There's no doubt I demand more of a veterinarian than many people do. My vet has to be not only technically brilliant but also a good communicator, with a personality I can live with.
In a pinch, my vet also has to help me move.
Fortunately, I found such a vet years ago. Unfortunately, his practice is 25 miles from my house. No matter: He's worth the drive. I know my pets will get the best of care, in a caring, professional environment.
Because I am so picky, I'm astonished by those who shop for a vet based on proximity alone, or on price, without checking further. It's impossible to know what goes on in a veterinarian's office after you leave your pet behind. An animal can never comment on its treatment, and an animal lover must rely on trust to be sure a pet has been dealt with fairly.
Before you choose a vet, ask friends, co-workers and neighbors for recommendations. Over the years, animal lovers can tell which veterinarians are knowledgeable, compassionate and hard-working. Those veterinarians will always be "talked up" by satisfied clients.
Other factors may help you narrow down your list of possibles:
Is the clinic conveniently located, with hours you can live with? If you have a 9-to-5 job, a veterinarian with a 9-to-5 clinic won't do your pet much good. Many veterinarians are open for at least a half-day on Saturday, or are willing to make other arrangements. My vet offers extended hours at both ends, so I have time to drive up before or after work.
What kind of emergency care is available, if any? Although emergency veterinary clinics are prepared for any catastrophe, they are not only expensive, but also have the added disadvantage of being unfamiliar with your pet. Some veterinary hospitals offer appointments until 8 p.m., or even 10 p.m., with no after-hours fee. Others keep staff on call to handle emergencies.
Are the fees reasonable, and are financial arrangements available in unusual cases? This is the tough one, because I'm of the mind that in this area, as in all others, you get what you pay for. I've been to vets that charge little for an office call, and do little more than have an aide take the pet's temperature. My vet's exam fee may seem high to some, but I've watched him poke and prod an animal for more than half an hour, testing every joint, feeling every inch for bumps and lumps. A higher price, but a better value.
Remember, a veterinarian must maintain a miniature hospital, with equipment ranging from surgery suites and X-ray gear to examining tables, cages and kennels. She or he must cover mortgages or rents, office expenses, salaries and benefits. If your veterinarian is young, there are probably student loans to repay. Despite that, veterinarian costs -- even at the high end -- are a fraction of what similar procedures run in human medicine.
After you've narrowed down your search, it's time to deal with the intangibles -- can you get along with these people? Are they trustworthy? Make a checkup appointment for your pet and meet the vet. Does the clinic appear clean, the staff competent and the veterinarian knowledgeable? It's a fine start, but it's only the beginning.
Is the vet interested in preventive care? Catching problems earlier -- or preventing them -- saves both time and money. Are heartworms a problem in your area? Is there a diet that would help your pet? Some people complain vets are always trying to "sell something," but a good vet keeps clients up-to-date so they can make informed decisions.
Is the vet willing to discuss procedures? Does the vet take care to fill you in on the options, and make sure you understand? Is he or she willing to take the time to answer all your questions? A good vet is informative in an informal, non-intimidating way.
Does the vet make allowances for your wishes? Different people want different levels of treatment, and a good vet accepts that reality. He or she should give you all the options and leave the decisions up to you.
The final elements are those which are hard to pin down. Do you feel comfortable with the veterinarian, and do you sense that your pet is as comfortable as he might be? If you aren't satisfied, if you don't feel right for any reason, you are less likely to call or visit your veterinarian regularly, and your animals will suffer for it.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.