Large Veterinary Hospital Chains: Our Experience

How do you feel about large veterinary hospital chains? Do you like them or hate them?

I have always been partial to smaller veterinary clinics. My instinct tells me that corporatization and good care don’t mix—what do big corporations care about more, their profits or the end-user?

One of my veterinary friends has left such a chain specifically for those reasons. My experience with a university hospital resulted in mixed feelings.

After months of not getting anywhere dealing with Cookie’s front leg lameness, it was time to consult with a specialist.

Further information: Example Report for Dog PT: Cookie’s New Lameness

Unfortunately, getting a timely appointment during COVID-19 is anything but easy. Our veterinarian reached out to several places to see whether they’d accept a referral. As it turned out, of all the potential choices, only one hospital takes non-emergency cases and doesn’t have months’ worth of back-log. It does, however, belong under one of the corporate chains.

Large Veterinary Hospital Chains: Our Experience

Making the decision

When I saw that the hospital belongs to one of the large veterinary groups, I was skeptical. It was, however, our only option. Should I take it or leave it? I looked up the specialty veterinarian we would be seeing. He looked competent and caring. And I wanted to get to the bottom of Cookie’s problem once and for all. Great veterinarians can be found at a clinic of any size—I decided to go ahead with the referral appointment.

Large hospital versus small clinics

There are some obvious advantages of large hospitals such as all sorts of fancy equipment, veterinary specialists, and so on. There are, however, big hospitals that don’t belong under any corporate chains—the one we visited does.

As long as a great veterinarian runs them, small clinics remain my preference unless my dog’s needs are beyond their capabilities. That’s what we ran into with Cookie—we needed a specialist.

Communication

Once our local veterinarian initiated the referral process, the hospital communicated well and promptly. After accepting the referral, they contacted me directly to set the appointment. They were forthcoming in accommodating our needs. We didn’t know whether Cookie would need arthroscopy or not, and they don’t do a consultation and surgery on the same day. We booked the consultation, and, because of the distance we had to travel, booked the surgery for the next morning should it come to that. Both parties understood that that may or may not happen.

After the initial contacts, however, reaching anybody in the hospital was impossible. I received instant messages confirming the appointment after it was made and then, closer to the date. The second message also had a feature where I would confirm the appointment.

From our place, it is a seven-hour drive to get there. I wanted to confirm the appointment once again before we’d embark on the journey. Of course, these days, you cannot call any place without encountering the automated system—this one has no option for a live operator. It has a directory, but that is quite dysfunctional. And even after I made it to the correct department, all I could get was voicemail. Nobody called back despite multiple messages. When I reached out via email, eventually, I received a response from one of them.

Things were no different on the day of the appointment or after, even though by then, I finally had extensions for the people I was trying to reach. I could have whispered my concerns into a well with the same result.

The consultation

The impression you get when you enter the hospital is a corporate, mass-production air. Everybody was nice and friendly but rushing about their bit of the process.

However, the specialist didn’t put an unreasonable limit on the length of the consultation—which often happens in many hospitals—the exam and discussion took roughly an hour. I was pleased with that because you cannot arrive at a good diagnosis during a 10-minute appointment.

The veterinarian was thorough, competent, dedicated to a good outcome for Cookie, and frank. He did not make any recommendations for expensive procedures that would be of no benefit for Cookie. After we discussed our observations and his findings, we decided to forego arthroscopy and proceed with cell therapy instead. Cookie was to come in to get it done early the next morning.

Further information: Front Leg Lameness in a Rottweiler: Cookie’s Sore Front Legs

My impression was that the specialist was experienced, knowledgeable, and up-to-date with the latest research. Sometimes, though, when one knows a lot, they come to believe they know all—there is no such thing as knowing all.

The subject of sedation

Depending on the outcome of the consultation, we expected that Cookie would undergo either an arthroscopic procedure or no surgery at all. Arthroscopy meant general anesthesia, and Cookie never had a problem with that before. The cell therapy, however, is done under sedation, and Cookie responded to the standard protocol poorly, to say the least.

As soon as we decided on cell therapy, I brought up the issue Cookie had and how a different veterinarian changed the protocol to accommodate her. The adjusted protocol worked perfectly and caused no problems for Cookie.

Further information: Does Your Vet Listen to You? Cookie’s Post-Sedation Complications

The specialist promised he would contact either Cookie’s local vet or the vet who sedated her successfully to find out what protocol would be best. He had contact for both of them. I even call them both, giving them heads-up that he’ll be seeking that information to prevent any hold-up.

At the same time, I fetched the protocol I wanted used and emailed it.

The day of the treatment

Hubby dropped Cookie off for her procedure early in the morning, hoping to be on their way back home as soon as possible. He, too, gave them the sedation protocol to use.

Cookie was released no sooner than 2 PM, groggy and virtually unable to walk. The procedure went well, and we were told that Cookie might be rather out of it for most of the ride home.

