Get the Best Vet for Your Pet

Here’s how to find a veterinarian who combines compassion and skill with respect for your pocketbook

When we brought a black Labrador pup home a year ago, we were prepared for the cost of vaccinations and neutering. Further health care would be minimal’we thought. But after three sets of shots ($125) and neutering ($140), Laddie developed an ear infection. A visit to our veterinarian and a bottle of ear drops: $62. Two months later, an eye infection: $55. Then, another ear infection: $62. Finally one of Laddie’s nails was torn off in a wrestle with another dog. Bandaged paw: $57. During his first year, the vet bill topped $500 instead of the $250 we’d expected.

Like many new owners, we were unprepared for the cost of keeping our dog healthy. Yet our vet bill wasn’t out of line. Just over half of Canadian households have pets, and we pay an average of $300 a year for veterinary care and other services like grooming and training.

A recent American Animal Hospital Association survey found that more than a third of American and Canadian owners who regularly take their animals to the vet would spend “any amount” to save their pets’ lives. Many indeed spend large sums. Advances in animal medicine mean that almost all the lifesaving options available to humans are now there for pets, from artificial hip joints to chemotherapy and open-heart surgery’procedures that can cost thousands of dollars. (See box below.)

The technology not only saves lives but can improve the quality of your pet’s life. “For example, in the past, older dogs often lost their teeth,” says Tim Ogilvie, dean of veterinary medicine at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown. “Now there’s an industry around dental care for dogs, including teeth implants.”

Animal medicine in Canada is performed by some 6,600 veterinarians, professionals who must pass stringent university entrance requirements and complete six years of education.

Our vet surely chose his profession because he loves animals, but the practice of veterinary medicine is no charity. It’s a sophisticated business in a competitive marketplace, with high overheads. In 1995, full-time veterinarians earned an average income of $56,000.

How Much Will It Cost?

The range of medical services offered by vets today is similar to that available to humans. Prices are unregulated, though, and may vary even within a community. On the low side are services that may be provided by Canada’s veterinary teaching hospitals.

Annual checkup (examination and distemper-rabies shot) $55-$100

Overnight hospital stay $36-$70

Medium dog (10-20 kg) $145-$220
Cat $98-$175

Medium dog (10-20 kg) $125-$190
Cat $64-$113

Fractured femur (dog) $1,100+

Teeth cleaning (cat) $270+

Hip replacement (dog) $2,500+

Open-heart surgery, $2,000-$5,000

Chemotherapy depends heavily on the drug used. Drugs can cost from $10-$300 per dose.


So how do you find the best caregiver for your pet? Here’s what the experts say:

Word of mouth. Referrals from friends and acquaintances are the best way to find a vet. But ask those giving referrals specific questions: How long has your pet been seeing this vet? What were the health problems and how were they treated? What were the costs?

“If your friend has a healthy two-year-old spaniel, its veterinary needs may be very different from those of your elderly Siamese cat,” says Rosemary Bonderud of the British Columbia Veterinary Medical Association. “You may want to obtain a reference from the owner of another geriatric pet.”

Find a convenient location. After checking your phone book for local addresses, remember that not all vets handle all animal species. And to call himself a specialist, your vet must have additional training in an area of expertise such as ophthalmology, and be approved by the licensing body in his province. Vets aren’t allowed to use advertising that implies superiority, such as “best in town.” If you have any questions, call your provincial veterinary medical association.

Make a short list and visit clinics. Arrive early, sit in the waiting room and chat with other clients. Look for a well-organized office with a cheerful receptionist. Your pet might wind up having more contact with the support staff than with the veterinarian, so everyone you meet should inspire confidence. Animal health technologists or veterinary technicians have a college diploma allowing them to work under the supervision of a veterinarian and to carry out almost all types of animal care except diagnosing, prescribing drugs or performing surgery.

Ask for a tour of the areas where animals are treated or kept. Are they clean and free of foul odours? Do the animals have comfortable bedding? Look at the size of the cages, but don’t assume bigger is always better. A small cage might prevent an injured animal from thrashing around and hurting itself.

