Are Veterinarians Your Dog (and Your) Best Friends?

We pet owners are the ones who hear the diagnosis. The patient cannot speak, has no language to tell us about pain or recurring symptoms (apart from That Look). We are thus doubly vulnerable -- we have to believe what we're told because there is no recourse.
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First the Good News: I found the Perfect Veterinarian at a VCA Animal Hospital in L.A. I've decided not to use names here, but the vet I found deserves to be famous. He is bright, compassionate, adores animals and is brilliant at his job.

I was thrilled and relieved when I found him, through a friend's recommendation. I had been bouncing from one vet to another with my little dog Coleman, a shy guy, a rescue -- a teddy bear type. (He's been joined now by his smaller "sister," another adoptee from an L.A. shelter.)

VCA is the largest corporate animal hospital "entity" in Los Angeles, which is discouraging to many potential clients. We pet-owners try to be knowledgeable and responsible re veterinarian care. We attempt to negotiate our way, furry loved ones on their leashes or in their cat carriers or in our arms -- through the labyrinths of an unregulated industry that sets its own standards, determines its own fees for procedures -- (from surgeries to hospitalization, medication, etc.) -- and is aggressive about money as the bottom line. (And pet insurance, as one discovers, is by and large useless: "no" to most claims.)

We pet owners are the ones who hear the diagnosis. The patient cannot speak, has no language to tell us about pain or recurring symptoms (apart from That Look). We are thus doubly vulnerable -- we have to believe what we're told because there is no recourse, as there is in an equivalent human medical situation. When told a pet needs a major operation, we nod and sign. When told the pet needs dental cleaning because dirty teeth might lead to other diseases? -- We nod and sign. Fido remains silent.

There are "animal hospitals" whose veterinarians work on "commission" -- (perhaps even more incentive to recommend unnecessary procedures.) But what pet owner, hurrying into the waiting room with an ailing cat or dog or ferret or parrot -- is going to drag the sick animal around for further consultation?

Then there's the waiting room: to see the vet we've chosen -- we must also work with the reception staff. These individuals, many of them very kind, some not, are working for low wages. Many have to learn on-the-job how to relate to clients, how to treat animals, etc. I'm a proactive consumer, just as I am at doctors' offices. I ask questions, I seek the best care. Perhaps I am even more watchful at a veterinarian, given the sobering realities of an "industry" so lacking in oversight -- and the fact that animals cannot be their own advocates.

Reception staffs seem trained to be cheerful, but also keenly aware of the bottom line, which, of course, is money. Any client who questions a charge will not receive much encouragement. Asking for clarification may make the client "difficult" in staff reports.

I was very happy in the beginning with the VCA I'd chosen, because, of course, the Perfect Vet. I also liked the Hospital Manager. She and I got along, we talked together about our love of animals. However, one day, as I was checking out (my dog was being brought up from the treatment area) I asked a question of a brooding receptionist behind the desk. She looked up and said: "It's always something with you, isn't it?"

I pondered this accusation. I was willing to admit that I did ask questions, but her tone was beyond interested -- it was dismissive, even threatening. When I said I was leaving a note for the Hospital Manager about her comment -- this receptionist, alone at the front desk, stood up and began tossing files about in an angry manner.

As soon as my dog was returned to me, I hurried to my car and was about to drive off, when the Hospital Manager appeared, having followed me out, apologizing profusely for the receptionist's behavior. I told her that I was worried about my dog's safety, given this "scene". I was afraid this person would harm my dog. She assured me that the receptionist would be "under the microscope" from that point onward.

But the microscope seemed to have been turned around on me. Though the receptionist glowered at me whenever I turned up in the waiting room with my dogs -- I managed to avoid her for months on end. Besides bringing my own dogs for care, I paid a great deal of money for rescued pets (I'm an animal rescue person and advocate for animal rights) who were kept in "display" cages at the animal hospital, waiting for adoption. I paid for spay operations for the animals brought in, I paid my own hefty (thousands) bills and these rescue charges on top of that. I paid for a cat found by a student of mine near USC (I'm a prof there) -- paid its "cage rental" and neutering charges. But none of this mattered, because, finally, the receptionist whom I had reported, was apparently waiting for any chance to complain about me.

My wonderful vet continued to treat the dogs, who (as a result of being abandoned and abused) had various physical ailments. After a recent visit to him, my dogs and I encountered the dreaded receptionist, alone at the checkout desk.

I cheerfully paid the large fee for my dog's treatment and then the receptionist insisted that I still owed an amount for medications picked up by my assistant earlier in the week. I had been told prior to this that the balance for these medications was different. I told the rude receptionist this and asked her to find out which amount was accurate and then I left.

Two days later, I received a letter and a phone call from the Hospital Manager "firing" me (and my dogs) as clients.

The reason was my "behavior" the letter said. I had been "disrespectful". I was told to find other veterinary care.

My vet couldn't believe it, I couldn't believe it -- but when I called the once-friendly Hospital Manager, who had once apologized for her employee -- she provided no reasons for my dismissal. I was allowed no opportunity to give my "side" as in any fair arbitration. I was 86'd.

I was telling a writer-friend about what happened not long afterward this and she told me that she'd just heard of a couple similar "firings" of clients by their vet offices. A client at another animal hospital questioned the expensive tests that her vet there was ordering for a condition that her dog turned out not to have. A second vet had accurately diagnosed the dog's actual ailment on the phone. The client asked then that the couple hundred dollars she'd paid for unnecessary tests be refunded. Her vet reluctantly agreed. However, the next time she showed up with her pet, a receptionist told her that she had to pay the charge or go elsewhere. She went elsewhere.

Questioning a charge, questioning anything, only seems to lead in one direction: out the door.

My dogs will continue to see our great vet under different circumstances -- we will not lose our ongoing relationship with him. But the questions remain. Where is accountability and advocacy in this hugely profitable industry which has no oversight over itself or its employees? Clients, pet owners, whom these large vet corporations claim to value, need to speak for their silent pet-patients. Our dogs (and cats) need a "watchdog". It's time.

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