Theres a lot you can do to size up the quality of care offered by a veterinary
practice. For starters, you can judge the quality of customer service it
provides and whether it offers a convenient location and hours. But you
can judge much more. Even as a layperson, you can check on 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 to look out for.
Our Ratings Tables summarize the judgments of consumers on Chicago
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 60 percent.
There are also big price differences. For example, to spay a seven-month-old,
25-pound dog, our shoppers were quoted fees ranging from $105 to $529.
And to clean the teeth of a five-year-old, 65-pound dog, quoted fees ranged
from $95 to $474. 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 keep down veterinary
costs. Getting good advice on prevention and how to care for your pet on
your own also keeps down medical bills. And you certainly want to avoid
vets who push unnecessary services that provide increased income for them,
but little benefit for your pet.
Archaeological evidence indicates that since Ancient Egypt humans have
kept house pets, which begs the following questions: Did they buy furniture
to accommodate their pets destructive habits? Did they converse with them
in a special dialect? Did children convince parents to acquire a pet (or
three) by promising to take care of them? Did they buy their pets special
toys and treats?
Pet owners need no anthropological knowledge of Ancient Egypt to answer
these questions. We love our pets, and like other members of our families,
want them to receive good medical care. Our ratings of area veterinary
facilities should help you get your pets the care they deserve. We also
address issues to consider when choosing and dealing with a veterinarian,
along with tips for controlling costs.
As with choosing a physician, 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 the percent of each practices surveyed customers
who rated it superior (as opposed to adequate or inferior) on each
question. Please 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 sure 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, admission
to veterinary schools has been more difficult 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 tends to go hand-in-hand with
a good attitude. Most of the feedback we get on vets is favorable, illustrated
by the following comments from our readers
Our dog adores going to the vet. He is handled with gentle firmness and
loving care. [The veterinarian] takes the time to think about any problems
during our visits, and comes up with thoughtful advice and answers. He
also follows up.
Amazing staff from receptionist to techs to vets. The vet was more hands-on
than most vets Ive seen.
Our dog recently required urgent surgery, and the clinic staff stayed
late to make it happen. The doctor called us frequently over the weekend
with updates, and arranged to meet us Sunday afternoon (when the clinic
is normally closed) so our dog could come home earlier.
The three of them cared for my last dog from puppyhood until her death
14 years later, and are now caring for our two kittens. Theyre lovely
people and good doctors who care deeply about their patients (and those
of us who bring them in).
But challenging technical requirements notwithstanding, not every vet has
all the qualities you want
The staff are mostly awfuleither very rude or indifferent. One or two
smile. Occasionally. Every time we go, the costs are enormous.
Has a tendency to be arrogant, over-vaccinate, order unnecessary lab tests,
and in my case facilitated the demise of my pet by giving a steroid instead
of an antibiotic (even though he had treated the same condition previously
and successfully with an antibiotic). When I tried to suggest to him that
a steroid for my cats apparent infection would further suppress the cats
immune system, he told me, Ive been a vet for more than a few days,
and proceeded to give the steroid injection. The infection raged and I
went to another vet but it was too late to save my pet.
Pricing is ridiculous. Everything is just to be sure. They run a zillion
tests and nothing is ever wrong...
Seem much more profit-oriented than pet-oriented.
As in choosing a physician, you should consider several other factors before
deciding that a vet is right for your pet and you.
Except for a few specialists, vets in this area care for dogs and cats.
Many will treat small mammals (rodents, rabbits, etc.), but many others
wont provide care for birds and reptiles, and very few treat farm animals.
Check whether a vet is not only willing but experienced and interested
in caring for your type 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 more accessible in an emergency,
and be convenient for routine visits and 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 to the comfortand perhaps survivalof
Also check how a vet handles emergency care outside of office hours. At
the time of our last full, published article, only 18 of the practices
listed on our Ratings Tables reported they are open and staffed with
a veterinarian on the premises 24 hours per day. Some vets provide phone
numbers clients 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. As you
can see, this is one of the areas in which vets score lowest, but there
is substantial variation among practices, with a few 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 subscribers 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.