The fallout

Seven hours later, back home, we could barely get Cookie out of the truck and into the house. She needed substantial support, ataxic, and almost unable to walk. Cookie remained that way for 36 hours post-release from the hospital. She couldn’t even change position on her bed without help. When she tried to move, we both had to help her up and around, and her body was spilling from our hands like liquid.

At 3 AM, I left a message with the specialist, explaining that Cookie is in bad shape and asking what sedation protocol they used. Later I left more messages and emailed but didn’t get any response from anybody.

Did they use the adjusted protocol, and Cookie reacted this poorly anyway? Or did they ignore our concerns and went with the standard protocol?

It wasn’t until I got a copy of their records from our local vet when I learned that they indeed used the standard protocol, disregarding our wishes. We further learned from the notes; it wasn’t a mix-up but a conscious decision. They ignored us completely and did not contact anybody to discuss the matter either.

In closing

We did get a diagnosis we were seeking, and Cookie got her treatment. However, many things went wrong that didn’t need to. We needed a specialist to assess Cookie’s lameness, and I still believe it was the right decision. When it comes to that part, the veterinarian knows what he’s doing.

There were no other options available to us within a reasonable time-frame. However, I am furious about other things that took place, the most terrible of which was the sedation decision. Would this happen in a smaller clinic?

The upside is that Cookie is responding to the cell therapy well.

Needless to say, though, that my feeling about large veterinary hospital chains has not improved.

Related articles:
What Makes a Good Veterinarian: Veterinarians Are People First

Further reading:
The corporatization of veterinary medicine
Who is Buying Veterinary Hospitals

Categories: Dog health advocacyVeterinary mistakesWorking 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.

14 Comments
  1. Wow, what a horrible experience. I’m glad that I live in a small town where large veterinary chains just aren’t a thing. The options that we have around here are all smaller clinics. There is one that we have been to that is a little larger in that they also offer rehabilitation services and the vet is well-known, travelling around the country to do talks. However, the clinic itself was still a small town clinic with that special small town feel.

    • We live in a small town too; had to travel seven hours to see the specialist. The only one still working during COVID. Rest are just addressing emergencies.

  2. Wow! I’m glad you did receive a diagnosis and that Cookies’ treatment went well. However, it’s terrible what you had to go through for communication and how the vet ignored your wishes. I’m lucky we have an emergency hospital and specialty vets within 10 miles from my home and they aren’t part of a large chain.

    • I’m glad you have a good specialty hospital near by. The distance is kind of our fault–moving to middle of nowhere. The rest, though, is on them.

  3. I’m so frustrated that the specialist decided to use the standard protocol despite your requests and the information given to him. At the very minimum he should have called you and told you that he would only do the procedure using the standard protocol, giving you the option to cancel the therapy if you wanted. I’m glad that Cookie recovered and the treatment is helping!

    • Yes, I spent good 15 minutes explaining whey they shouldn’t use it. Did my best to make a strong point. He said they were going to call either of the local vets to discuss. They didn’t. If they were going to do the opposite of what we asked, should have at least call and didn’t do that either.

  4. CRAP! The whole business sounds a total nightmare. They ignored your recommended protocols because they didn’t care or felt they knew better?? Who knew but THEY are at fault. (Note that I am refraining from the swear words I am Oh So Tempted to use!!!)

    What a corporate nightmare for you and I am really sorry they didn’t do any better for your sweet girl. I’m glad that she has a diagnosis and that you can make he feel better. No dog should suffer because of stupid people GRRRRR

  5. Oh I’m so sorry to hear about Cookie’s experience at the vet.I can understand your feelings completely. I have been in the position of getting care with a smaller vet and a vet associated with a larger corporation and found similar experience. The vets affiliated with larger corporations, in my experience, are not always more knowledgeable and seem to behave more cold to us and my fur babies. There is less care and compassion. On the contrary, with the smaller vets, I received get personalized serivce, care, compassion AND cheaper costs. Larger doesn’t always mean better. I hope Cookie continues to improve.

    • I absolutely prefer small local clinics. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get this conclusively diagnosed; bouncing from one theory to another and none of the measures we took really worked. A consultation with an orthopedic specialist was the next logical step. But it should have gone flawlessly given the emphatic warning I gave about the standard protocol.

  6. I am glad that Cookies treatment went well but understand you fully. I was so upset when my clinic joined up with the SPCA as I feel since then it has lost its feeling of family as such although I love my vet and will only let her touch Layla unless and emergency. Small clinics are family and it is so important for us as fur parents to feel comfortable with them.

  7. I’m glad you got your diagnosis and that Cookie’s treatment went well! I would have been SO upset about them not listening to your wishes when it came to the sedation protocol. They should have at least called and spoken with your vet. I’ve been lucky that, so far, with my current dogs I haven’t had to resort to using a chain hospital. I much prefer small, private practices.

    • Yes. They ad contact of Cookie’s current vet as well as the vet who did the prior PRP for her knees. He did listen, adjusted the protocol and everything went smoothly. As well as I gave them the successful protocol in several different ways.

Share your thoughts