How to Find a Vet: 10 Key Questions You Should Ask

by Kate Boatright, VMD
Pawlicy Advisor
Pet Care Blog
How to Find a Vet: 10 Key Questions You Should Ask
Wondering how to choose the best vet for your dog or cat? These questions will help you find a local vet in your area who's the right fit for your specific needs.

Establishing a relationship with a local veterinarian is an essential part of pet ownership. There are many ways to find a veterinarian. You can search online for veterinarians near me, ask friends and family for recommendations, or request a referral from your current vet if you’re moving to a new city.

But no matter how you go about finding local vet offices, you’ll want to ask some essential questions.

Here’s how to choose the right vet for your dog or cat:

1. Identify what type of vet you need 2. Decide how far you’re willing to travel 3. Check if the office hours fit your schedule 4. Confirm which species they treat 5. Request information on provided medical services 6. Ask what non-medical services they offer 7. See which methods of communication are available 8. Verify specialty certifications or accreditations 9. Read through online patient reviews 10. Ask about their payment policies

1. What type of vet do I need?

There are many different locations that provide veterinary services. Each type of clinic will offer different levels of service. For example, some clinics only offer vaccinations for dogs or cats, and while this can be a quick way to keep your pet up to date on their vaccines, these clinics typically are not available for follow-up or sick care should your pet need it.

You should establish a relationship with a primary care veterinarian before your pet becomes sick. These general practitioners are like your family doctor and may be the only vet your pet needs during his or her life. In fact, general practice veterinarians offer a broader range of services than a primary care physician in human medicine. General practice clinics offer preventative care, treat sicknesses in dogs and cats, perform general surgery, clean teeth, and more. While many general practitioners (GPs) have their own offices, some operate out of a mobile unit or provide house call services.

Find A Vet Near Me

There are some general practice clinics that can provide service for a pet emergency, but most clinics recommend that you seek care at a local animal hospital when they are closed. Urgent care and emergency hospitals are staffed by veterinarians and veterinary nurses who are trained to triage (assess and prioritize), stabilize, diagnose, and treat sick pets and emergencies including trauma, poisonings, acute illness, and chronic disease conditions. Similar to human emergency rooms, the most critical pets will be treated first, so you may have a long wait if your pet is stable.

Many emergency clinics are associated with specialty hospitals, which can provide more advanced diagnostics and treatments for your pet. You might find a great vet who refers you to a specialty hospital if they feel your dog or cat requires a procedure or has a condition that is beyond their normal training. Veterinary specialists pursue several years of additional training after veterinary school in their chosen specialty.

Available specialties are similar to the range of specialists you might see with human health insurance, such as:

  • Cardiologists
  • Dermatologists
  • Oncologists
  • Surgeons
  • Critical Care specialists,
  • Internal Medicine specialists

Veterinary nurses can also pursue specialty training in many areas. You might be able to find veterinary service at a discounted rate at one of these schools, such as a cheap dog dental cleaning performed by a student while under the supervision of a trained, certified professional.

2. How far are you willing to drive?

For some pet owners, driving for 30 minutes or more to reach your veterinarian may be worth it if you have a great relationship. For others, the closer the clinic, the better it is — especially if you are busy, or find yourself needing to routinely pick up medications or prescription diets.

Another reason you may not want to drive a long distance is if your pet gets car sick or highly anxious in the car. Shorter trips may make the trip to and from the veterinary clinic less stressful for both you and your pet. Some clinics also offer mobile services and can make house calls, which can eliminate the stress of travel for you and your pet.

sick puppy inside car on towel

3. Are the clinic hours convenient for your schedule?

Whether you find a local vet around the corner or in the next town over, remember to check their hours of operation. Veterinary clinics’ open hours will vary depending on their location and staffing, so you should make sure that the clinic you choose has appointments available at a time that is generally convenient for your schedule, whether that might be mornings, evenings, or weekends.

Additionally, while most general practices operate on an appointment schedule, some clinics do allow walk-ins. If you have an unpredictable schedule, a clinic like this may be a good fit for you.

4. What species does the clinic treat?

Veterinary practices also vary in the species of animals they treat. While many small animal clinics will treat dogs and cats, some will also treat exotic companion animals (i.e., small mammals, birds, and reptiles) or large animals. If you have pets other than a dog or cat, you may want to look for a clinic that can care for all of your animals. Alternatively, some clinics are feline-only, which can help to reduce the stress of veterinary visits for your cat(s).