There is much you can judge 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 what happened? 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 written materials to
help you avoid future office visits. For the health of your petand your
walletyou need the vets advice on disease prevention, ways to spot pet
health problems on your own, and how to take care of your sick pet. 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. Find out if you can 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, find out why.
As in human health care settings, cleanliness is essential. Be sure the
waiting room and treatment rooms contain no debris from previous customers;
check that treatment tables are disinfected after each examination; note
whether staff keep their clothes and hands clean; and, in general, be 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 where it will be kept 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 rated kennels, including many veterinary
hospitals that offer boarding services, here)
Although you want the best possible care for your pet, you dont want it
to cost your lifes savings. Unfortunately, this is an area where consumers
are often dissatisfied. The most common complaints we receive from vet
customers are about excessive or unexpectedly high bills.
The price index scores shown on our Ratings Tables should help you
compare fees. Our researchers shopped the vets that were included in our
last full, published article, for their prices for six different procedures,
shown on Table 1. The scores show how each vets prices compare to the
average price for all surveyed vets. The scores are adjusted so that the
average price index 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 index score
is likely to have low prices for the treatment your pet needs.
|Spaying of a seven-month-old, 25-pound dog||$105||$306||$529|
|Lab analysis of a dog’s stool for worms||$10||$28||$55|
|Neutering of a six-month-old, 30-pound dog||$70||$272||$529|
|Teeth cleaning of a five-year-old, 65-pound dog||$95||$272||$474|
|Spaying of a six-month-old cat||$89||$256||$501|
|Euthanasia of a cat||$20||$89||$226|
|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, and check-up exam).|
Of course, charging low prices is not the only way a vet can save you money.
You also save if the vet effectively shows you how to 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 that sought
consumer opinions on these broad aspects of cost control received the lowest
survey scores. Many of the negative comments expressed concerns 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.
Veterinary hospitals can 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, 63 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 about the same as non-accredited practices.
And an AAHA-accredited practice might cost you more: The average price
index score for AAHA-accredited practices is $110, compared to an average
of $96 for non-accredited practices.
Because veterinary treatment can be expensive, you might consider buying
an insurance policy from one of several companies that offer pet health
insurance coverage. 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 $349 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 needed procedure or treatment costs more than the plan pays,
and you cant negotiate a discount with the vet, youll have to pay the
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: $452 per year.
You must decide, then, whether the coverage you get is 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. You also add considerably to your own
We did not evaluate pet insurance policies to determine whether any are
good buys, but Consumer Reports has done quite a bit of analysis of them.
An article published in the August 2011 issue of Consumer Reports that
evaluated most available pet insurance policies 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 needed.
When considering whether or not to buy health insurance for your pet, first
think carefully about what you would do if your pet needs expensive medical
care. While many pet owners are willing to pay any amount to save their
pets, others arent. 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 out-of-pocket costs, most pet owners will do better without
Still thinking about pet insurance? Here are some tips for choosing the
Be aware that no plan covers pre-existing conditions.
Carefully review the policy, including fee schedules. Red flags are large
co-pays; 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 set schedules 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, look for a different plan.
You can usually significantly lower premiums by choosing the highest deductible
you can comfortably afford. Since pet health insurance plans are useful
only in the event of extreme illness or injury, think of policies as catastrophic
Dont pay extra for wellness care options offered by some plans. Consumer
Reports found that these options are not worth their extra premiums.
Watch out for annual premium hikes. In some years, plans have raised premiums
by 50 percent or more. If your plans premium increases suddenly, consider
switching to a different planbut remember that a new plan will not cover
Another alternative is a prepaid health plan, offered by some veterinary
practices. Under these plans, you usually 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
Legs show 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