You can’t fool us; we know how the morning before a veterinary visit unfolds. Running. Yowling. Scratching. Bolting. Hiding under the bed. Rearing back. Snarling. Biting. Kicking.
And then it’s time to get the animal.
One of the sad realities of veterinary medicine – cue the tiny violins – is that veterinarians pursue this career because we love animals and want to help them, but after graduation our shiny altruism gets smudged by the realization that no one wants to see us. We’re a lot like dentists that way.
Our patients usually want to be anywhere but near the person with the sharp and intrusive instruments of torture, and our clients are rarely thrilled either. It turns out that a vomiting dog or limping horse is rarely most people’s desired outlet for that tax return.
Thus it happens that often the veterinarian and staff are often the only members of the veterinary visit tableaux who really want to be there, and by the end of the examination, even they may be fantasizing about a tropical beach or a peaceful root canal.
But wait! It doesn’t have to be this way. We can still work it out. Yes, that’s me clinging to your pant leg.
Because we live in a base 10 world, here are ten steps toward a smoother veterinary visit. Put down the iron – that’s not what I meant by smooth.
1. Be on time
This seems basic, but have you ever sat in a waiting room and fumed because you had a 2:30 appointment and it is now 3:10? Several things happen when a patient arrives late:
- The tardiness cascade begins. Patient and owner are 15 minutes late. Those 15 minutes carry over to the next appointment and the next. Maybe everyone gets lucky and the animal’s condition requires less time for evaluation and treatment than anticipated, but almost any veterinarian can tell you that Murphy’s Law will dictate otherwise. (To mitigate some of Hurricane Murphy’s damage, see point #2.)
- The owner is stressed, feeling flustered and guilty. Not the ideal circumstances for clearly relaying concerns about a pet.
- The veterinarian is stressed. He wants to give complete attention to the animal, but now the majority of his brain cells are obscured by the giant replica of the day’s schedule stamped across his mind.
- The pet is stressed. Calm handling produces calm animals. A rushing, flustered human creates a panting dog, prickly cat, or bolting horse.
2. Know what you want when you make your appointment
If you really only need to have your dog’s ears cleaned or his nails trimmed, great! Book that appointment. But….
If Fido has also vomited three times in the past two days, he feels skinnier, and your son says that he saw Fido’s head revolve 378 degrees one afternoon, but you had just changed brands of food so you’re pretty sure that’s it, please mention all of this when you book the appointment. That way the receptionist can properly allot time for the veterinarian to work up vomiting, weight loss, and demonic possession.
If you are seeking a second, third, or 56th opinion, be up front about it when you call. If possible, have copies of the records for the prior exam(s) forwarded to the office so that the veterinarian stands a chance of knowing what has already been done. This will avoid wasting time (yours, your vet’s, and your animal’s) and money (yours).
A critical corollary to this point is to know which veterinary hospital you are calling. Many veterinary clinics have similar sounding names. There are only so many ways you can get “Sunny,” “Valley,” “River,” “Animal,” and “Hospital” into a name. If it’s been a while, but you are pretty certain that Dr. A saw your pet a few years ago, check and double check the clinic name. Verify with the receptionist that they have a record for your pet. Verify that Dr. A works there. Don’t yell at Dr. B for not being Dr. A. That part isn’t her fault either.
Oddly, this is a common scenario in veterinary medicine. Mix-ups happen, but the day will go much more smoothly for everyone if steps are taken to prevent them when the appointment is made.
3. Exercise some restraint
Leashes for dogs. Carriers for cats and all things that creep, crawl, slither, and fly. Proper lead ropes for horses, halter-broke cattle, camelids, and pet goats and sheep. Harnesses and leashes for pot-bellied pigs. Muzzles for the bitey ones. These items are far more critical to the veterinary exam than you might think. Strangely, few animals will hang out willingly while their orifices are probed with alien-abduction instruments and their skin is poked. I don’t care how mellow your animal is; he will still try to exit stage left, kick or nip when a needle or scalpel blade penetrates his flesh. I don’t blame him a bit.
Your veterinarian’s reluctance to acknowledge a firm tone of voice and a threat to withhold cookies isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Halters, harnesses, leashes, muzzles and carriers aren’t designed to impinge upon your pet’s civil liberties. They fill a few functions for everyone’s benefit:
- They keep your pet safe. While your pet may prefer to run free, cars, heavy equipment, larger pets, and bald eagles don’t care about your animal’s happiness.
- They keep humans safe.
- They keep other animals and property safe.
- They keep the process running smoothly. It is extraordinarily difficult to complete an examination while chasing a cow with a future in steeplechase across two pastures and praying that she reads the stop sign at the busy intersection. Oh, how I wish that was ludicrous hyperbole.
This point incorporates points 1 through 3. Booking the appropriate appointment, being on time, and having a properly restrained animal are all parts of preparation for a veterinary visit. But I was a Girl Scout, so I believe in being prepared for everything.
Here are some other items for your vet-visit survival kit.
- Previous veterinary records if you are seeking a second appointment or this is your pet’s first visit to this practice.
- Records of any vaccines given by the breeder, a vaccine clinic, or your neighbor’s brother-in-law the plastic surgeon.
- For livestock, vaccine and deworming records.
- If you suspect poisoning, bring the package and labeling of suspected ingested substance or a sample of the shrubbery if you suspect a plant toxin.
