Going to the Vet? Ten Ways to Protect Your Best Friend


Get current copies of your pet's records after every visit. Laws vary from state to state, but if you live in a state (Texas, for example) that entitles you to copies of your pet's complete medical records, get them. Ask for an updated copy of the patient chart after every visit, and always request copies of any lab work. Why? Because even if you cannot interpret a lab report, you can run it by another vet to confirm any diagnoses and treatment plan. Getting a copy of the patient chart after each visit also prevents the vet from tampering with entries later, should the worst happen and your pet is harmed or killed.

Your pet's medical record is also part of what you're paying for. An accurate record tells the story of your pet's medical life in the same way that your own medical records do. The importance of an accurate medical record is reinforced by the fact that every state licensing board has specific laws about what must be on that chart. 

A good record will also list the vet's recommendations for treatment and any discussions with the owner. This will help avoid any "he said/she said" problems later, with a vet saying that recommendations were made, discussions took place, without any supporting notations on the record. You can also see if diagnoses, symptoms, weight, temperature, names and dosages of prescription drugs, dates for recheck, and other crucial information is indeed on the record. If not, ask the vet why it's not there. 

Getting copies of records also helps to cut down on the possibility that a vet may be tempted to start tampering with patient files if a complaint is filed on him or her.  

To me, sloppy, inaccurate, incomplete, and careless recordkeeping is a huge red flag. As far as I'm concerned, show me lousy records, and I'll show you a lousy vet.  

Be wary of allowing one veterinarian to be in complete control of your pet's medical treatment. The corollary to this rule is: Second opinion, second opinion, second opinion. This is especially crucial if your animal is elderly or has a chronic or complex condition. By getting copies of lab work and patient chart, a guardian can get a second (or third, or fourth) opinion to see if the treatment suggested falls within the law (yes, law) that all vets must adhere to -- the professional standard of humane care in that community. 

This statute of the Veterinary Practice Act is there to protect you and your pet from a veterinarian who may be operating as a loose cannon, doing whatever he wants without regard to the standard of care. 

Even if (and sometimes especially if) the vet is saying "Everything's fine!" and you suspect that something might be wrong, it doesn't hurt to run your pet's medical record past another pair of eyes, or post the information on the Internet in a pet health support forum, just to double check. 

This doesn't mean you need 15 vets treating your pet. This means that you must initiate your own system of checks and balances because of the problem of incompetent vets. Many an animal guardian has wished countless times, "If only I had gotten a second opinion sooner…" Many unnecessary tragedies, suffering, and loss of life would have been avoided if another vet had been alerted to what the first vet was doing in time to correct the situation. 

If your regular vet refers you to a specialist or surgeon to perform a procedure, get that vet's name -- do not rely on your vet to know or inform you of any problems with that vet's history. They won't. Vets, knowingly or unknowingly, refer their trusting clients to problem vets every day. If you're being sent to another vet by your regular vet, find out everything you can about the vet your pet is being handed off to. 

Also, think carefully about getting a second opinion from a vet of the first vet's choosing, and do not use the first vet's "back up" vet. Get your own. Second opinions should be obtained independently by YOU.  

I can't overstress the importance of having a second vet on hand: After it's too late, there will be no system in place to protect you if you have been naïve enough to place unconditional trust in one vet It will be some of the best money you ever spent.  

Be careful about allowing the vet to remove the pet from your sight during an office examination. Unless your dog is the size of an SUV, there is no reason your pet cannot be weighed in the exam room. Many vets now have public weighing stations where the owner/guardian can see the weight for themselves. 

Same goes for temperature-taking, general examination, injections, or any procedure that can be performed in full view of the guardian. Don't hover or get in the way of the vet or any staff member, but be wary of any vet who consistently takes your pet "to the back" to perform routine procedures that can easily be done in full view. 

If a vet will not allow you to remain with your pet during routine procedures (or within sight and sound of your pet if being with them is not feasible), ask yourself if you want to stay with that vet. You are entitled to witness how a vet handles your pet during an actual examination, not just someone who talks baby talk to them in your presence, seems like a "nice guy," and then scoops them up to take them out of sight.

Some clients have reported that vets have asked them to wait in the car while their pet is being treated. What would a doctor be doing to your pet that requires you to wait in your car?  Would you allow your pediatrician to take your baby out of sight while you wait in the exam room, a waiting room, or a parking lot? Your pet is every bit as helpless as an infant. 

Make sure your vet uses written consent forms for surgery, anesthesia, lab work, and other tests and procedures, and then make sure he actually uses them for your pet. Many of us have found out the hard way that some vets can and will perform any number of procedures - including surgery under anesthesia --without consent from the guardian. And once your pet is dead, you are up against a vet who can and will lie about getting informed consent.

