How do you know if your vet is any good?

This is probably the riskiest post I’ve written in a while.

I’m sorry, there are no cute kittens today. We bravely tackle a critical topic that should matter to every serious pet lover.
OK, but let’s first look at cute kittens anyway…
A pile of kittens
My hope today is to help you understand an important but mysterious concept: standard of care.
Standard of care is a legal expression, not a medical one.
There are different ways to define standard of care, and they’re rather nebulous and subjective.
. It is the degree of care, or the level of treatment, a reasonably competent and skilled vet should provide, taking into account the current medical knowledge.
. It is the customary practices an “average,” prudent vet would typically offer in similar circumstances.
. It’s the right thing to do to take care of a patient a client trusted us to treat – in an ethical manner.
Problem is, nobody knows what standards of care are. There is no book, no article, no definition of what vets should do in a particular situation.
Standards of care are constantly evolving as medicine improves, new discoveries are made and new drugs are invented. They depend on the treating veterinarian, the practice, the town, the region, the State and the country.
There are guidelines, suggested by various veterinary organizations, but they’re only guidelines.
There are basically 3 levels of standards of care.

1. The gold standard
This is the care typically provided at a vet school, a specialty hospital or a very progressive family practice.
It’s the best and safest way to perform a procedure or arrive at a diagnosis.
The purpose is to reduce risks and complications as much as possible. The end goal is to increase the chances of success as much as possible.
2. Reasonable standard of care
This is what the “average and prudent” vet would agree is reasonable to do for a particular treatment or procedure.
As you can imagine, this is extremely subjective. What might seem reasonable to one vet may seem unreasonable to another. There is no black and white, it’s all shades of gray…
3. Sub-standard care
This level of care is not reasonable or acceptable. It could be called negligence or malpractice.
It could harm the patient – and often does.
And no matter how cheap it is, it is cheating the client.
Sadly, this is what is sometimes portrayed on popular shows on TV… and many pet owners don’t even know it.
OK, if you’re still reading, you deserve to look at more cute kittens.
Another bundle of kittens in a basket

To better explain those levels, let’s take 5 everyday examples you may be familiar with:
. When we diagnose cancer in a pet, we typically take chest X-rays to check for spreading (metastasis) of the cancer to the lungs. Unfortunately, we can miss tiny masses in the lungs what X-rays simply cannot show. A CAT scan may cost much more, but it’s far better to see those tiny masses. Meanwhile, at some practices, the mass would be removed without even taking chest X-rays.
Which approach would you want for your pet?
. You can sometimes see a mass in the spleen on a simple X-ray. An ultrasound should not only confirm that the mass is truly in the spleen, but it can confirm that all of the other organs in the belly are OK, and that there is no spreading (metastasis) to the liver.
Next up: who does the ultrasound? A family vet who does ultrasound every once in a while, or a specialist who does it 20 times per day?
Which test – and which ultrasonographer – would you want for your pet?
. Some practices will remove a tooth without X-rays and without anesthesia monitoring.
Meanwhile, other practices in the very same town will remove a tooth with a dedicated veterinary nurse monitoring the patient under anesthesia. In addition, they will take X-rays of the jaw before and after removing a tooth.
What level of care would you want for your pet?
. Having a tooth removed is not exactly fun. Some practices don’t prescribe pain medications at all – before, during or after the procedure.
Some practices will dispense a mild pain killer beforehand (e.g. butorphanol) and a mild pain medication to go home (tramadol).
Yet other practices will provide a strong morphine-like drug and an anti-inflammatory before the surgery, will numb the area (local anesthesia, just like at your dentist) before the extraction, and will send home two pain killers (e.g. gabapentin and an anti-inflammatory).
Which one would you want if your pet needed a tooth removed?
. Some practices would not run any bloodwork before doing a procedure under anesthesia.
Some would do basic bloodwork (e.g. a mini-chemistry, which looks at liver and kidney function).
Yet other practices will do full bloodwork (i.e. a full chemistry, a CBC – which looks at red and white blood cells), as well as a urinalysis to check kidney function.
Which one would you want for your pet before anesthesia?

Veterinary medicine is like any other decision in life:
. You can have lunch at McDonald’s or Olive Garden or a fancy steakhouse. You’ll be fed either way.
. You can fix your own sink, or have a plumber fix it, or have a master plumber replace and upgrade it. You’ll have a sink either way.
. You can go to work on a bicycle, in a Ford Fiesta or in a BWM. You’ll get to work either way.

But there is a huge difference here: we’re not talking about lunch, a sink or a car. We’re talking about a living creature, who might go under anesthesia or get major surgery.
The reason vets recommend certain tests is not to drain your bank account.
The reason is to reduce the risk of complications – including death – as much as possible.
The reason is also to improve comfort, decrease pain and increase quality of life.

Are you still with me? Then you totally deserve to look at more cute kittens.
Cute charcoal kittens

So, what’s a concerned pet lover to do?
. Make sure you compare apples to apples. If you get a $200 estimate from one clinic and a $1,000 for the one across town, don’t assume that one vet is a nice guy and the other is a crook.
. Ask for an explanation of every line item on the estimate. You have a right to understand what you are getting into.
. Ask questions about the procedure itself. Who is doing it? How many times have they done it? What is their success rate with this procedure? Dare to ask these tough questions!
. Ask questions about complications. What are the most common (theoretical) complications you should be prepared for? What (actual) complications has this particular vet observed? What will they do to reduce the risk of complications?
. Ask questions about the things that are usually skipped on “cheaper” estimates: what pain management protocol will they use to make sure your pet is comfortable? Will your pet be monitored during anesthesia? By whom? With what qualifications (or what letters after their name)? Will they do it start to finish, or whenever somebody remembers to do it, or never?
. If you would like to provide the gold standard to your pet but you’re concerned about being able to afford it, then please get pet insurance – a great plan preferably – it will solve 99% of the problem.

Bottom line: make sure you understand the full story behind an estimate, and what it means for the safety of your pet and the success of the procedure.

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified

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Dr. Phil Zeltzman

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a traveling veterinary surgeon in Pennsylvania & New Jersey. An award-winning author, he loves to share his adventures in practice along with information about vet medicine and surgery that can really help your pets. Dr. Zeltzman specializes in orthopedic, neurologic, cancer, and soft tissue surgeries for dogs, cats, and small exotics. By working with local family vets, he offers the best surgical care, safest anesthesia, and utmost pain management to all his patients. Sign up to get an email when he updates his blog, and follow him on Facebook, too!