I've been a pet writer since 1991. In that time, I've probably received enough snail mail and email asking questions about pet health, diet, and behavior to fill my house. So I think I'm qualified to identify a trend that has persisted over time.
Someone writes me with several paragraphs -- or pages -- about their pet's medical issues. They list the symptoms they've observed, the remedies they've tried, and lots and lots of minute details about the time of day the pet exhibits certain symptoms, the color and consistency of discharges, and the entire history of every bite of food said pet has ever consumed.
In a huge percentage of these missives, nowhere are the opinion of the pet's veterinarian, the results of the veterinarian's physical exam, nor any diagnostic tests mentioned.
The only way I ever respond to this type of letter is by asking, "What did the vet say?"
Sometimes they reply telling me what the vet said, but usually they say they haven't been to the vet, even in the cases of pets with fairly troubling symptoms that have persisted for weeks or months.
Now, I realize that some pet owners cannot afford to go to the vet, or can only do so if it's a dire and acute emergency. There are some resources to help these pet owners get care for their pets, but they're not easy to find and don't usually cover the entire amount. It's a bad situation and I sympathize with the people caught in it.
They're not who I'm talking about here.
I'm talking about the ones who respond to my query about the vet with some variation on the following sentence: "I don't want to go to the vet because he'll just put him on antibiotics," or whatever treatment the person doesn't want the pet to receive, or thinks will be futile.
Let me explain this as simply as I can: No veterinarian can "put your pet" on anything without your consent. And if they try, it's your responsibility as your pet's owner to ask for something more from your veterinarian than to have a prescription shoved in your face.
If that seems overwhelming to you, I understand. Confronting authority is hard. Learning to have an equal and productive partnership with an authority figure is also hard. Hell, finding a good veterinarian is hard, let alone one who is located within driving distance and has good communication skills.
But here's the thing: Your pets can't find their own veterinarians, can't advocate for better care, can't even tell the vet where it hurts. They are entirely dependent on you to do that.
If you feel your veterinarian doesn't listen and doesn't see you as a partner, you need to either speak with her about that and see if you can fix things, or find a veterinarian with whom you have some rapport.
Additionally, even if you have a hard time communicating with your veterinarian, he may still have extremely valuable information about your pet's condition to give you. Vets have, after all, seen thousands of pets with these same symptoms. They know what diagnostic tests are available and which are likely to narrow down the diagnostic and treatment possibilities for your pet.
They can also write prescriptions for pain medication as well as drugs for bacterial, viral, or fungal infections that might be at the root of a pet's symptoms.
If nothing else, they can help you rule out a lot of things you were "treating" your pet for with your home remedies, and ideally allay your worst fears.
Of course, just as there are vets who have poor communication skills, there are vets who don't practice good medicine. They don't keep up with advances in the field, don't use good diagnostic skills, and shove an antibiotic and/or steroid at everything. These are bad vets, and you shouldn't be giving them your money in the first place. The answer, however, is not to stop going to the vet, but to find a good vet.
You may be locked out of the pet health market by finances, or live somewhere there simply are few or no veterinarians, but your own lack of backbone should not be allowed to compromise your pet's health, nor prevent you from accessing the information necessary to make an informed decision about her care.
You can set the stage for better care the minute the vet enters the exam room by telling him you're not just looking for a prescription, but a diagnosis and an understanding of your pet's condition before the exam. Be friendly but clear. You may find your vet welcomes a client who really wants to get to the bottom of a pet's health condition; many people actually get pissed off when their vets want to run diagnostic tests, assuming they're just doing it to pad the bill.
Even before that appointment, go to trustworthy veterinary sites -- I highly recommend VeterinaryPartner.com, the pet owner website of the Veterinary Information Network -- and search for accurate information about the conditions you suspect your pet has. See what diagnostics are usually done in these cases, and what the treatment options might be. This can help when you're in the exam room with your veterinarian.
Still too overwhelming? I get it. Maybe you're shy, or maybe you're just too close to the issue to be objective. Find a friend or family member with more detachment to come with you and ask the tough questions.
Finally, remember that taking some time to consider your options is not just okay, it's admirable. If your veterinarian tells you something you don't understand or don't like, tell her you would like to think about it, unless she feels that would put your pet's life at risk.
Maybe you just need a few minutes to re-group. Maybe you need to sleep on it. Unless your pet needs emergency surgery or is really suffering, a few hours or a day usually won't make that much difference.
Ask your veterinarian to give you a written diagnosis and include any information you want to consider, including costs. If you came alone, get on the phone and talk it over with a trusted friend. Or go home and visit some of those reliable Internet websites again, and see what you can find out online.
If you're still unsure, either because you think the vet missed something or because you can't afford everything that was suggested, ask your vet for options. Be honest and open about financial constraints, or things you don't understand.
If the vet acts as if you're being unreasonable, get as much out of this particular appointment as you can, and as soon as possible, start your search for a new veterinarian who will welcome a client who is thoughtful and thorough.
But don't just slink away into the darkness whining about what you think your veterinarian will do or say. When you do that, you're abdicating a huge hunk of the very real obligation you have to your pet: To be her advocate, and take care of her as best you can. Be strong. Keep the faith.