 Here's how it goes: You: "I never gave consent to surgery." Vet: "Yes, you did!" "No, I didn't." "Yes, you did!" And on and on.

 Without a consent form, a vet knows he can blame the client and never be held accountable. Some vets also  hide behind staff or family members or techs as a substitute for any legitimate consent scenario, knowing that the state board can't touch any support staff if they are not licensed just in case he gets caught. 

It gets worse: In Texas, vets are not required by the state Board to provide any proof of consent at all. They are allowed to state that they (or a staff member) got oral consent without providing a shred of evidence, and the board accepts it unless the guardian can prove that they DIDN'T give consent. If anyone can illustrate how to prove a guardian didn't give consent, there are a lot of us who would like to know how. 

And never sign a blanket consent form allowing the vet to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. The consent form should refer to exactly what procedures are to be performed, not just a generic form. 

As the pet's guardian you are entitled to something called "informed consent," meaning that the benefits and risks of a specific procedure are fully explained to you before you make any decision. Vets cannot make up their own definition of informed consent in order to escape accountability for negligence. incompetence, or malpractice.   

Trusting your pets to reputable veterinarians who use written consent forms that apply specifically to the procedure involved (surgery, anesthesia, etc.) can help to decrease the chances of any vet later putting you in a he said/she said scenario where he will most likely win because you won't be able to prove otherwise. 

In these days of fax, email, cell phones,  voicemail, and text messaging, there is no reason a veterinarian cannot contact a client to obtain legitimate and INFORMED consent for surgery. Deal with one who doesn't use written consent forms at your pet's risk. 

Minimize as much as possible the time your pet spends alone with the vet and without you. With busy schedules, vets can offer clients the convenience of dropping off their pets to perform routine procedures such as vaccinations, taking blood, getting allergy shots, and the like. 

Don't do it. If you can avoid the "drop off," do so. It sounds tempting, but your pets are not dry cleaning. An eight-hour day is a long time for your pet to spend in a cage after routine work is done. That's assuming that the vet performs the necessary treatments when your pet is brought in; we occasionally hear from distraught vet techs who were forced by their employers to lie to clients, telling them that their pets had been treated when in fact they sat unattended all day.

Although it can be tedious to sit in that waiting room, it's well worth it to avoid any possibility that something could go terribly wrong while you aren't there, and once again you will be squarely in a he said/she said situation with nowhere to go. (This is especially crucial in Texas where vets do not have to prove consent for performing any procedures, including surgery.) 

Try to find a veterinarian who has extended hours; some are now open seven days a week for just this reason. People are finding out that leaving their pets unattended at the vet's can result in some tragic consequences. When your pet is dead, it will be too late to wish you had stayed with them every step of the way.

If your vet is calling his facility a hospital, ask about what provisions are made for animals who have to stay overnight. An unsuspecting pet guardian may assume that because it's called a hospital, there is someone there 24 hours. This is not always the case. 

There are no laws to regulate what can and cannot be called an animal "hospital." Until that day comes, ask as many questions as possible about who, if anybody, will be with your pet. You will have to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks of leaving your pet unattended, and that choice is entirely yours. If a vet says that he or she is taking your pet home with them (some do), make sure that is actually happening. 

In a particularly dangerous scenario, some vets think nothing of lying to clients about where their pet really is. Vet techs have reported that they have witnessed vets telling clients that they--the vet-- will take their pets home and take good care of them, only to watch the vet lock up and leave a sick or dying animal alone in a cage, knowing they lied to the guardian and confident that the guardian will never find out. 

The next day, the guardian is then told by the vet that they took the pet home for personal care when it never happened. This then becomes another he said/she said, only this time the vet techs can get caught in the crossfire if they should attempt to report any deceit on the part of the vet. 

There are certainly times when you cannot avoid leaving your pet unattended overnight for necessary observation or treatments. In these cases, do as much homework as you can on the vet, his track record, and any history of complaints or investigations. The decision, as always, is ultimately yours. 

When you visit your vet, look for the notice from the state licensing board that notifies clients where to file a complaint. In Texas, vets are required to post this information in a place than can be easily seen by the public (not bathrooms, ceilings, storerooms, closets, etc.) 

If this information isn't posted, take note.  The vet may already have a record of disciplinary action, complaints, investigations, or one too many close calls to risk any more negative information being supplied to the state board. 

Vets with a record, and even some without, disregard this rule regularly. They rely on the ignorance of the public who may not know that such an entity as a licensing board exists. 

In my case, I had no idea where to file a complaint until the owner of the hospital where Suki died pointed the notice out to me. I had certainly never seen it at her original vet's. Without that guidance, I might have wasted a lot of time contacting professional veterinary organizations, none of whom have any jurisdiction over a vet's license to practice. Only the state board has the authority to administer disciplinary action to a vet. 

