Picking an Animal Vet Clinic: Are Large Clinics Better?

Are the criteria for picking an animal vet clinic identical to choosing a veterinarian? Are those one and the same? And which is more important to quality veterinary care?

When looking for the highest quality veterinary care for your dog, it is important to consider both things—the animal hospital and the veterinarian. There are overlaps but you cannot substitute one for the other.

In general, the larger the veterinary clinic, the wider the gap between the individual veterinarian and the establishment can be.

Picking an Animal Vet Clinic: A Small Practice Does Not A Lesser Veterinarian Make

Selecting a veterinarian

While the veterinarian and the animal vet clinic cannot be separated, I consider the veterinarian the more important variable.

I already explained the important objective criteria of what makes a good veterinarian in another article. Here is a quick recap of things to consider:

  • credential and experience
  • continued learning
  • diagnostic skills
  • fear-free approach
  • pain-free philosophy
  • communication skills
  • listening skills
  • commitment to care
  • nutrition philosophy

That is a good start but if you want a real partner in your dog health care, you need to evaluate your prospective veterinarian beyond the obvious.

What Makes a Good Veterinarian: Veterinarians Are People First

Selecting an animal hospital

Unless you already have an individual veterinarian in mind, you need to start by reviewing vet clinics. Here is what I did when I was looking for a new veterinarian because we were moving,

  • looked up all animal vet clinics in the new location
  • reviewed their specialization—particularly in rural areas, not all clinics might specialize in companion animals
  • took a look at what services they offer
  • checked out the veterinarians on their staff

I shortlisted some of the hospitals—having a good feeling about specific veterinarians played a role in which clinics made it on the shortlist.

Then I called up the shortlisted animal vet clinics with a list of questions I had prepared.

Looking For A New Veterinarian: Our List Of Questions

AAHA accreditation

If you want a shortcut to shortlisting your prospective veterinary clinics, you can employ accreditation by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) as a guide. I myself do take that into consideration. However, while having the accreditation informs you about minimum standards the clinic should meet, lack of accreditation doesn’t automatically mean that your dog’s health care won’t be in great hands.

There are over 900 standards a vet hospital needs to me to receive AAHA accreditation. Some of the criteria include:

  • quality of care
  • facilities
  • customer service
  • medical records
  • anesthesia protocols
  • laboratory and pharmacy services
  • emergency and critical care
  • isolation protocols
  • diagnostic equipment

Source: Ruthland Veterinary Clinic

We are happy with the new veterinarian we chose in our new location. The clinic is good and has good standards. But their record-keeping, for example, really sucks. So I’m not exactly sure, for example, how that is measured. In fact, clinics that keep comprehensive, useful medical records are few and far in between. Most of the time it‘s a mess. Either they don’t enter enough information or so much that it is impossible to use.

Jasmine‘s vet runs a small clinic that does not have the accreditation. I think the most likely reason is that he doesn’t have the time to jump through all the paperwork hoops. He is, however, the best veterinarian I have ever worked with and his clinic, while not fancy, has everything it needs to provide quality veterinary care.

Large or small?

How large should the practice be to offer full-service health care for your dog? That depends on what you consider full service. Jasmine‘s vet is a one-vet operation. He has a small clinic. They don‘t have a long line-up of fancy equipment but they have everything they need.

Going by the above list of AAHA certification criteria, the only thing they don‘t provide is emergency and critical care. Hard to do if you‘re just one person.

There are, however, clinics that are equipped for that within a reasonable distance.

His x-ray machine might be older, but you should see his isolation area—extremely well-thought-out and effective. He offers state-of-the-art care including preventive care, dental care, and he is an amazing diagnostician and surgeon.

Common advantages and disadvantages of large versus small general practice veterinary clinics

Large practices

  • better business hours
  • more staff
  • more equipment
  • in-house lab testing
  • a potentially broader range of services
  • 24-hour emergency care
  • adjunct services (boarding, grooming)
  • more overhead
  • impersonal
  • lower continuity of care (hard to see the same veterinarian)
  • higher employee turnover
  • shorter appointments

Small practices

  • personalized care
  • established relationships
  • continuity of care
  • less overhead
  • longer appointments
  • limited business hours
  • less equipment
  • lack of 24-hour emergency or overnight care

Naturally, there are individual differences between practices. Size of the clinic should by no means be the only thing to consider.

Those are just some points to be aware of when considering clinic size in your selection criteria. A larger clinic is more likely to offer emergency and critical care. A smaller clinic might provide more affordable service and personal approach. Make no mistake, personal, intimate approach to your dog’s health care is likely to beat clinical, get-it-over-and-move on type of care. A 10-minute veterinary appointment is not likely to accomplish a whole lot. A veterinarian who has never seen your dog before isn‘t likely to pick up on minute changes in your dog. Such little things, however, can mean the difference between a diagnosis and a misdiagnosis.

I heavily lean toward smaller, private practices over large, sterile, or franchised operations.

Fancy or plain?

Functional doesn‘t mean fancy-looking. Remember that the overhead for a marble lobby does reflect in your bill. I understand the need to project reliability, expertise, and quality of care. I might even concede that marble can be easier to keep clean. But I am not rich and I would rather not pay for things that have no bearing on my dog‘s health care.

I would rather spend my money on fancy treatments such as regenerative therapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy than marble lobbies.

An animal clinic does not have to look fancy to provide complete medical and surgical care. The most important stuff is in the back of the clinic.

Note: being able to tour the back of the clinic is a reasonable request when selecting a veterinary hospital.

