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A veterinarian stretches out her hand. A btown tabby and white cat is sniffing at the vet's hands. It's hard to choose a veterinarian for a cat, but this post will help you.

When Thomas had his first checkup at my current vet, his whole attitude toward vet care changed. He used to be a “terrified trembler,” but he fell in love with his new vet, Doctor Sarah. Photo by JaneA Kelley

One of the things I find most stressful about moving to a new place is finding doctors — not just for me, but for my cats, too. I wonder, am I going to make the right decision? Despite my research, am I going to wind up with a vet who doesn’t communicate well with me and handles my cats like they’re suitcases going into an airplane?

The process of finding a veterinarian for your cat can be pretty daunting. But we know how important it is for our cats to see the vet regularly, so it’s got to be done! I’ve danced this dance several times, so today I’m sharing some tips to make the process easier for you. If you don’t know where to start, here’s how to choose a veterinarian for your cat.

How to choose a veterinarian, step 1: Ask friends and co-workers

I’ve always had the best results when I’ve asked my colleagues in my new location about which veterinary clinic they use for their pets, or if there are clinics they absolutely would not recommend. When I moved to Portland, Maine, in 2012, I asked one of my colleagues who I knew had cats what veterinarian she’d recommend. Her answer was instant. “I’ve been taking my cats there for years,” she told me. “They’re great, and the vets there understand cats.”

My co-worker’s recommendation matched my experience at that clinic. From the first appointment on, I felt respected by the vets and the staff. They treated my cats well, using restraint techniques that were gentle and painless. They took great care of my cats for the year or so I lived there. When I adopted Bella, who was then diabetic and requiring insulin, I brought her in for her new kitty checkup visit. My vet admitted to me that she didn’t know a lot about diabetes, especially in cats as young as Bella, but she said she would read up on the subject and learn everything she could. And she did just that. She was a great ally in getting Bella off insulin and into remission. (She’s been in remission for 11 years now! Yay, Bella!)

Step 2: Ask your current vet

If you have a good relationship with your current veterinarian, consider asking them if they happen to know any veterinarians in your new location that thy would recommend. Before I moved to Portland, Maine, I asked my vet in the town where I was currently living; and before I moved to Seattle I asked my vet in Portland if they knew anyone in Seattle. Your vet may or may not have an answer for you, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask!

One very important note: Make sure you get your cat’s veterinary records before you move! Most of the time, your vet should be able to email them to you, but if your vet is old-school, you may have to ask them to photocopy the handwritten notes.Your new vet will need to know about your cat’s medical and vaccination history so they can provide the best care. You’ll also need to carry your cat’s records with you to your new destination, just in case there’s an emergency along the way. Also be sure that if your cats are flying, you have all the necessary vaccinations and health certificates.

A veterinarian palpates a brown and white tabby cat

A good cat-friendly veterinarian will meet a cat where they are, not demanding that they be on the exam table the whole time. In fact, the vets at my clinic often get down on the floor with their feline clients. Photo by JaneA Kelley

Step 3: Join a cat-oriented social media group for your new location

One of the first things I did when I moved to Seattle was to join a Facebook group called Cats of Seattle. I learned a lot about what veterinary options were available just by watching the dialogue in the community.

There are some rules of etiquette you should follow before posting in a group, no matter what platform it’s on.

  • First, scroll back two weeks or so in the group’s posts to see if anyone asked a similar question to yours, and see what answers the group members gave.
  • Ensure that the group rules allow asking for veterinarian recommendations before you post your request. If it doesn’t, the group’s moderators may have made a list of vet recommendations as a document or as a collection of posts.

Step 4: Look for the signs and certifications

If you’re trying to figure out how to choose a veterinarian for your cat, some “green flags” can include mentions on cat-oriented websites.

The American Association of Feline Practitioners’ (AAFP’s) Cat Friendly website can be a great resource, too. You want to look for an AAFP member practice or a clinic that has been designated an AAFP Cat-Friendly Practice. The site has a great search tool that you can use to find cat-friendly vets, either where you live now or where you’ll be after you move.

Another certification to look for is Fear-Free. The Fear-Free program, started by “America’s Vet,” Dr. Marty Becker, includes education for veterinarians and veterinary staff about how to handle animals without causing unnecessary fear. This website also has a search tool that will allow you to search for a Fear Free-certified clinic or professional.

If finding and supporting a practice that doesn’t do declawing is important to you, The Paw Project has a directory of vets in the United States and Canada that do not perform declaw surgeries.

I do want to say here that the absence of Cat Friendly or Fear-Free certification doesn’t mean the clinic is bad or doesn’t care about cats. Getting these certifications is quite expensive, and it’s probably not something that most small clinics can afford. Veterinary clinics in general operate on a very thin margin, and if they have to choose, they will most likely choose to use their revenue to keep the staff paid, the lights on, and the doors open.

A screenshot of the Cat Friendly Practice directory search page on the Cat Friendly Practice website. This image is attached to an article on how to choose a vet for your cat.

This is a screenshot from the AAFP’s Cat-Friendly provider directory.

