by Hazel King
Cat and Rabbit Behaviourist
There are many reasons why you might want to find a new vet. Maybe you recently moved to a new area. You may have decided to get your first companion animal. In my own case, my vet, who’d seen me through about 35 years and generations of cats, retired.
Whatever the reason, decide what vet you want to use, and make contact with them, without delay. Accidents can happen at any moment, and if your animal is injured – or suddenly taken ill – you seriously don’t need to be searching for a place to take it.
Speaking of emergencies, you actually need to know the details of two vets: your regular vet, and the nearest 24 hour practice. Only a few practices are open outside of regular business hours, so find out where there is a 24 hour practice, and maybe even put it into the app you use for driving directions, if it’s not in an area you use all the time.
If your animal is a cat or rabbit, there’s something else that you need as well as your vet’s address, and that is a nice, solid, secure travelling box. It is not reasonable to expect even a placid animal to sit quietly on your lap in an unfamiliar waiting room, with all the scary smells, dogs, maybe your own animal is in pain… Much, much better for everyone if it’s safely confined. Which reminds me: dog owners, please keep your dog away from cats, and especially from prey animals like rabbits. You know that your dog is fine with cats. Maybe the cat’s owner can see that it’s not aggressive. But the cat doesn’t know, and it’s already stressed. Just stay away. Unfortunately, few vets have separate waiting areas for dogs, cats, and prey animals.
Now we come to choosing the veterinary practice.
Location is important. If there’s a suitable vet, with whom you get on well, very close to your home, that will be ideal. In an emergency, you don’t want to be battling traffic for long distances. Even for a routine visit, a long drive can be very stressful, especially in hot weather. Think of, for example, a cat with kidney failure (which is extremely common in senior cats). It can make the cat feel very nauseous, and vet visits will become quite frequent as time passes. The closer the vet is to your house, the more comfortable your old friend will be.
Consider whether you will be more comfortable in a large practice, where there might be several vets available at any time. Here there might be a core of two or three partners, but quite a high turnover of other vets, as many young vets seem to like to travel before setting up their own practices – which might mean, for example, that your practice employs a vet from England for a couple of years, or that your favourite vet goes off to gain experience in India. Or you might prefer a smaller practice, maybe just one or two vets whom you will get to know well, and who will know you and your animals.
Will you also get on well with the reception staff, and will they be able to advise you on the products that you will be buying, for example food and flea treatments?
As important as these factors are, the vet him or herself is the most important factor of all. Vets are people for whom I have enormous respect, and I’ve met many whom I liked very much as people as well as for what they did for animals. In fact, I’ve only come across one whom I refused to use. But they are not all the same. Vets are people, too. Some people are dog people, some are cat people, and some love all animals equally. If you have cats, you want a vet who is a cat person (or at least an all-animals person). If you have dogs, you need a dog person to look after it. Once, when a horse needed attention on a weekend, the vet on call at the stables’ regular practice was scared of horses. Yes, he did a decent job, but it wasn’t an ideal situation.
And is the vet also a people person? As much as the animal is the focus of attention, the owner is also important. Do you get on with him or her? Your dealings with your vet are as personal, in their own way, as those with your GP. Do you feel comfortable in the consulting room? Do you feel that you are listened to and taken seriously as the patient’s owner? Years ago, I heard a very well known animal behaviourist talking about a particular breed of dog on the radio. When a woman whom I knew slightly, who bred that particular breed, phoned in, the behaviourist was dismissive of what she said. Later, I heard the same person talking about my own breed (Burmese). The situation he was addressing involved a plan (from the cats’ owners) which I could see was going to be a total disaster, but he didn’t see any problem with it. The reason I saw it differently was because I’ve been involved with Burmese since 1984, I’ve studied them, bred them, I judge them, and, most importantly, I’ve lived with them – I know my breed, and the breed characteristics. In this, I am typical of reputable breeders. I certainly don’t want to consult a professional (whether behaviourist or vet) who doesn’t acknowledge that people like us are breed specialists, and may, in fact, know more than they do about our breed.