Check out the range of services. Do you prefer a small clinic with one or two veterinarians, or large premises with specialists and diagnostic tools like ultrasound and endoscopy equipment? Is round-the-clock nursing available if your pet has to stay overnight? Would you prefer a practice that specializes in your type of pet’an all-cat practice, for example?

What happens in an emergency? Some vets still make house calls and offer emergency services after regular hours. Increasingly, especially in urban areas, you’ll be directed to a 24-hour emergency hospital. When your pet is struck by a vehicle, accidentally poisoned or suddenly immobilized, minutes could save its life.

Last November Don and Margaret Young rushed through the doors of a Winnipeg emergency pet hospital at 2 a.m. with their Border collie-husky cross. X-rays confirmed that Spot had a twisted stomach and was about to die. Immediate surgery and a three-day stay in hospital’at a cost of $2,272’saved his life. “If we’d waited for our vet’s office to open the next morn-ing, we would have lost him,” says Margaret.

What to look for in a vet

By Alison Ramsey

Vets, like all of us, have different personalities and bad days. No two will be exactly the same. But the service they provide should always be professional, informed and proactive when it comes to the health issues your pet may be facing. Here, then, is a list of the basics of what to look for when searching for a new veterinarian:

1. Good communication skills; someone who takes the time to provide information and advice.

2. Empathy towards you, and your pet.

3. Good rapport with you personally.

4. Someone who can clearly explain complicated medical procedures or pet care directions for you to follow at home.

5. A person who expresses interest in your pet and the conditions of its day-to-day life.

6. He or She should ask not only about your animal, but go the extra mile and treat the pet holistically by asking questions such as: How do members of the family interact with the pet? Are there other pets in the home?

7. Ask if your practitioner has experience in treating your animal breed.

8. If your vet has a specialty, he should have proper accreditation to prove it.

9. A good vet is someone who has demonstrated a continuing interest in upgrading her skills. Many provinces make ongoing training a condition of renewing a licence to practise.

Look for rapport. Almost all complaints about veterinarians relate to poor people skills rather than poor medical skills, says Dr. Andrew Peacock, registrar for the Newfoundland and Labrador Veterinary Licensing Board, which resolves complaints from the public. “Look for a vet who communicates well, is sensitive to your feelings and honest about your pet’s problems.”

Marlene Gaskarth of Coquitlam, B.C., appreciates her vet’s consideration. After a five-month battle with cancer, her rottweiler cross, Carl, had to be euthanized. “When my husband and I decided to end Carl’s suffering,” says Gaskarth, “the clinic called the veterinarian at home and he came in on his day off. He allowed us to stay with Carl while he gave him the injection, gave us time alone with the body, then handled all the arrangements for cremation.”

Does your vet stay informed? Don’t be afraid to ask how your vet stays current with the latest medical advances. Does he attend refresher courses? In seven provinces’British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island’continuing education is mandatory before a veterinarian’s annual licence is renewed.

If you conduct your own research, will your veterinarian review the information you provide? Cheryl Wallach of Calgary told her veterinarian about a web site describing a natural remedy she hoped might help her dog’s elbow dysplasia. “He looked up the web site, checked out the product, then phoned me to say that it wouldn’t work because Walter’s condition was too advanced. But I felt my suggestion was taken seriously.”

Comparison shop. Even spaying and neutering, the two most common surgeries, can see wide price variations. But quoted prices don’t tell the whole story: Find out what is included, and ask about extra charges. Cheaper isn’t always better. If you’re looking for the best deal on neutering your dog but want to ensure quality treatment, tell the vet its breed, age and size, which will influence the amount of anesthetic used and the time required for surgery. Then ask:

• What type of anesthetic will be used? In general, inhalants have replaced older, injected drugs. While inhalants are safer, the newer the drug is, the more expensive it can be.
• How many painkillers are administered before, during and after surgery? How long will my dog continue to receive pain medication?
• Will the vet be assisted by a technician during surgery? Does he use monitoring equipment that measures vital signs such as heart rate and oxygen saturation?
• After surgery, will my dog be kept overnight? If there’s no overnight supervision, your dog may be better off at home, where you can watch it yourself.
• Does the fee include a follow-up visit?

