How to Be Your Pet’s Best Advocate

As a pet owner, you are responsible for your pet’s wellbeing. You need to be your pet’s best health advocate.

I’m regularly surprised when I hear pet owners confess that they are “totally confused” or overwhelmed after a visit with a family vet or a vet specialist.

They may be confused because of their own stress level during the visit, because of their emotional state, or because the vet used hard-to-understand medical jargon.

As between friends, family members, and even countries, the root of most problems is miscommunication.

So maybe having a checklist would help you avoid misunderstanding your pet’s care and make better decisions.

Of course, every condition, every pet, every visit is different.

But let’s see if we can come up with guidelines that will work for most visits.

Let’s go over important points to remember before, during and after your visit at the vet.

Before the visit:

. Research: Before your visit, research the practice and the vet. Is it a general or a specialty hospital? Are you meeting with a generalist or a specialist? A generalist will have the letters DVM after their name. There is one exception: general vets who graduate from Pennsylvania have the letters VMD after their names.

A specialist will have the same letters (DVM or VMD), followed by more letters.

A board-certified surgeon (like me) will also mention something like DACVS or Dip. ACVS, which stands for Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons.

A board-certified internist will also mention DACVIM or Dip. ACVIM, which stands for Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

The list goes on, depending on the specialty.

If they don’t have those additional letters after their names, they cannot call themselves specialists. It does not mean they aren’t competent to treat your pet. It does mean that they are not considered specialists by our governing veterinary organizations and shouldn’t call themselves specialists.

Don’t always trust what you read online, however what have previous pet owners thought of their interactions? Pay a quick visit to the practice website, Facebook page and Google description. I would stay away from other more “questionable” sites, which I won’t mention here. One is notoriously unreliable. Enough said.

See what the common theme is: was the vet especially kind? A true pet lover? Genuinely caring? Easy to understand?

The tough part is what to do with negative comments. Are they real? Or are they posted by disgruntled clients who can never be satisfied, are chronic complainers, or who wrongly accuse the vet for being the worst simply because they can’t afford their treatment?

If you really want to be thorough, you can visit the website of the veterinary board for your State and make sure your vet’s license is in good standing, and that no complaint was filed against them. It’s public information. It’s a bit extreme, but not completely ridiculous.

. Goals: What are your goals going to the vet? Make a list of 2 or 3 important questions you have. Not 10 or 20 or 30. Limit yourself to 2 or 3.

. Quality of life: How is your pet’s quality of life now? Has it deteriorated? Are you trying to improve it?

. Symptoms: Bring a list of the problems or symptoms you’ve noticed with your pet, and when. Keep a log, either on paper, or in a physical calendar, or digitally. If there is a known cause, write it down.

For example: “July 10 – not using right back leg normally after playing ball. July 15 – limping about 33% of the time. July 20 – limping 75% of the time.”

. Medications: Prepare a list of all medications, vitamins and supplements. In addition, bring the actual drugs with you, just in case.

Include every medication you give, why you’re giving it, the prescribing doctor, and the dosage. You can provide a simple log like this:

. Drug name (generic or brand name).

. Prescribing doctor.

. Reason for giving it.

. How much you give (in tablets, capsules, mg or ml).

. How often you give it.

. Any reaction or side-effect noticed.

For example: “On April 25, Dr. Smith prescribed gabapentin for pain control. I give 300 mg every 8 hours. Chelsea is doing much better on it. No side-effects noticed.”

This information is very important to a vet. We need to know what works and what doesn’t. And we also need to make sure there are no interactions.

. Allergies: Bring a list of known allergies or bad reactions: fleas, grass, pollens, chicken, carprofen…

. Records: If you’re going to a new family vet, be sure to have a copy of previous medical records that include previous vaccines, conditions and treatments.

. CPR: If your pet might need anesthesia, you will be asked if you want your vet to do CPR or not in case of serious emergency. Rather than CPR, the form may ask if you want to resuscitate your pet. If you don’t, we call this DNR, or Do Not Resuscitate.

If you’re not mentally prepared, you may not be ready to answer the question and sign on the dotted line.

