Theres a lot you can do to size up the quality of care offered by a veterinary
practicefor starters, the quality of customer service it provides and
whether it has a convenient location and hours. But you can also check
out many aspects of service critical to clinical quality of care. For example,
you can evaluate how well a vet listens and communicates with you; the
thoroughness of treatment and exams; and whether the vet provides sufficient
and useful advice on preventing diseases, treatments you can administer
on your own, and warning signs of problems.
Our Ratings Tables summarize the judgments of consumers on Boston area
veterinary practices. There is substantial variation: Some vets receive
superior ratings on many aspects of care from at least 95 percent of
their surveyed customers, while others receive superior ratings from
fewer than 65 percent of their surveyed customers.
There are also big price differences. For example, to spay a seven-month-old,
25-pound dog, our mystery shoppers were quoted fees ranging from $246 to
$816. And to clean the teeth of a four-year-old, 65-pound dog, quoted fees
ranged from $210 to $770. Fortunately, since many of the lowest priced
vets received very high ratings from their surveyed customers, you can
save money without sacrificing the quality of your critters care.
Using a facility that charges low fees is just one way to control veterinary
costs. Gettingand followingsound advice on prevention and pet care practices
also reduces vet bills. And you certainly want to avoid vets who push unnecessary
services that increase their income but provide little benefit for your
Hes your best buddy, fellow couch potato, and always good for a laugh
after a tough day at work. Shes your snuggle buddy and burglar/stranger/mailman
alert system. They may be furry, but theyre family. Just as you carefully
choose physicians to treat the humans near and dear to you, you want top-notch
healthcare for your pets. This article will help you find, and work with,
a veterinarian who provides the care and service your critter deserves
without wrecking your treat budget.
As with choosing a physician for humans, while you cant assess all aspects
of a veterinarians technical skills and expertise, you can judge many
factors central to good medical care for your pet.
Our Ratings Tables show the results from our surveys of area consumers
(primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) on veterinary practices
they have used. The survey asked consumers to rate their vets on various
aspects of care and service, including
Listening to/communicating with you
Arranging to see you quickly
Giving helpful advice by phone
Keeping down office waiting time
Maintaining a pleasant office and staff
Giving prevention/self-help advice
Helping keep pets medical costs down
Spending enough time with you
Overall care and advice
Our Ratings Tables show, for practices that received at least 10 ratings
on our surveys, the percent of surveyed customers who rated it superior
(as opposed to adequate or inferior) on each question. Note that most
ratings that werent superior were at least adequate, and that because
these ratings relate to raters experiences over a period of years, various
aspects of a veterinary practice may have changed. (Click here
for further discussion of our customer survey and other research methods.)
You can be reasonably confident that every veterinarian is intelligent
and well trained. In addition to completing four years of college and four
years of veterinary school, almost all vets have undergone several additional
years of practical training in a clinical setting. In recent years, it
has been more difficult to obtain admission to veterinary schools than
to medical schools, and vet school graduates must pass an exam as difficult
as the one for physicians to qualify to practice.
Apparently, the decision to become a vet usually goes hand-in-hand with
a good attitude. But while most of the feedback we receive is favorable,
not every vet has all the qualities you want: Some practices received low
scores on many survey questions.
As in choosing a physician, you should consider several other factors before
deciding that a vet is right for your pet and for you.
Almost all vets care for dogs and cats. Many will treat small mammals (rodents,
rabbits, etc.), but many others wont treat birds and reptiles, and very
few treat farm animals. Make sure the vet is not only willing but experienced
and interested in caring for your species of pet.
Since there are many good vets in the area, you may as well choose a practice
located close to your home. It will be convenient for routine visits and
more accessible in an emergency or if your pet must be hospitalized.
Also check on office hours. Most vets have some evening or weekend hours
for routine visits.
We asked customers to rate vets on arranging to see you quickly, a factor
crucial to your peace of mind and perhaps the well being of your pet.
