How to Find the Best Vet for Your Pet
Last updated in October 2014
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 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 Consumers' 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 shows, 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.
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 to the comfort—and perhaps survival—of your pet.
Also check how a vet handles emergency care outside of office hours. Few 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 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 40 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.”
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.
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.
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. Click here for our ratings of kennels, including many veterinary hospitals that offer boarding services.
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. 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 $106, compared to an average of $98 for non-accredited practices.
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. Our mystery shoppers called vets for their prices for six different procedures, shown on the table below. 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.
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.
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.
|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||$118||$380||$735|
|Lab analysis of a dog’s stool for worms||$16||$45||$94|
|Spaying of a six-month-old cat||$106||$316||$681|
|Euthanasia of a cat||$48||$161||$349|
|Neutering of a six-month-old, 30-pound dog||$144||$353||$785|
|Routine teeth cleaning of a four-year-old, 65-pound dog||$170||$465||$860|
|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.).|