Don’t be scared or offended. It’s not a prediction. It doesn’t mean anesthesia is a death sentence.

It’s merely a precaution. Should something bad happen (which is incredibly rare), your vet won’t have time to call you and ask what you want to do.

They need to know ahead of time. So please think about it ahead of time.

During the visit:

. Understanding: If you don’t understand the plan, ask.

If you don’t understand a specific word, ask.

If you are completely lost, ask.

Don’t be shy or embarrassed. You understand things in your own profession. Nobody said you had to magically know everything about vet medicine.

You do however have a responsibility to understand the care provided to your pet.

Ask questions until you understand what you sign up for.

. Testing: As an example, make sure you understand why a test is recommended. Why is this blood work needed? Why are these X-rays recommended? Why is a CT scan, an MRI or an ultrasound necessary? Your vet won’t (shouldn’t) recommend an unnecessary test, but you still need to understand why it’s recommended.

Ask when you will receive the results of the test. Make a note in a calendar. Be sure to follow up if you don’t hear from your vet or a nurse. Of course, make sure your contact information is accurate.

. Medicating: If a new medication is prescribed, make sure you understand why you are giving it and how. The basics are written on the label, but not everything fits! What does it do? Should you give with food? What side-effects might happen?

. Hospitalizing: If your pet needs a procedure or surgery, ask if it will be done as an outpatient or inpatient basis. If an overnight stay is required, ask whether your pet will have supervision. Be aware that 99% of family practices do not have anybody in the building overnight.

This is not necessarily a problem, it’s simply something you need to be aware of and you should fully understand and accept. You could choose to take your pet home or to a local emergency clinic overnight.

. Discharging: After a procedure, such as surgery, you should receive written discharge instructions. Take the time to make sure you review, line by line, usually with a nurse, your pet’s discharge instructions. Ask questions. Take notes. Who can you call if you have question once you get home?

. Diagnosing: If you receive a diagnosis, make sure you understand the exact name of the condition. Don’t be shy about asking how to spell it if you’re not sure. Have someone spell it out for you.

Ask questions. What is this condition? How convinced is your vet? 25%? 50%? 100%? Is it a working diagnosis, ie a suspicion, or a certainty?

Do we need another test to confirm the suspicion?

What is the treatment? What is your vet’s personal experience with it?

Is the treatment common and standard? Is it rarely offered? Is it experimental?

. Recapping: Remember the list of 2 or 3 important questions you created before going to the vet (see question #1)? Did you get them answered?

After the visit:

. Impressions: How do you feel after your visit? I don’t mean mentally, since you may feel angry, overwhelmed or depressed. I mean how do you feel about the vet you met? Do you feel trust? Does your experience match the online reviews you’ve read? Are you ready to follow the recommendations you heard? Are your comfortable with your experience, the hospital, the staff and the doctor? What does your gut tell you?

. Education: Educate yourself. Read the information your vet gave you. Visit RELIABLE web sites to learn more about the condition. Websites from vet schools, your family vet and specialty hospitals should have trustworthy information. Rather than relying on chance, ask your vet which websites you can trust.

Be extremely careful with information you find on random sites, chat rooms and personal sites. The problem with the internet is that anybody can claim to have much more knowledge than they really do. Vets cringe when they read the false but convincing information you can find “out there”.

. Recommendations: What are the pros and the cons of the treatment recommendation? What are possible complications? What are possible side-effects? What could go wrong? What are the chances of success?

. Decisions: If you need to make a decision about a specific treatment for your pet, you don’t have to do it alone.

If you met with a specialist, make the big decision with your vet. Get your family, or a trusted friend, involved.

My 2 cents: don’t take advice from friends and family members who do not own a pet. They may have good intentions, but they probably cannot understand the emotional bond you have with your pet.

And from experience, I can tell you it’s very likely that they can’t possibly understand why you would be willing to spend money on an animal.

The list above is far from exhaustive, but it should be a good start for you to ensure a successful visit with your vet. It will help you become a great advocate for your pet. And it could help you save your pet’s life.

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