Also check how a vet handles emergency care outside of office hours. At
the time of our last full, published article, only 5 practices listed on
our Ratings Tables reported they were open and staffed with a veterinarian
on the premises 24 hours per day. Some vets provide clients with phone
numbers they can use to contact them for emergencies; others merely provide
lists of nearby 24-hour facilities. When you call, some vets will meet
you at their offices, while others will steer you to another facilityor
simply have their answering services recommend a 24-hour facility. Ask
any prospective vet exactly what kind of response you can expect in an
For your convenience and your pets comfort, you want a vet that keeps
office waiting time short (unless theres an intervening emergency). Our
Ratings Tables show vets ratings for this aspect of service. While
this is one of the areas in which vets score lowest, there is substantial
variation among practices, with some getting superior ratings from more
than 90 percent of their surveyed customers and others rated superior
by fewer than 40 percent.
To save time and moneyand enable you to respond quickly to a pets needsits
important to be able to get meaningful advice by phone. Our Ratings Tables
show the survey results for our question giving helpful advice by phone.
You want a vet whom you like and with whom you can communicate. Our Ratings Tables show scores for a survey question about listening to/communicating
with you. Our Ratings Tables also show how practices rated on spending
enough time with you, a critical aspect of adequate communication.
Good communication includes listening and making you feel comfortable about
asking questionsalong with explaining what is wrong with your pet, what
the vet is doing, and what you can expect. A vet should admit his or her
limitations and tell you when its necessary to consult a specialist. A
vet should also talk openly about costsso there are no surprises. And
the vet should let you make decisions based on your finances, your devotion
to your pet, and your informed understanding of the prognosis.
It is not surprising, then, that ratings on the communication-related questions
are strongly related to pet owners overall ratings.
Your first visit to a vet will give you a sense of whether he or she really
cares about animals. Note whether the vet treats your pet gently and asks
you to provide relevant facts about your pet. Note also how your pet responds
to the vet. Its a good sign if the vet displays bulletin boards listing
lost pets and pets available for adoption, distributes humane society brochures,
volunteers in some kind of humane work, and discusses his or her own pets.
Also ask about policies on visiting hospitalized pets. Flexibility reflects
concern for you and your pet rather than the convenience of clinic staff.
You can judge much about the competence and thoroughness of a vet. Does
the vet perform a thorough exam and take a complete medical history to
determine previous medical problems, previous occurrences of the current
problem, what treatments have worked, and other matters? If your pet is
referred to a specialist, does your primary vet follow up with the specialist
and keep a record of the results? If tests are administered, does the vet
keep a record of the results and share them with you? Our Ratings Tables
show what other pet owners have concluded about the listed vets.
Look for a vet who will provide thorough advice and comprehensive materials
to help you avoid future office visits. For the health of your petand
your walletthe vet should offer advice on disease prevention, ways to
spot health problems on your own, and taking care of sick pets. Our Ratings Tables show how each practice rated on these points.
To make a reliable judgment about a veterinary practice, you need to see
more than the reception area. Ask to see treatment rooms as well as the
cages and runs where animals are temporarily held or boarded. Many clinics
allow customers to tour the entire facility during regular office hours.
If a facility doesnt allow this, ask why.
As in human health-care settings, cleanliness is essential. Be sure the
waiting room and treatment rooms contain no debris from previous patients;
check that treatment tables are disinfected after each examination; note
whether staff keep their clothes and hands clean; and, in general, make
sure the facility is as sterile as a hospital for humans should be.
Since your pet may have to stay for several hours or overnight, make sure
the facilities are bright, clean, and well-ventilated, and that pets are
separated from one another, so that they will not hurt each other or transmit
diseases. (We rate kennels, including many veterinary hospitals that offer
boarding services, here.)
Veterinary hospitals become accredited by the American Animal Hospital
Association (AAHA) by meeting certain minimum standards: maintaining adequate
medical records and providing complete diagnostic, pharmacy, anesthetic,
surgical, nursing, dental, and emergency service facilities. At the time
of our last full, published article, 19 of the 98 practices listed on our
Ratings Tables were AAHA-accredited. Interestingly, AAHA accreditation
seems to have little relationship to our other quality measures. For example,
on our customer survey question apparent competence/thoroughness, AAHA-accredited
practices, on average, score slightly lower than non-accredited practices.
Although you want the best possible care for your pet, you dont want it
to cost you your lifes savings. Unfortunately, this is an area where consumers
are often dissatisfied. The most common complaints we receive from vet
customers concern excessive and unexpectedly high bills.
