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.
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.
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.
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
- 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
- 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
- lower continuity of care (hard to see the same veterinarian)
- higher employee turnover
- shorter appointments
- 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.
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
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!
AAHA Standards of Accreditation