5. What medical services does the clinic offer?

Most general practice clinics will offer preventative care, sick care, general surgery, and dentistry. There can be a large range in the level of service offered in each of these categories that will be determined by the available staff, their level of training, and what equipment is available. For instance, some clinics are able to run certain blood tests in-house and provide same day results while others will send all samples to an outside laboratory.

Some general practitioners have special interests or will pursue training in orthopedic surgery, ultrasound, acupuncture, rehabilitation medicine, and more. Additionally, many veterinarians pursue training in holistic medicine and are able to provide complementary approaches to traditional western medicine, such as acupuncture for pets. Knowing what services your veterinary clinic can provide and their style of medicine is important to determining if the clinic will be a good fit for you and your pet.

Finally, some clinics will handle their own emergency cases, but most will refer emergencies (especially after-hours) to local emergency or specialty clinics.

6. What additional non-medical services does the clinic offer?

Some veterinary clinics also offer non-medical services, such as grooming, boarding, doggie day care, and/or training classes. Having these services available at your primary vet, where the staff already knows you and your pet, can be a big advantage.

7. What communication options are available?

Historically, most clinics have used the phone as the primary means of communicating with clients. Newer technology has opened opportunities for text messaging, e-mail, and sometimes video communication for veterinary telemedicine. Some clinics also have the option to schedule appointments online. For those who prefer digital communication, these can be attractive options.

If English is your second language, it’s also important to find a vet in your area that can clearly communicate with you. Some health issues in dogs and cats can be complex, so being able to understand and ask key questions is essential. They might not speak your first language, but at least find a vet who is willing to patiently accomodate you.

8. Does the clinic have any specialty certifications or accreditation?

You may see clinics advertise accreditation from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). This is the only accrediting body in the United States. Clinics must meet and maintain a rigorous series of set standards for facilities, staff training, and medical protocols to be accredited.

cats walking in vet clinic

Practices, individual veterinarians, and staff members can also participate in programs to certify them as Fear Free or Cat Friendly. The Fear Free program focuses on low stress handling and techniques to minimize anxiety in the clinic for both dogs and cats. The Cat Friendly Practice program is through the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and focuses on minimizing the stress of visits and maximizing the level of care offered to cats. Clinics that see both cats and dogs can meet requirements to be a Cat Friendly practice.

There are many exceptional clinics that do not hold accreditation or certifications, but understanding what these terms mean can help you decide how important they are to you as you search for a veterinarian.

9. How do clients review the clinic online?

While you should always take online vet reviews with a grain of salt, reading through past experiences may help narrow down your decision on which vet to choose. Some testimonials could reveal signs of a bad vet office, such as multiple patients saying they felt kept out of the loop, disrespected, or dismissed.

Don't take one bad vet review as the reliable truth, but look for consistencies from clients who have had positive or negative experiences to glean insight on what you might expect by choosing that local vet.

10. What are the clinic’s payment policies?

Unlike human health insurance, veterinary medicine generally operates on a cash-basis model, where payment is due at the time of service. Very few clinics offer in-house payment plans, but many utilize third-party payment options that provide financing to cover the cost of vet visits/.

Investing in a pet insurance policy is a proactive way to reduce the cost of veterinary expenses and provide a financial safety net for your pet’s care. While some providers can pay your vet directly, most plans work on a reimbursement system with rates of up to 100% for money spent out-of-pocket on covered vet costs (after your deductible is met).

This means you don’t have to worry about trying to find a vet office that accepts your insurance, making it easier for your pet to get the care he or she deserves at a clinic where you are comfortable. Pet insurance plans are also flexible, so you can find the solution that satisfies your budget and coverage requirements.

Ultimately, you want to have a great relationship with the entire staff of your veterinary clinic. In order to have a great relationship with your veterinary clinic, you will want to make sure that they are able to offer the services you need with a location and hours that are convenient for you and your pet.

Kate Boatright, VMD

About the author

Kate Boatright, VMD

Associate Veterinarian, Freelance Speaker and Author - Penn-Ohio Veterinary Services and KMB Veterinary Media LLC

Dr. Kate Boatright, VMD, works as a small animal general practitioner, freelance speaker, and author in western Pennsylvania. Since graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with her veterinary degree in 2013, she has worked throughout Pennsylvania as both a general practice and emergency veterinarian. Both in the clinic and outside of it, Dr. Boatright enjoys building relationships with her clients and educating pet owners on how they can keep their pets as healthy as possible. She loves being a veterinarian and educating students and colleagues on wellness, communication, and the unique challenges facing recent graduates. Outside of the clinic, she is active in many veterinary organizations, enjoys running, watching movies, and playing games with her husband, son, and cats.

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