The price comparison scores reported on our Ratings Tables should help
you compare fees. For vets that were evaluated in our last full, published
article, our mystery shoppers called them for their prices for six different
procedures, shown on Table 1. The scores show how each vets prices compare
to the average prices for all surveyed vets for the same mix of procedures.
The scores are adjusted so that the average price comparison score is $100.
Prices for a vet with a score of $90, then, were 10 percent lower than
the average. We find that most vets are quite consistent in their pricing,
so a vet with a low price comparison score is likely to have low prices
for other treatments.
Table 1Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Veterinary Practices for
|Spaying of a seven-month-old, 25-pound dog
|Lab analysis of a dog’s stool for worms
|Spaying of a six-month-old cat
|Euthanasia of a cat
|Neutering of a six-month-old, 30-pound dog
|Routine teeth cleaning of a four-year-old, 65-pound dog
|1 Some prices were rounded to the nearest whole dollar. Each practice was given additional, detailed information about what services had to be included in the prices (for example, anesthetic, pre-surgical exam, hospitalization, check-up exam, etc.).
Of course, charging low prices is not the only way a vet can save you money.
You also save if the vet shows you how to effectively prevent disease and
injuries, and how to care for your pet yourself. Our customer survey question
on giving prevention/self-help advice addresses these aspects of performance.
Equally important, you want a vet who informs you about lower cost care
alternatives and doesnt perform more procedures than necessary. Unfortunately,
our survey question on helping keep pets medical costs down received
the lowest survey scores. Many commented that vets not only failed to consider
and discuss lower cost treatment alternatives, but also pushed costly treatments
of little value to the pet and owner.
Because veterinary treatment can be expensive, subscribers often ask us
whether they should buy health insurance for their pets. Several companies
offer these policies, some of which appear very affordable. But before
springing for insurance for your spaniel, consider several points.
Carefully review the provisions and limitations of any policy you consider.
Many policies have significant limitations and/or impose high deductibles.
For example, a policy offered by Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) for a five-year-old
beagle costs $325 a year and includes the following restrictions
Benefits are limited to a per-procedure price schedule. For example, the
plan pays $355 for treatment of a fractured leg using a splint or castconsiderably
less than what most veterinarians actually charge. If the fee your vet
charges for a procedure or treatment is more than the plan pays, and you
cant negotiate a discount, youll have to pay the difference.
Benefits are limited to a maximum of $7,000 per year.
There is a $250-per-year deductible.
Routine care, such as vaccinations, annual physical exams, behavioral problems,
heartworm protection, flea control, spaying or neutering, and teeth cleaning
are not covered.
Congenital conditions are not covered.
VPI also offers a comprehensive plan with higher per-procedure allowances
(for example, $715 for a fractured leg). This plan also covers many congenital
conditions, and its annual cap on benefits is twice as high as the standard
plan. But, of course, the annual premium is higher: $428 per year.
Is the coverage you get worth the price? Our view is that you shouldnt
buy insurance unless you need to protect yourself from expenses that would
seriously disrupt your finances. Buying insurance to cover non-catastrophic
expenses means you pay to cover the profit, sales costs, and administrative
costs for an insurance company to process bills you could pay yourself.
And your premiums also cover a pool of other policyholders, some of whom
may be more wastefulmore prone to using excessive carethan you. Insurance
also considerably increases your own paperwork.
While we did not evaluate pet insurance policies to determine whether any
are good buys, Consumer Reports has done quite a bit of analysis of them.
An article published in the August 2011 issue of Consumer Reports evaluating
most of the pet insurance policies available found that, over the course
of a basically healthy dogs 10-year lifespan, all the plans would have
paid less in benefits than the cost of premiums. However, when Consumer
Reports added in treatment for several chronic conditions, some policies
did have positive payouts. For cats, Consumer Reports was able to find
positive payouts for insurance plans only when extreme and uncommon medical
treatments were prescribed.
When considering whether or not to buy pet health insurance, first determine
what you would do if your pet required expensive medical care. While many
pet owners will pay anything to save their pets, others wont. If you are
in the latter group, pet insurance is not for you. If you belong to the
pay-any-price group, consider pet insurance if huge vet bills would severely
strain your finances. But keep in mind that in terms of total out-of-pocket
costs over the life of your pet, most pet owners will do better without
Still considering pet insurance? Here are tips for choosing the right policy:
Be aware that no plan covers pre-existing conditions.