Check to make sure the vet has a valid license. You'd be amazed at how many vets are practicing with a lapsed or expired license, or are practicing in states they don't have licenses to practice in. The worst of these continue to practice happily without licenses every day, breaking the law -- it's a felony in some states -- and figuring what the public doesn't know won't hurt them. 

Does having a valid license mean that you are dealing with an ethical, competent vet? Not necessarily. Your vet may have a history of serious professional problems, and still have a valid license.

A vet may have even had his license revoked by a state board and still be practicing legitimately if the revocation was "stayed." It's an odd concept to say the least, but perfectly legal as far as the board is concerned. 

If you're lucky enough to live in a state that allows the public access not only to disciplinary action but also a history of complaints and investigations on a particular vet - even if the cases were dismissed -- you're way ahead in gathering information to make an informed choice.  

Texas keeps all dismissed complaints and investigative actions secret - but they can't stop a complainant from releasing information and evidence directly to the public. Your choice to take your pet to a vet with a history is entirely up to you, but I believe that it becomes even more important to monitor your vet's practices and procedures if you decide to do so.

Listen to both your pet and your instincts, and -- THIS IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL -- NEVER LET YOUR TRUST IN THE VET OVERRIDE EITHER ONE. No, Fido hasn't suddenly learned to speak, but he may be trying to tell you something. I was contacted by one guardian who picked up her pet after a "drop-off" visit. Based on her observation that "my dog acted like she had been beaten all day," she never took any her pets back to that vet, who was later the subject of investigation. 

Another guardian told me that after the first visit, he sensed that something seemed phony about the vet, although the vet was doing his best to convey an image of immense likeability and concern. He never went back either, and that vet was also under investigation and the subject of more than one complaint. 

They were the lucky ones. By paying attention to a significant behavioral change in her dog, the first guardian may have avoided a tragedy that others didn't. The second guardian wasn't distracted by superficial aspects, either, such as how nice the vet seemed, how everyone in his waiting room liked him, or how cheap his prices were. 

Choosing a vet based on price, by the way, can be a fatal mistake for your pet; some vets with a spotty history distract unsuspecting clients by emphasizing how their prices are lower than other vets. Be warned. By focusing on your pets and your instincts first, and the vet's image, self-promotion, or bargain basement prices last, you can go a long way in avoiding harm coming to your pets.

Some vets have perfected a nice guy image that is tough to see through. Too bad their temper tantrums, screaming, and intimidating behavior can't be videotaped. Their clients might be very surprised to see the other side of their "kindly" vet. 

Finally - and this was advice given to me by Suki's first veterinarian, who unfortunately retired or we would have stayed with him forever - never assume anything. I didn't know what he meant then. I do now. 

Never assume your vet is trustworthy because he seems to be a "nice guy." 

Never assume your vet loves animals - not all of them do, or some despise dogs and/or cats or other species in particular. 

Never assume that because your vet has his mother, father, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, or sometimes even his own children working for him that he's a great guy and you're part of his one big happy family. Sometimes it's cheap labor. Sometimes it's a family business. But sometimes it's the best way to stay in control.  

Never assume that information on a business card means that the vets are specialists; some vets can join organizations such as the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), put that on their business cards, and let the public believe whatever it wants.  

Never assume your vet keeps good records because they are supposed to by law; the laws aren't always enforced and vets know this better than you do. 

Never assume your vet would not perform surgery without your permission (they can do it in Texas and get away with it). Some particularly arrogant vets might perform any number of procedures without bothering to inform the client, deciding on their own when a client needs to be contacted and when they don't.  

Never assume that because a vet has techs who have been with him for a long time that that means anything. There can be high staff turnover with problem vets, to be sure, but there can also be low staff turnover with an equally problematic vet.  

In the worst cases, the staff participates,  because they go along with the vet's philosophy of how animals -- and their owners -- should be treated.   

Never assume that your vet would never harm an animal. State licensing board records prove that they do, year in and year out. 

On the other hand, never assume that your state board will discipline a vet who harms or kills your pet. Doctors routinely protect doctors, and state boards often look the other way with no moral or legal obligation to the public to enforce their own statutes if they don't wish to. 

Never assume that your trust will save you. Some of these people abuse their clients' trust on a daily basis. 

Never assume that the vet knows better than you about your own pet; no one knows your pet better than you do. 

If something--anything--feels or sounds or seems off, if the vet is saying one thing and doing another, if the vet is acting evasive or unavailable, hiding behind staff or family members while your pet is in critical condition, if your questions are not being answered to your satisfaction, if your pet's records are inaccurate or incomplete, if you suspect the vet is lying to you about anything, if a vet has performed surgery or other procedures without permission, get your pet to another veterinarian as soon as safely possible. 

And most important of all: Never assume that the worst can't happen to you and your pet. It happens every day. 

-- Julie Catalano

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