The vet I mentioned earlier, whom I didn’t want to use, was similar. One of those people who think that breeders shouldn’t exist, that anyone who wants an animal should adopt, not buy. Of course she’s entitled to her opinion – but I think it was very unprofessional of her to show those feelings when dealing with clients and their animals. I would have doubts whether my pedigreed Burmese would get the same attention that a mog would, and that would be totally unacceptable.
But this listening story does cut both ways. A vet once told me, in conversation, of her feelings when a client comes into her consulting room, plonks the animal on the table, and gets busy on their phone. As though the animal (who can only think about how much it would rather be at home) is going to start telling her about their symptoms….
What kind of animal you own will also influence your choice of practice. In a suburban setting, you can reasonably expect that any vet will have experience with cats and dogs, and large-animal vets will know what to do with horses. But if you have other animals, you may have to look further for someone who knows that species in detail. For birds, you’ll need an avian specialist. Rabbits, surprisingly, are regarded as exotics. While any small animal vet will cope with the basics, they have very limited suitable drugs available, and receive minimal training on rabbits at Onderstepoort. You will need to find someone who has an interest in rabbits and has educated themselves on their special concerns. For example, when I got my first rabbit (about 18 years ago) my vet advised against spaying her because they didn’t have suitable anaesthetics for a rabbit (she was done later). When I got my current pair (about 7 years ago) they were sterilised, but the rescue centre didn’t know that they should have food from the moment they came round from the anaesthetic.
If you have pedigreed animals, of any species, is your vet familiar with the conditions that may be more likely in that breed than in other breeds, or in random bred animals? That would be another reason for not using the vet I mentioned above, who didn’t like breeders – it’s relatively unlikely that someone like that would have studied the more breed-specific conditions.
So now you know that you need a paragon to partner with you in looking after your animals: someone who will care about them as much as you do, and will know their unique problems and characteristics. Where will you find this person?
Personal recommendation is a good start, bearing in mind that we don’t all like the same people. But if you own a Poodle, and everyone at the shows says that Dr X is fantastic with Poodles, that would be a good start. Responsible breeders often know about numerous vets, so your animal’s breeder may be able to help – unless they live in Durbanville and you are in Kommetjie…. Then your neighbours, work colleagues, or your children’s school friends might be better sources of information.
Once you’ve narrowed down your search, don’t be afraid to visit the practice without your animal. Does it feel “right” when you walk in? Chat to the vet you are thinking of using. If they want to charge you for a consultation, I would have no problem – they could be seeing a patient in that time. If they don’t want to talk to you, I would find that very discouraging. Have a list of questions ready; things that are important to you. What happens to a hospitalised animal overnight? What is their attitude to being phoned for advice? (Obviously you need to be reasonable about this. If you have a problem at 1am, that’s why you’ve found that 24 hour practice.) If your dog is a power breed, are they comfortable with dogs like that? If you own a rabbit, or a hamster, or a snake, what is their level of knowledge of that species?
If you are still uncertain, a good time to take your animal for your first visit to your prospective vet would be when it needs something routine, like vaccinations. Or you could decide that it just needs a bit of a health check. Look at how the vet handles the animal and how the animal responds to the vet. Allowing for the fact that you can’t expect your animals to actually want to go to the vet, do they seem reasonably comfortable with each other? Does the vet give you confidence? If the answers to either of those questions is “no”, you need another practice.
Finding the right vet is important. When my wonderful vet retired, I went through these steps, and I really feel that I’ve fallen on my feet with the vet I’ve chosen. Especially when I spoke to him about something that happened to one of my Burmese recently, and, thinking of possible causes, he led with a breed specific condition. I look forward to a long association with him.
Hazel is both a cat behaviourist and a rabbit behaviourist. Having bred Burmese cats, Hazel knows the breed intimately, however she can offer advice on all breeds of cats and their behaviours. Hazel can be contacted on 021 715 4042 after hours, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org