How to choose a ‘forever’ vet
During almost 30 years in practice, I’ve provided many second opinions and one of the most common concerns I hear from dog lovers is they feel pressured by their vets to do things they don’t want to do and buy products and services they don’t want to buy.
As an 'insider' in the profession, I believe most of my colleagues have gone to school because they love animals, want to make a difference and honestly put their patients way ahead of financial gain. But it’s true that’s not always the case.
The goal of this article is to help you protect your dog and learn how to communicate with your veterinarian and build a good and honest relationship.
1. CHOOSING A VET
Picking the right veterinarian can be hard. It’s not easy to find a good electrician or plumber, and choosing a veterinarian for your dog is much tougher. You are not emotionally attached to an electrical plug or a bathroom tap, but your dog is different. He or she is your family, your best friend and your life – and your choices greatly affect their health.
The most challenging part of finding a veterinarian is establishing trust, which can only come with time. And while there are only a few vets whose knowledge is inadequate or who put money in front of their patients’ and clients’ needs, you need to learn how to recognize them
That’s why it’s so important to establish a good relationship with your veterinarian when your dog is healthy. It’s much less stressful than having to make decisions in an emergency situation.
2. EDUCATE YOURSELF
Educate yourself by reading articles and taking holistic animal care courses from sources you trust. You can use the information to ask your vet questions to help you make the best decision. If your veterinarian seems defensive, don’t be afraid to gently, yet firmly stand your ground and get a second opinion if necessary.
Recently, my retirement planner was upset when I wanted to read up on a topic before making a final decision. He felt I didn't trust him and said if he asked me a veterinary question, it would be rude to check my answer elsewhere.
That’s where we differ. When I was practising, my goal was to help my patients and make their families comfortable with their decision, so I loved when my clients did online research or talked to a friend or another veterinarian.
In fact, most veterinarians are used to scrutiny and appreciate your interest in wanting to learn more. They understand how much your dog means to you and that you’d do anything and everything to help him live a long, healthy life. If a vet objects to you wanting to do research, it may be a sign of insecurity or ulterior motives.
3. BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR PRIORITIES
There is tons of evidence that raw food, minimal vaccines and natural supplements lead to longer and healthier lives for dogs. At school I was taught that an eight-year-dog is a senior, but nowadays, I consider an eight-year-old, naturally-raised dog to be middle aged.
That is good enough reason for you to avoid kibble and minimize vaccines and drugs. The problem is many dog owners feel still intimidated and afraid to stand their ground and say NO to their vet. People are also concerned they might be labeled crazy or difficult.
To be there fully for your dog, you need to make your priorities clear. You are your dog's guardian and the ultimate decision maker. Your dog is completely dependent on you for their health and wellbeing.
4. COMMUNICATE YOUR STANCE CLEARLY
When you start with a new veterinarian, mention you feed or plan to feed raw food and that your goal is to minimize drugs and vaccines. Say you hope to stay with this vet for the lifetime of your dog as long as you’re given the freedom to make decisions for him. Most vets love the clarity and they won’t have a problem with you expressing your intentions clearly.
5. SEE YOUR VET AS A PARTNER IN KEEPING YOUR DOG HEALTHY
Remember your dog's veterinarian is not your superior or the decision-maker. This is very important because many people seem to be afraid of the doctor. This idea of medical superiority has persisted for many decades, perhaps centuries, but times have changed. There’s no reason to be subservient.
6. TREAT YOUR VETERINARIAN WITH RESPECT
Every veterinarian will tell you most clients are great. Unfortunately, it takes only a small number of difficult individuals to make a veterinary practice a nightmare. A few clients leave things to the last minute before they book an appointment and then demand others be bumped off the schedule to accommodate them right away. Out of guilt, they often blame their own negligence on the vet. This can be very distressing for a practitioner.
7. ALLOW YOUR VET TO FOCUS ON YOUR ANIMAL FRIEND
I once had a client whose cats were upset and not doing well because she was going through a divorce. I made a note in the file about this important fact because cats can respond negatively to tension in the family. One weekend, another clinic called for the records. My staff sent them and the veterinarian in the other practice mentioned the divorce was in the notes. The client filed a complaint to the college that I was circulating her personal information, threatened me with a lawsuit and requested her records legally sealed – which meant no one, including me, could open them without her permission. The interesting part was a few weeks earlier the same client brought a big box of pastries to thank us for the good work we’d done for her cats.
The incident took a huge amount of time and energy away from my real work, when most people would agree that a divorce is nothing to be ashamed of because 50% of the population goes through it.
Your veterinarian needs your trust so he or she can go the extra mile for you.
8. IMAGINE YOURSELF IN YOUR VETERINARIAN'S SHOES
I’m a dog lover too and every time I help a dog and his people, I imagine how I’d feel if I was on the other side. If you want your dog's vet to be your greatest ally, do the same. Try to see his or her point of view and then clearly state your wishes, expectations and decisions with kindness and clarity. The tone of the conversation and your body language is as important as what is being said.
9. BE PREPARED TO STAND YOUR GROUND
This is the most important part, especially when you’re getting ready for your first visit to a new vet because he or she may have a different opinion about vaccines, pest prevention and pharmaceutical drugs. I suggest you write your objectives down first so you’re prepared for this discussion. It may be a good idea to give a brief point-form copy of your main objectives to your new veterinarian and ask that the info be put in your file.
A practical example to inspire you
Let’s say you want to minimize your puppy's vaccines, but your vet wants you to give your puppy three sets of combination vaccines at 8, 12 and 16 weeks.
In my veterinary practice, the immunization protocol consists of no vaccines until the age of 12 weeks. This preserves the maternal antibodies (the immunity from mother’s milk) that a vaccine binds and destroys. Maternal antibodies can also prevent the vaccine from working.
At 12-weeks, instead of vaccinating, I perform a titer (antibody) test to see if antibodies are present;. If they are present, your puppy is protected and it is ready to be socialized with other dogs to build up its own antibodies and acquire social skills.
If antibodies are not present, you may consider one vaccine dose and repeat the titer test at five months. If there are no antibodies at that point, consider giving another vaccine for distemper and parvovirus and repeat the titer test one month later.
Generally, I don't recommend vaccine boosters unless I see a negative titer test.
Let’s say your vet tries to convince you to give your puppy three sets of combination vaccines. In the first phase, I suggest you explain you’d rather wait until 12 weeks and then take a blood test to see if antibodies are present and if not, then you will vaccinate with one vaccine and check antibodies if they are present.
Once immunity is acquired, it usually lasts a lifetime or at least for many years, whether your dog is vaccinated or unvaccinated. Maternal antibodies first protect unvaccinated dogs, who then build their own antibodies via exposure to viruses and bacteria passed on from other dogs.
The above protocol is an example of what you might choose for your puppy.
What you can say to your vet
Whatever you decide, explain your wishes to your vet. If he or she objects, politely decline the vaccines, calmly stating you’ve made up your mind and you’d like him to respect your decision. This should put the issue to rest, but if it doesn’t, state you’d like to stay with the practice, as long as you’re free to make decisions for your dog. If the guilt-tripping continues, change vets – or stick with your current one, but stand your ground. Drug and vaccine companies have a great influence on veterinary education and vets are trained to follow the conventional rules without questioning them. This is sad but true.
You can see the key to keeping your dog safe is to learn, make your mind up and then unapologetically stand your ground. Your dog is helpless and it’s you who must defend her or his wellbeing and health. The reward is usually the gift of extra time with your best friend.
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© Dr. Peter Dobias, DVM