Step 5: Check online reviews

While I do suggest checking online reviews, I also recommend using a lot of critical thinking while looking at those reviews. First, understand that people who really loved or really hated the clinic will not hesitate to leave their reviews, so you’ll probably see a lot of 5-star and 1-star reviews. If you want a slightly more nuanced perspective, look at the 2-, 3-, and 4-star reviews first. Here are things to particularly look for in online reviews:

  1. How does the practice respond to negative reviews? What you don’t want to see is a lot of defensiveness or client-blaming. Even if the client is the problem, a professional response will neither accuse nor imply that the client caused the problem.
  2. Is there a pattern? Have ratings gone up or down over time? Sometimes practices change ownership or management, and what once may have been a terrible clinic may now be operated by a new and significantly better owner.
  3. Do you see any red flags? This could be about the patient care, about the staff, or about the practice itself. You know what your red flags are, so I won’t offer any more advice about that.

Step 6: The phone/email screen

After you’ve settled on a few top choices, now it’s time to dig a little deeper about each of them. To do so, first, review each clinic’s website. That will familiarize you with the services they offer, their hours (so you can see how convenient they are for you), how many vets are at the practice, and what online services are offered to clients. My vet clinic, for example, has a form that allows patients to request medication refills, and also allows new clients to fill in their paperwork through an online form.

After you’ve done that, contact the practice by email or phone and ask the following questions:

  1. How does your clinic handle emergencies? For example, can they see emergency appointments during open hours but refer to the local (or nearest, if you live in a rural area) emergency clinic?
  2. What are your fees? Be specific to your cat. If your kitty is a senior, ask what a senior exam plus necessary blood work and urinalysis would cost. If you just brought home a kitten, does the clinic offer a well-kitten package, and what does that include?
  3. Do you have a veterinarian who specializes in [thing]? For example, if you have a diabetic cat, you’ll want to make sure the practice has someone who is knowledgeable in treating diabetes and is up-to-date on the latest recommendations about diet, insulin types, and how other medications can affect diabetes.
  4. Can I request an appointment with a specific veterinarian? In my experience with multi-vet clinics, I’ve never had trouble getting appointments with my “primary care vet,” so to speak. If the clinic is first-come, first-served, like the one you might see in the Animal Planet series Dr. Jeff, Rocky Mountain Vet, you’ll most likely be seeing whichever vet is available.
  5. Do you offer services other than veterinary care? For example, the clinic I use offers boarding. Some clinics may also offer grooming.
  6. Can you meet my accessibility needs? Here are just a few potential scenarios: If you’re a wheelchair user, will you be able to get in the entrance and into exam rooms? If you’re autistic and bright light is overwhelming, can you lower the lights in the exam room? Can you bring your aide with you? Do you have a disability that makes it difficult if not impossible to communicate by phone? Will they accommodate that by communicating via email or text message?
  7. Can I come and visit the clinic/take a tour? My current vet clinic offers complete tours of the facility: exam rooms, pharmacy, treatment area, surgery rooms, laundry, and boarding facility. Although my then-best friend recommended the clinic, the tour really sold me. I saw firsthand how excited they were to work there and how collegial the atmosphere was.

These aren’t the only questions you can ask. If there are other issues that come to mind, don’t hesitate to ask about those, either.

One final note: Unless the practice is really old-school, I strongly recommend using email to ask these questions. I feel it’s much more courteous, especially if it’s a busy practice. It gives staff time to ask around if they don’t know the answer right away, and it allows them to write their reply between calls from existing clients and other tasks.

A veterinarian palpates the abdomen of a brown tabby and white cat. This image is attached to a post on how to choose a vet for your cat.

One of the things I love about my clinic is that the vets actually meet the cats where they (physically) are! In this photo, Doctor Sarah is palpating Thomas’s abdomen while he’s stretched out on a bench near his carrier. My current vet usually sits on the floor with a towel in her lap to examine my cats. Photo by JaneA Kelley

How to choose a veterinarian, the final step: Vibe check!

If the clinics you contacted offer tours or allow you to come for a visit, it’s time for you to do the final and absolutely most important step. Whether you call it a gut check, vibe check, or whatever, what you’re looking for is how the place feels. Do you get an upbeat feeling? Does the place look clean and organized? Do the receptionists greet you promptly and politely?

If you get to go “in the back” to see the treatment area, surgery, and so on, is that area also clean and organized? Do the staff members act friendly and seem like they enjoy their jobs? (Oh, here’s a great vibe check question for you: If the clinic’s website doesn’t mention when staff members joined the team, you can ask one of the assistants, nurses, or receptionists how long they’ve been working there.)

There’s a very good chance that the vibe check will be your make-or-break experience, so use it well.

It’s OK if something goes wrong

I know nobody wants to do all this work, only to find that the vet you’re working with is just not a good match. If you’re in a multi-vet practice, you can ask to see a different vet when you schedule your next appointment. If you really like the clinic itself but the vet who saw you isn’t a great match, that’s the route I’d take.

If it’s a one-vet practice, then consider looking more closely at your other two finalists for your cat’s care. Don’t beat yourself up about it.

Conclusion

Choosing a veterinarian is a major decision, and all major decisions require research. I did tons of research before I bought my car, for example. I do research on potential employers before applying for jobs. And no matter how good our research is, it’s not always going to provide the best answers. My research has led me into some truly awful jobs … oops. Fortunately, my luck with vets is much better!

A veterinarian gives a brown tabby cat a back-scratch. This photo is attached to an article on how to choose a veterinarian for you cat.

By the end of his first appointment at my current vet, Thomas had fallen in love with Doctor Sarah. And she had fallen in love with him. She called him “my little boyfriend” for years. Photo by JaneA Kelley

 


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