Carefully review the policy, including fee schedules. Red flags are large
copays; high annual premiums; and limitations or exclusions for conditions
that might require costly care (such as cancer) or chronic conditions that
require continual care. Stick with plans that offer a set schedule of fees
for specific conditions and treatments, or that pay a percentage of total
If the plan has a fee schedule, print it out and ask your vet to compare
his or her fees to the insurance plans allowances. If the allowances are
a lot lower than the vets fees, find a different plan.
You can usually get significantly lower premiums by choosing the highest
deductible you can comfortably afford.
Dont pay extra for some plans wellness care options. Consumer Reports
found them not worth the extra premiums.
Watch out for annual premium hikes. If your plans premium increases suddenly,
consider switching to a different planbut remember that a new plan will
not cover pre-existing conditions.
Another alternative is a prepaid health plan offered by some veterinary
practices. Under most plans, you pay the veterinarian a set dollar amount
for specific procedures and/or vaccinations (at a discount) throughout
Because many health problems are subtle and easily overlooked, you should
regularly evaluate your pets general health with a nose-to-tail inspection.
The following checklist, excerpted from a Humane Society of the United
States publication, includes warning signs of possible problems. Keep in
mind that this list applies generally to both dogs and cats, and that the
best measure of your pets health is whether or not the individual animals
appearance and behavior is normal.
Animal is bright, alert, and responsive
Animal is balanced and coordinated
Body temperature is normal
Animal is interested in/oriented to surroundings
Vomiting or diarrhea
Wounds or abscesses
Any swelling, lumps, or bumps
Animal is losing or gaining weight
Mammary glands are swollen or discharging fluid
Coughing, sneezing, or wheezing
Animal appears uncoordinated or disoriented
Animal tilts head
Animal repeatedly walks in circles
Abdomen is bloated
Abnormal body temperature
Hyperactive or lethargic activity
Excessive water drinking or urination
Respiration sounds clear and rate is normal
Breathing is irregular, rapid, shallow, or labored
Animal is sneezing, coughing, or wheezing excessively
Breathing is through open mouth
Clean, clear, and bright
Responsive to visual stimuli
Red, inflamed, or swollen
Filmy, cloudy, or discolored
Hypersensitive to light
Pupils unequal in size or overly dilated or constricted
Third (or middle) eyelid showing
Itchy (animal rubbing at eyes)
Painful (animal squinting)
Both outer ear and canal are clean and canal is pink
Responsive to noise
Showing discharge (waxy or other)
Crusty or scabbed tissue
Red, inflamed, or swollen
Hair around ear is matted
Itchy (animal scratching ear or shaking head)
Painful (animal cries or winces when ear is touched)
Tissue is scabbed, crusty, or cracked
Congested or blocked
Free of odor
Teeth are clean
Gums are pinkafter being pressed with finger, pink gum color returns within
one to two seconds
Animal has trouble eating or swallowing
Unusually pale, red, or purple gums
Foul odor not caused by food
Swollen or inflamed
Teeth are loose, pitted, broken, or tartar-covered
Animal is pawing at or rubbing the mouth
Skin is elastic (springs back immediately after being raised between the
Coat is bright and glossy
Skin is clean and free of oil
Skin is free of swelling, lumps, mats, or lesions
Coat is dull, oily, or dirty
Coat has areas of hair loss or thinning
Hair is matted
Skin is dry, flaky, scabby, or shows swelling, lumps, or lesions
Skin is red or irritated
Fleas, ticks, lice, or other parasites
Legs support weight evenly (no limping)
Pads are clean and smooth
Nails are healthy-looking
Animal favors one leg
Animal has limited motion, or is weak or uncoordinated
Joints feel tender
Pads are cracked or hard
Pads have matted hair between them
Nails are long, short, or ingrown
Swelling, lumps, or lesions
Area is clean and free of discharge
Stool is normal in appearance, color, and consistency
Increased or decreased urination or droppings
Stool is watery or bloody
Area around anus shows swelling or lumps
Swollen testicles (one larger than the other)
Animal is dragging rear end on the ground
Animal is excessively licking area