Other considerations

When making your selection of an animal vet clinic, you should also consider some of these things:

  • species and breed expertise
  • written cost estimates
  • open-mindedness about vaccinations
  • email communication
  • access to your dog‘s medical records and lab results

In conclusion

A little story

One time when Jasmine was in for her physical therapy and chiropractic treatment, the client ahead of us was a big-time veterinarian He worked in one of the big-time clinic chains, in a big city. He was there with his dog for post-operative rehabilitation.

They met Jasmine and got to hear her story; her chiropractor loved telling her story.

When the big-shot vet heard of Jasmine’s stem cell treatment, he was curious who performed it. He was expecting the name of a fellow big shot.

As she told him, he raised his eyebrows, “He is still around?” he asked. My hackles went straight up. And so did the chiropractor’s. She was fired red hot. Nobody, who really knows the guy will stand for the slightest hint of disrespect toward him. We will defend him fiercely.

Big veterinarian in a small clinic

Yes, he runs a small clinic in a small town. In fact, he runs a one-man-clinic and he did so for over twenty years. And yes, he is still around.

Over the years, we worked with a number of veterinarians and hospitals, including the biggest of them all—the teaching hospital. Our small-town vet stands out among them all. We know him very well–18 dog-care years worth. And anybody can touch him only over our dead bodies.

But back to what actually started all this—Jasmine’s stem cell treatment. This small town vet did the treatment for Jasmine when regenerative therapies were at their infancy. Most likely, he was the first veterinarian to do this in Ontario.

Small clinic, great service

These are just some of the things that set this small-clinic veterinarian apart. He is

  • an awesome diagnostician but he won’t hesitate to seek a second opinion
  • an excellent surgeon. He did both Jasmine’s knees. I also know a story where he performed toe-saving microsurgery for a dog who’s got his foot stepped on by a horse
  • he uses a state-of-the-art web-based medical records system
  • designed his own custom-made lift tables before anybody else even dreamt of them
  • a man of a sharp mind and soft-touch
  • he puts his patients above all else

And he’s even survived me for three years!

There are advantages to using a large clinic. And I know there are other great vets out there. But a small practice does not a lesser veterinarian make!

Related articles:
What Makes a Good Veterinarian: Veterinarians Are People First
Looking For A New Veterinarian: Our List Of Questions

Further reading:
AAHA Standards of Accreditation

Categories: Dog health advocacyWorking with Veterinarians

Tags: :

Jana Rade

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience.

  1. I researched veterinary clinics when I knew Truffle and Brulee were coming to live with me. I went with a larger clinic that was closer to me. They are AAHA accredited, Certified Fear Free Staff, and a Cat Friendly practice. On the whole, I’ve been very happy with the clinic.

  2. Paroma Chakravarty

    We are very lucky to be living in San Francisco with several vet clinics to choose from. We always go to the one by SF SPCA. Very trustworthy and topnotch care for Babu!

  3. Marjorie Dawson

    Hmmmm as AAHA clinics are not no-declaw I would hesitate to use their name as a criteria to judge a cat clinic by.

    I would want a cats only section at a vets if I could (our emergency vet has one and if I could drive I would go there more). Unfortunately the one i can get to doesn’t have one. I am really tired of my local vets hosting huge great dogs that have to wait outside because they are so unfriendly (then get dragged off by their owners and tied to the back of a large utility vehicle Grrr)

  4. Very comprehensive list of considerations when looking for a vet. I like a smaller practice myself. I find they are more likely to work with you. And in a big clinic you might not always see the same vet. I had a student doctor once see me Treeno when he was brand new to me and in the midst of some issues. He hadn’t even read the file 😡

    • Yes, large clinics often resemble a drive-thru more than a place for medical care. Laboratory tests and diagnostics can always be done externally and convenience cannot replace a veterinarian invested in your dog/s or cat’s well-being.

  5. dachshundstation

    Very Nice post. I have been through many Vets over the years as we have moved around the East Coast. I generally look for a more down to earth vet that I feel is easy to talk to. We currently have our pups going to a small vet that is very quaint and personalized. That is fine for now, but I always have in the back of my mind… how many patients my vet has and she is the only one running the practice.. what happens during an emergency? Will she be able see my pup, do surgery, etc.. So, I see both sides Bigger clinics have more vets available when you need them.. but may not be as personalized or friendly as a small family owned clinic. (From Dachshund Station)

  6. Great post. I can totally relate to what you said about the pros and cons. Before my cat Dusty passed away I had the experience of both a large vet clinic vs. a smaller clinic. Honestly it really boils down to the actual vet for me. Just because the office is new and fancy doesn’t mean the quality service and compassion is there. That’s another trait that many vets are missing COMPASSION and EMPATHY. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered vets that (in my opinion) shouldn’t even work with people. I totally agree that whether small or large, quality care and concern for your pet is numero uno!

    • Yes, it does boil down to an individual vet. However, in a large clinic you might not always be able to continue to see the one you want. As well as I have seen them being pressured to keep visits short (to a point of useless) and other pressures the clinic might place on them that will interfere with how good of a job they can do.

  7. Picking a vet clinic is very important and I am blessed to have a fantastic one and no complaints. One of the things I love about mine is that Layla’s medical records are online which makes life easy if I am travelling plus if I have questions they have an askthevet email address so I do not have to stress her out but ask them and then decide whether to take her or not.

    • I LOVE online veterinary medical records. Jasmine’s vet has them and there is nothing better. Now, one still has to input the information in them. There are clinic which do put some effort in online access to their patient medical records but there is nothing in there.

Share your thoughts