When your pet's veterinarian says the sky is blue, do you feel a need to run outside and check?
I'm constantly bombarded by emails from pet owners who seem to feel that way, so much so they often don't take even clearly very sick pets to the veterinarian, but instead waste time writing me 20-page missives on every symptom their pet has expressed for the previous several weeks.
When I ask why they haven't taken their dog or cat to the vet, sometimes the answer is money. But most of the time, it's a screed ranging from general distrust of the entire veterinary profession to the occasional full-blown conspiracy theory heavily tinged with paranoid delusions.
Setting aside that last group, whose problems are beyond the scope of a pet writer, it really worries me that so many people have let one or a few bad experiences with veterinarians turn them away from getting necessary care for their pets. From my column today on SFGate.com:
I've had bad experiences with veterinarians. I've also had terrible haircuts and gone to dishonest auto mechanics. Nonetheless, I keep getting my hair done and my car fixed -- and taking my pets to the veterinarian.
Good veterinarians have knowledge and experience, as well as access to diagnostic testing, that no pet owner -- and no pet writer, either -- can have. Condemning the entire profession for the unethical behavior of one or a few individuals is irrational and dangerous for your pet if it means he doesn't get necessary care.
But trust should never be given unquestioningly, simply because someone has a "DVM" or "VMD" after her name. Trust is something the veterinarian has to earn.
Obviously, once a vet has been treating your pets for years, you can trust him based on his track record. But there are plenty of times we can't rely on a vet we've had for years -- when we move, while traveling, when our vet retires, or when a pet needs immediate care and his regular vet isn't available.
I've written before about how to find a veterinarian who practices excellent veterinary medicine. Here are the tips I use to decide whether or not a veterinarian deserves my trust:
The trustworthy veterinarian knows he doesn't know everything. No one is omniscient. I have no problem with that. While I would assume any veterinarian knows a great deal more than I do about general medical issues relating to pets, I don't expect him to be an expert on every single medication, condition or obscure article in a medical journal.
But when I ask him a question he can't answer I do expect him to respond by saying, "I don't know, let me check on that." Veterinarians who try to bluff to preserve their authority, or worse, imply you're being fussy, bothersome or over-protective for asking in the first place, don't deserve your trust.
For example, my dog Rebel, who died in 2009, had a very rare genetic condition that most vets will go their whole careers without treating. I understood that even the best veterinarian was going to need to do some research to treat him.
As long as the veterinarian understood that, too, everything was fine. But the minute a vet dismissed my questions or the information I was giving him about my dog, I was gone. Not because I wanted him to replace his judgment with mine, but because he was doing so not on the basis of his greater knowledge or expertise, but arrogance or insecurity.
She keeps up with the profession. This one seems like a no-brainer, but I've met a few veterinarians who seem proud of the fact that they still practice to the standards of the year they graduated from vet school.
One veterinarian I saw in San Mateo County -- fortunately now retired -- bragged to me about how he didn't use modern anesthetic gases because he felt it was better to keep using the methods you were most familiar with.
"Even if they're more dangerous than newer, safer drugs?" I asked him in amazement.
Even so, he insisted. I guess the prospect of learning the new methods of anesthesia was just too much change for him to contemplate.
Bottom line: If you ask how the veterinarian handles anesthesia or pain management and are brushed aside with outdated information, it's time to walk.
Read the rest of my tips here.