Talk to your vet about the costs. Will the vet provide written estimates and inform you of all options before proceeding with treatment? “It’s important to discuss finances before your pet has a problem,” says Dr. Duane Landals, registrar for the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association. “In an emergency, people are sometimes so distressed they can’t focus on what the vet’s saying.”

Dr. Ian Sandler of Toronto, who appears weekly on CTV’s Canada AM with pet advice, agrees that getting written estimates is a good idea, but warns consumers that pets often develop unforeseen problems.

“The vet should provide a daily update on your pet’s condition, especially if it looks like costs will rise.”

How are vets trained?

By Alison Ramsey

Every certified veterinarian in North America studies a minimum of two years of science after high school, then completes a four-year university program to earn their Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. Practical and clinical work comprise the whole of the fourth year. As with the study of human medicine, students do rotations such as pathology, radiology and surgery during their clinical work. To practise, they must also pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE), a day-long exam that tests scientific veterinary and medical knowledge.

Anyone who has not graduated from an accredited university or college must complete an extra practical component of the NAVLE exam that measures skills.

To be a specialist, a veterinarian generally completes a residency (usually a three-year program). This is often preceded by a one-year internship, or clinical experience. At the end of the residency, the student earns his or her certification in part by successfully writing an exam given by the body governing their specialty.

For pet care information, browse the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association web site at You can get more information about veterinary training in Canada by browsing the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, web site:

Or contact:

Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, at:  [email protected]
Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island, at: [email protected]
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Montreal, at: [email protected]

Consider pet health insurance. This option is popular in Europe but relatively unknown in Canada, where less than five percent of pets are insured. Basic coverage against accidents and illnesses starts at about $20 a month for a healthy pet. Christopher A. Stea of Schumacher, Ont., has had pet insurance for the past 14 years. He estimates he has spent $5,000 on coverage for his two rottweilers but saved triple that amount in veterinary bills when both dogs developed terminal cancer. His advice: Read the policy carefully and be aware of deductibles.

Confirm the veterinarian’s status. The risk is small, but it’s worth a phone call to confirm that your vet has a licence and to ask whether he has ever been disciplined for an offence. In all but three provinces, the professional veterinary medical associations license vets, enforce standards and handle complaints ranging from malpractice to overcharging clients. Newfoundland and P.E.I. have their own licensing boards. Ontario has a separate College of Veterinarians that licenses and regulates practitioners.

How Much Would
You Pay
to Save the Life of
Your Pet?

Under  $500 45%
Up to $1,000 21%
Up to $2,000 8%
Over $2,000 26%

From a Reader’s Digest on-line poll conducted in March 2002

Once you have selected your veterinarian, don’t wait for a medical emergency to start building a relationship. Most vets will do a free meet-and-greet visit, but even if they charge for that visit, it’s worth the money, says Kaye Boutilier of Dartmouth, N.S., owner of three dogs, two cats and 12 birds. “I always take my pets in for a ‘fun’ visit the first time,” she says. “Then they won’t balk at going back.”

Final tip: To get the best value for your money, make full use of your vet’s knowledge by asking questions about all aspects of pet health and behaviour. “It still surprises me that people take advice about their dog’s nutrition from a teenager working in a pet food store instead of asking me,” says Dr. Darcy Rae of Westbank, B.C., who treats hundreds of dogs and cats every year.

While pondering all this information, I asked my family how much they would spend to save Laddie’s life. Like the 21 percent of pet owners in an on-line poll by Reader’s Digest this year, my husband thinks a thousand dollars is a reasonable upper limit, while my three teenage daughters are among the 26 percent of owners who say they’d mortgage the house if necessary.

Me, I think I’ll make a few calls about pet insurance.


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