- A written list of your questions and concerns.
- A trained animal. The ideal time to get your dog used to the car or to train your horse to load into a trailer is not five minutes before you need to leave for your appointment. Don’t make the first transportation experience one where the destination involves sharp objects or a cold table. Take this stressor out of the equation early into the ownership of your animal.
- Have the proper transportation vehicle. A pig once showed up for a pre-fair health exam appointment in 100+ degree weather inside an unventilated cargo trailer. If the ride had been 30 minutes longer, we could have had a nice luau, but as it was, the appointment quickly diverted from routine health check to treatment for heat stroke.
5. Family dynamics
Three is a crowd. Don’t put us in the middle of your marriage or force us to parent your children. Communication works best if all invested parties are at the appointment or have sent written questions. One of the worst veterinary nightmares is when the less informed/interested spouse chauffeurs the animal, approves diagnostic tests or treatment, relays 1/10 of the information to the absentee spouse, and spouse #2 calls the clinic in a confused rage. This approach benefits no one, least of all your pet.
In general, the animal should be the only helpless, unruly, or non-verbal being in the room. If your child is truly interested in animal health, takes an active and responsible (beyond feeding the occasional cookie) role in the care of the animal, and can sit still for 15 minutes, and tie shoes, great, bring him. However, understand that veterinary-client communication relies on both parties’ ability to speak and listen with undivided attention and that there are safety concerns inherent to the veterinary visit.
6. Ask questions
Your questions are more likely to be answered if you ask them. Don’t say you understand if you don’t. The veterinary office isn’t a school-room; you can’t be flunked, and your cat doesn’t care if your pride takes a hit. However, please, please, please time your questions so that your veterinarian has a chance to a) hear the question and b) concentrate on your question.
The stethoscope is the Number One impediment to veterinary question answering, and I can just about guarantee that the moment I stick the earpieces in my ears, I will see an owner’s lips move. I would love to explain what I am looking for, or my opinion on that thing behind his ear, but can the question wait until I can concentrate on it?
7. Listen to the answers
When you ask a question, listen to the answer, the whole answer, and nothing but the answer. However, veterinary medical explanations are usually complicated and there is a lot more grey than black and white. Listen to the whole answer and ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask your veterinarian to put instructions and explanations in writing– especially if you have memory problems, children (same thing), no medical background, multiple animals, multiple caregivers for the animals, or are not a Vulcan.
8. Know your budget
We all hate to say it, but veterinary care is driven by cost. To minimize financial, mental, and emotional pain, set a budget for each animal before something goes wrong. It is hard to apply the financial brakes once the medical emergency rollercoaster has started down the tracks, and if you haven’t fastened your safety belt, things can get ugly very quickly.
If you are taking your pet for an elective procedure, ask about the likely costs when you book the appointment. I’m not advocating price shopping; in veterinary medicine like everything else, you often get what you pay for, so seeking out the cheapest deal in town may not get your pet the best care. But find a ballpark price before you get there so that you know that you have adequate funds and that no one will have to break out the defibrillator.
If your pet’s condition is more complex, ask questions during the exam. Ask for an estimate. Ask about the benefits and what can be learned from the recommended treatments or diagnostic tests. Engrave that upper threshold budget number on your brain. Tell your veterinarian that number. You won’t (or shouldn’t) be judged. Even Warren Buffet probably lives within some sort of budget.
9. Be a partner
You may break into a cold sweat at the sight of a needle. You may refer to a vaginal discharge as “some sort of gooey stuff coming from her private area.” Regardless of your medical aptitude, you are a part of your animal’s healthcare team. Yep. You.
This means that once your pet leaves the hospital, you play an equal part in his recovery. Your pet may be sent home with medications. He is unlikely to take the pills or apply the ointment himself. (Unless you have a pet monkey, and in that case, I don’t want to know.) Your veterinarian may give feeding or confinement/exercise instructions. Your pet’s best shot at a timely and full recovery lies in your ability to follow those instructions.
This is typically the point where in the theoretical discussion, most clients resist rolling their eyes, but their expression politely says, “Well, of course I’ll do that. What kind of a person do you think I am?”
The problem is that you may not have seen the other end of the conversation – the scene in which the veterinarian quietly and despairingly bangs her head against the desk after a client calls to scream at her because the stitches in her horse’s leg have all fallen out and the bandage fell off - after the horse was turned out in pasture “because he looked so sad in his stall” even though the veterinarian specified a week of stall-confinement.
10. Understand the players
Just like cast in a movie or staff in a restaurant, everyone in a veterinary clinic serves a specific set of functions. Just as you wouldn’t expect the costume designer to change camera angle or the bus boy to re-cook your steak, it is unrealistic to expect the receptionist to diagnose your pet over the telephone.
Labor in a veterinary practice is generally divided according to aptitude, qualifications, training, and legality. Front desk staff may not be trained to restrain your animal. A technician is not legally permitted to diagnose a patient or to fill a prescription; only the veterinarian can do those things. I have known some veterinarians, myself included, who should not be allowed anywhere near a phone and the schedule simultaneously.
The veterinary visit goes most smoothly when all members of the team are allowed to perform their roles without inappropriate demands. Don’t forget – you are a key member of that team. Do your prep work in advance. Ultimately, the decision for your pet’s care is yours.
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Amy M. Swinehart, DVM
March 3, 2013
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.