til it’s too late. Get a vet.


1. Consult the directories of the American Animal Hospital Association, or the American Veterinary Medical Association. These are guides vets use to know each other. The former guide will show you which vets maintain hospital facilities. These guides aren’t infallible, but they are a good place to begin. In Texas, the Texas Academy of Veterinary Practice, an organization which hopes to foster continuing education for vets by conducting seminars on new developments in veterinary medicine, is another place to begin. Consulting dog breeders or cat breeders is another source.

2. After you choose a vet be sure, that he is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Does he cover his emergencies or does he always refer you to someone else?

3. Make sure you find someone who is willing to listen to you. Can you call this vet to find out whether or not to bring your animal to the office? Many of your queries can be answered over the phone. Either the vet can tell you to bring your animal in, or the vet can tell you which symptoms to watch.

4. How complete are your vet’s facilities? Does he have his own operating room that he runs according to sterile and aseptic standards? Does he have X-Ray, Boarding, Dental, and Laboratory facilities? If he doesn’t have this equipment does he refer you to someone who does? Does he send out his lab work (blood samples, urine samples, stool samples, etc.) Or does he do nothing?

5. Finally, do you like him or her? Does your animal thrive with his or her care?