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How to choose a vet

Just when I thought that the move to London had changed my giant, explosive-at-the-vet, fur-ball into a polite British kitty, his actions in this morning’s consult quickly proved me wrong. Normally, a vet consult is impossible with Lewis; no cat behaviourist can change that. Whilst he is a little lamb at home, he won’t and never will let himself be touched by a fellow white-coat wearer.

This veterinary consult was different: she could fondle him all over as he acted like a rag doll*. So, when the vet and I decided to have one of his broken canines removed (the sharp teeth at the front which cats use to tear meat apart with), we thought: Hey, why not do a blood test as well, while we're here?! She got the nurse and I was gently and verbally pushed into the waiting area, like a regular cat parent. I was sitting there, waiting and thinking to myself that I shouldn't have let myself be sent out that easily as I am always very strict in not leaving him alone with just anybody, especially when they’re trying to draw blood and he is very stressed. I should have had Lewis' back in there, he’s my home boy! Moreover, when asked about checking the facilities (such as the operating room and kennels) before booking a surgical procedure for him, I would have to make an appointment somewhere in the following week, because “it’s a bit chaotic in the back right now and we also have a cat lying back there with post mortem”.

The doctor came out again quickly with the following message: "Take your demon cat home with you and NEVER come back again!!" Which brings me to numero uno:

1. Is the vet thorough and able to handle animals with kindness and compassion (i.e. without forcefully handling a somewhat Godzilla-like-kitty)?

Okay okay, that's not totally what she said, but Lewis' inner wolf had come out and would not even let her shave his majestic beard off for some blood from the jugular vein....Afterwards, she couldn't even put the flea drops we were there for in the first place on his neck, that's how angry he was.

Don't even think about it!

Back at home, mister Lewis was his normal little lamb again, we had scheduled a date for next week to have his tooth removed and his blood taken whilst he is under.

But I started thinking… We came in for him to get flea treatment and a check to see whether his European chip could be read by a UK chip-reader. When we walked out, I had one upset kitty, no flea treatment was given, no chip was read and I haven’t seen their facilities (although I have quite a good idea what it looks like… chaotic and dead cats lying around). Nobody told me that it’s crucial to let my cat fast at least 12 hours before general anaesthetics! This is quite an important piece of knowledge, as your animal can choke right after been given anaesthetics which often makes them vomit.

2. Do the facilities in the clinic looks clean, up to date and take in account the holy war between cats and dogs?

Whenever we go to a restaurant, we humans are always very satisfied when the kitchen is open and we can see hygienic matters are taken seriously. Then how come do some people just drop their beloved animal off at the nearest – or worse, cheapest- vet clinic, without even knowing the person who’s going to be operating on your animal, his/her credentials and the hygienic circumstances? It’s not a risotto we’re talking about here, it’s a living, sentient being!

This clinic had a waiting room that was just an open space; no separate places or consultation rooms for canines and felines, resulting in pooches bouncing around my cooped up Purrminator. So, I believe it’s safe to say that their kennels for after-surgery care will be a mixed bunch as well. Can you imagine yourself waking up after surgery and realising there’s an angry T-Rex in the kennel next to you and there’s nowhere you can go but go to your imaginary safe place?! No wonder many animals, and cats in particular, come home very stressed after a surgical appointment at the vet.

3. Are the nurses well qualified (or in training but properly supervised) and willing to deal with pain-in-the-ass caretakers?

When I went over to this clinic the first time to make an appointment and asked the nurses some questions about flea treatment (i.e. what is the active ingredient in product X you’re going to be giving to my cat with a very sensitive skin?), they looked at me blankly, said “Nobody has ever asked us that question, maybe you should come and work for us.” and gave me the box to figure it out myself. Call me pedantic, but I don’t want un-inquisitive nurses like that (or nurses in training as they were) looking over my million-dollar worth puss after surgery.

After all of this, I went on ‘the Google’ and found a vet that was recommended to me by a veterinary practitioner who currently only practises Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). The clinic she recommended has a holistic approach (integrating Western medicine with Homeopathy, raw food diets, Osteopaths and TCM) and a standard consult of 30 minutes (compared to the norm, 10-15 minutes). I phoned them up and had an elaborate conversation with the receptionist. When she didn’t know the answers to questions, she was kind enough to admit that, take my number and call me back later after having asked the nurses who did know the answers.

