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Veterinarians (From CHECKBOOK, Fall 2014/Winter 2015)
 
Go to Ratings of 142 Twin Cities Area Veterinarians

Checklist 

There’s a lot you can do to size up the quality of care offered by a veterinary practice—for 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 Twin Cities 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 $168 to $712. And to clean the teeth of a four-year-old, 65-pound dog, quoted fees ranged from $69 to $700. 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 critter’s care. 

Using a facility that charges low fees is just one way to control veterinary costs. Getting—and following—sound 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 pet. 

He’s your best buddy, fellow couch potato, and always good for a laugh after a tough day at work. She’s your snuggle buddy and burglar/stranger/mailman alert system. They may be furry, but they’re 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. 

Finding the Best Vet for Your Pet 

As with choosing a physician for humans, while you can’t assess all aspects of a veterinarian’s technical skills and expertise, you can judge many factors central to good medical care for your pet. 

Ratings from Clients 

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 pet’s medical costs down 
  • Spending enough time with you 
  • Apparent competence/thoroughness 
  • 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 weren’t “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. 

Animals Treated 

Almost all vets care for dogs and cats. Many will treat small mammals (rodents, rabbits, etc.), but many others won’t 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. 

Convenient Location and Hours 

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 three 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 facility—or simply have their answering services recommend a 24-hour facility. Ask any prospective vet exactly what kind of response you can expect in an emergency. 

Limiting Wait Times 

For your convenience and your pet’s comfort, you want a vet that keeps office waiting time short (unless there’s 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 50 percent. 

Offering Advice by Phone 

To save time and money—and enable you to respond quickly to a pet’s needs—it’s 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.” 

Communication 

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 questions—along 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 it’s necessary to consult a specialist. A vet should also talk openly about costs—so 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. 

Showing Concern and Friendliness 

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. It’s 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. 

Competence and Thoroughness 

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. 

Advice on Prevention and Home Care 

Look for a vet who will provide thorough advice and comprehensive materials to help you avoid future office visits. For the health of your pet—and your wallet—the 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. 

Openness 

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 doesn’t allow this, ask why. 

Cleanliness 

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. 

Hospital Accommodations 

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.) 

Accreditation 

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, 36 of the 142 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 comparison score (described below) for AAHA-accredited practices is $116, compared to an average of $94 for non-accredited practices. 

Limiting Costs 

Although you want the best possible care for your pet, you don’t want it to cost you your life’s 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 vet’s 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 1—Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Veterinary Practices for Illustrative Procedures
Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Veterinary Practices for Illustrative Procedures1
Procedure Low price Average price High price
Spaying of a seven-month-old, 25-pound dog $168 $336 $712
Lab analysis of a dog’s stool for worms $12 $31 $54
Spaying of a six-month-old cat $130 $289 $576
Euthanasia of a cat $68 $140 $322
Neutering of a six-month-old, 30-pound dog $140 $315 $552
Routine teeth cleaning of a four-year-old, 65-pound dog $69 $346 $700
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 doesn’t perform more procedures than necessary. Unfortunately, our survey question on “helping keep pet’s 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. 

Thinking About Buying Pet Health Insurance? 

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 $293 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 cast—considerably 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 can’t negotiate a discount, you’ll 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: $385 per year. 

Is the coverage you get worth the price? Our view is that you shouldn’t 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 wasteful—more prone to using excessive care—than 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 dog’s 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 won’t. 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 insurance. 

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 costs. 
  • If the plan has a fee schedule, print it out and ask your vet to compare his or her fees to the insurance plan’s allowances. If the allowances are a lot lower than the vet’s fees, find a different plan. 
  • You can usually get significantly lower premiums by choosing the highest deductible you can comfortably afford. 
  • Don’t 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 plan’s premium increases suddenly, consider switching to a different plan—but 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 the year. 

Extra Advice:
Signs that Your Pet Might Need a Vet 

Because many health problems are subtle and easily overlooked, you should regularly evaluate your pet’s 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 pet’s health is whether or not the individual animal’s appearance and behavior is normal. 

General 

Good signs 

  • Animal is bright, alert, and responsive 
  • Animal is balanced and coordinated 
  • Body temperature is normal 
  • Animal is interested in/oriented to surroundings 

Warning signs 

  • 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 

Breathing/Respiration 

Good signs 

  • Respiration sounds clear and rate is normal 

Warning signs 

  • Breathing is irregular, rapid, shallow, or labored 
  • Animal is sneezing, coughing, or wheezing excessively 
  • Breathing is through open mouth 

Eyes 

Good signs 

  • Clean, clear, and bright 
  • Responsive to visual stimuli 

Warning signs 

  • Watery 
  • Red, inflamed, or swollen 
  • Filmy, cloudy, or discolored 
  • Dry 
  • 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) 

Ears 

Good signs 

  • Both outer ear and canal are clean and canal is pink 
  • Responsive to noise 

Warning signs 

  • 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) 
  • Unusual smells 
  • Painful (animal cries or winces when ear is touched) 

Nose 

Good signs 

  • Clean 
  • Free of discharge 

Warning signs 

  • Tissue is scabbed, crusty, or cracked 
  • Showing discharge 
  • Congested or blocked 

Mouth 

Good signs 

  • Free of odor 
  • Teeth are clean 
  • Gums are pink—after being pressed with finger, pink gum color returns within one to two seconds 

Warning signs 

  • Animal has trouble eating or swallowing 
  • Unusually pale, red, or purple gums 
  • Dry 
  • Excessive salivating 
  • Foul odor not caused by food 
  • Showing discharge 
  • Swollen or inflamed 
  • Teeth are loose, pitted, broken, or tartar-covered 
  • Animal is pawing at or rubbing the mouth 

Skin/Hair 

Good signs 

  • Skin is elastic (springs back immediately after being raised between the shoulder blades) 
  • Coat is bright and glossy 
  • Skin is clean and free of oil 
  • Skin is free of swelling, lumps, mats, or lesions 

Warning signs 

  • 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/Paws 

Good signs 

  • Legs support weight evenly (no limping) 
  • Pads are clean and smooth 
  • Nails are healthy-looking 

Warning signs 

  • 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 

Anal/Genital 

Good signs 

  • Area is clean and free of discharge 
  • Stool is normal in appearance, color, and consistency 

Warning signs 

  • 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) 
  • Foul odor 
  • Animal is dragging rear end on the ground 
  • Animal is excessively licking area 


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