How to choose a good vet

January 6, 2023 - 4 min read
An illustration featuring a woman, holding a dog and a cat, looking up at three floating circles, with a vet icon in each one, with floating question marks, on a solid green background

People rely on vets to perform routine wellness screenings, prescribe preventative medications, treat unanticipated illnesses and injuries, and respond to after-hours emergencies to ensure their four-legged friends lives long, healthy lives.

But veterinary care is a major investment. According to the American Pet Products Association, Pet owners in the United States spend $31.4 billion on medical care for dogs and cats (not to mention small animals like rabbits, hamsters, birds, and others) every year. So it’s important to find the right veterinarian—one that you like and trust.

Just follow these five tips to find a great veterinarian.

Search the internet and visit online forums

The internet has made it easier than ever to see how other pet owners feel about their veterinarians. You can go ahead and check social media accounts and read online reviews. Leanne Lilly, DVM and associate professor at The Ohio State University, suggests reviewing the information to see if there are concerning patterns of behavior.

“Reviews might be informative if there’s a theme among them, like appointments are never running on time,” she explains.

On the other hand, while a veterinary practice having lots of five-star reviews could be a great sign, Lilly cautions against choosing a veterinarian based solely on the volume of good reviews.

Even basing your decision on one or two bad reviews can be problematic. “Veterinarians cannot respond [to reviews] with information about what happened during an appointment because that information is privileged,” Lilly says. “There is no good way to interpret an epic rant because you’ll never know what actually happened.”

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Interview the prospects

Don’t wait until there’s an emergency to find a veterinarian. Scheduling a “getting to know you” visit is a great way to determine if a potential veterinarian feels like a fit.

During the appointment, for which you should expect to pay the standard exam fee, ask about things such as clinic hours, whether vets schedule appointments, and whether the clinic operates on a walk-in basis. You should also ask about their policies for emergencies and about the types of specialists onsite (or which veterinary clinic the practice refers to if specialized care is needed). You can also ask vets about their experience, about their familiarity with specific breeds, and about their approaches to care.

Spending a few minutes chatting with a potential veterinarian about the clinic and getting a sense of their approach to pet care should be enough to help you determine whether you want to make it your primary clinic, Lilly says.

Scheduling appointments with multiple vets could get expensive, so Lilly suggests calling the clinic and asking the front desk staff the same questions to ensure the clinic meets your basic needs before scheduling an appointment.

Ask Your Vet for a Referral

While some vet care is straightforward — hello preventive medications, vaccines, and annual wellness exams — there might be times when you want a second opinion on a diagnosis or treatment plan. In those instances, it’s okay to ask your vet for referrals.

“It’s never wrong to say, ‘this seems complicated; should I see a specialist?’” Lilly says.

It’s also a good idea to ask your vet to recommend a specialist if your pet needs a procedure or treatment like acupuncture, dental cleaning, or surgery that your regular vet clinic doesn’t provide.

Moving? Your veterinarian may be able to recommend a clinic in a different town—or even a different state—through their professional network.

Check for cleanliness

Cleanliness is next to dog-liness (and cat-liness). A clean clinic is about more than making a great first impression; regular cleaning and disinfection reduce the risk of infection and help prevent the spread of disease.

You may never get a glimpse of the operating room or other behind-the-scenes treatment rooms, but the state of the waiting area and exam rooms can give you some clues about the cleanliness of the clinic.

“We know that cleanliness is important,” says Lilly. “A burned out light bulb at one visit might not be a big deal, but visible signs of uncleanliness [like] dried poop on the floor will raise a flag about how clean the rest of the clinic is.”

Consider different clinics for different pets

Some vets and vet clinics treat a wide range of companion animals. Still, the vet who provides outstanding care for your dog might not be the best choice to care for your cat. In fact, sometimes it may even be smart to visit a veterinary practice designated dog dogs or cats only, says Lilly.

“For a lot of cats, in particular, going to the vet is very stressful, so it’s becoming increasingly common to have cat-only vet clinics.” 

(For one thing, cats often become anxious at all-animal clinics due to the presence of dogs — or even due to the lingering smell of dogs that are no longer present.)

Whether you take your dog and cat to a single clinic or seek out clinics that specialize in one or the other, consider looking for veterinarians that are "Fear Free" certified so you can feel confident that the vets are taking extra steps to make sure your pet feels as comfortable as possible during their visit.

Whether you find a new veterinarian via an internet search, interview several vets before finding the perfect fit, or receive a referral to a specialist from your current vet, just make sure you find the right vet. That way, you'll feel more confident when you seek care for your four-legged friend.

Jodi Helmer is a freelance journalist who writes about pets, food, gardening, farming, the environment, and sustainable living. Jodi's work has appeared in Entrepreneur, Hemispheres, Civil Eats, National Geographic Traveler, and more.