4. Are the veterinary specialists willing to discuss with the caretaker of the animal and other vets (e.g. with another approach to health, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors) to make an informed decision regarding the animal’s health?

Just like a GP is specialised in curing health issues by suppressing symptoms with Western medication, a regular vet has had the same training. “Allopathic veterinarians (those who are trained at conventional veterinary schools) do not study health; they study disease” (Anitra Frazier, The Natural Cat p232). Preferably, he or she will be continuing training throughout their career, but is never able to know all. For instance, the amount of knowledge they get in vet school regarding diet is minimal, focussed on “curing” diseases and taught by the large manufacturers.

You as a caretaker always have a choice to integrate this western approach with alternative approaches, such as behaviour consultation, dietary changes or acupuncture. There’s no need to be dog-matic (pun intended) about it all; one approach can work perfectly for one animal and not for the other. It’s always a matter of finding out what works best for you and your animal. I know that for Lewis, it works best to be handled gently (without holding him, just giving him that jab with a gentle touch) as he is a Free-Range kitty like me and doesn’t like to be confined or handled roughly. When something needs to be done which does take him to be confined (such as taking blood from the jugular vein), I am the person to do that. This way he knows it is okay and the handling comes from a loving, albeit necessary perspective. A veterinary practitioner should ALWAYS take the time to discuss options with the caretaker who knows the animal the best.

Whenever you need a second opinion from a homeopath or a TCM vet because you feel the regular approach isn’t working, your regular vet should be happy to refer you and be able to learn more about other approaches.

Furthermore, if your pet needs to be admitted, the doctor and nurses should be willing to hear your “demands” regarding hospitalisation. A few examples I am adamant on when having Lewis hospitalised is not having cats in a same room with dogs, have a pheromone diffuser in the cat area, have enough padding in his cage and a place where he can hide himself in (e.g. a small cardboard box or a brown paper bag), enough warmth because he loses warmth during surgery and sickness, something that smells of me such as a worn shirt and visitation rights. The nurses need to be very caring, soft spoken and willing to give him a good stroke on a regular basis to keep him happy. Fortunately, I was always my cat’s own nurse, so never had to go and look for this little gem ;-)

5. Go with your gut feeling

Perhaps the most important thing, go with your gut feeling. Just like choosing a dentist or GP, you need to feel comfortable, secure and taken seriously.

One vet might look very impressive with his 40 years of experience and state of the art facilities, but he can be a total douchebag with animals and caretakers. I have worked with a person like that and would never, ever take one of my animals to him.

6. Don’t let prices guide you (too much)

People who know me, know that I’ve spent thousands of Euros on my animals to get proper consultations, treatments and food, in order to make sure they remain healthy or prolong their lives in the best way possible. Sure, consults shouldn’t have extortionate prices, but the general thought that vets charge too much and are money-gobbling demons isn’t true either. In the Netherlands, being a veterinary practitioner is the second worst paying job after University (no.1 is being a pastor) with an average monthly salary of €1800,- .

Blood analysis and x-ray machines and the rent of a clinic-appropriate space are expensive, and vets often have huge debts due to pay them off. A hospital, which often use the same machines but also diagnose hundreds of patients per day, pays off these machines in a fraction of the time a vet does.

When people complain that a blood test, which shows you very precisely how your animal is doing on a physiological level, is too expensive (around €80 in Amsterdam), I just respond with that the same test is even more expensive in a human hospital but that you would never see the bill as the insurance or National Health Service takes care of it.

And then the nurses; in the Netherlands, the CAO (the general rules for employment in their area of expertise) is so bad, they would be better off financially if they would work in a grocery store. I know that many nurses in Amsterdam wouldn’t be able to make ends meet without a working spouse or having other jobs on the side. So again, when people complain that “we charge too much” and that we should be doing this work for less money because we love animals, I would ask them to pay my rent.

Remember, a vet who charges less, has to see more patients a day to make sure he makes a little bit of profit. Would you want your Purry to be one of the patients that’s shoved in between 99 others or would you rather have the vet take her time to ensure a relaxed kitty/pooch and open environment for discussion?

*There’s an actual cat breed called Ragdoll, bred to be demure and easy to handle.