Choosing the Right Equine Veterinarian

Consider these nine qualities when choosing an equine veterinarian.
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Choosing an Equine Veterinarian
You should be comfortable with the veterinarian you choose and be able to communicate well with him or her in order to accomplish the goal you both have–supporting the continued health of your horse. | Photo: Stephanie L. Church/The Horse

Consider these nine qualities when choosing an equine veterinarian.

Own horses long enough and you’ll experience that dreaded gut-wrenching moment. You know the one: When you arrive at the barn and your horse just isn’t acting right. Maybe he’s showing signs of colic. Or perhaps he’s not putting weight on one of his legs.

If the situation is serious enough, you pull out your phone, call your veterinarian, and make the plea: “Please come now!” But have you chosen the right person to answer that call? Or have you settled for simple convenience or the cheapest cost, without any regard to the practitioner’s background and suitability for your particular needs?

Roberta Dwyer, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVPM; Claudia Sonder, DVM; and Douglas O. Thal, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, all weighed in on veterinary selection criteria they feel is important. Dwyer is a professor at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center; Sonder is the assistant director for the Center for Equine Health at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine; and Thal owns and manages Thal Equine LLC, an equine hospital practice in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Dwyer, Sonder, and Thal recommend owners consider the following nine qualities when selecting or evaluating a veterinarian. They listed cost as something to take into account, but pointed out that expense often depends on what services a veterinarian offers.

1. Communication

“Being able to explain options and the advantages and disadvantages of particular diagnostic and treatment paths is one of the most important abilities for a practitioner to have,” Thal says.

He recommends that owners ask themselves if their veterinarians understand their needs, explain exams or procedures step by step, outline costs in advance, explain diagnostic and treatment options, describe potential outcomes, and follow up and provide support after the work is done.

Dwyer adds, “Communication is key in explaining the condition, what to look for, treatment options and costs, and prognosis.”

Also, communicating with a veterinarian before selecting him or her to treat your horse can help you discover whether that person has a similar philosophy on care as you do. But Thal points out that owners and veterinarians don’t have to think exactly the same on every issue to have a good relationship.

“We do not have the luxury of being able to impose our values on horse owners,” he says. “We are working for them. The art of practice is to try to balance horse-owner needs with our own professional, ethical, and moral guidelines.”

If a veterinarian uses technical language you don’t understand, Dwyer says you should ask for clarification. “Owners are the consumers, and they have a right to know what is going on,” she says.

But Dwyer cautions against inundating your veterinarian with information you have read about your horse’s condition on the Internet. “While the Internet is a great tool, owners should only go to reliable, trusted sites for health information,” she says. And if those reliable sites raise questions, you and your veterinarian should be able to discuss the information. You might be able to integrate what you learn online into your horse’s treatment, but an on-site veterinarian is better prepared to evaluate and treat your individual horse based on the animal’s needs; what works with “most horses” might not be applicable to your horse.

Dwyer recommends such sites as our online home, TheHorse.com. She and Thal also suggest the American Association of Equine Practitioners website (aaep.org), which can help you search for a veterinarian by region via its Get-A-DVM program.

2. Education and Experience

A candidate veterinarian’s background can be as important to you as a job seeker’s resume is to a company’s human resources official. Where and when did a veterinarian receive his or her degree? How much experience does he or she have? Has he or she specialized in a particular field?

“Clients often feel the same way about a new graduate DVM as they do a young medical doctor,” Sonder says, adding that owners might question whether this professional has enough experience.

Sonder says to keep in mind that if a new graduate is working alongside an experienced clinician, the resulting synergy can benefit the horse owner. “I have employed several new graduates in my practice,” she says, “and they all have contributed to advance my knowledge and provide new insight.”

Aside from learning from their peers, Dwyer, Sonder, and Thal point out that veterinarians must accumulate continuing education. “You want a vet who sees ongoing professional development as a privilege to keep learning,” says Thal.

On the other hand, latest and greatest might not always be the right path. “Just because a new drug X comes to market doesn’t necessarily mean that if your veterinarian doesn’t use it, he or she is compromising your horse’s health and isn’t ‘up-to-date,’ ” says Dwyer. “Depending on the horse’s condition and medication, it may be wisest to wait and see how well the drug performs in the field.”

You might also want to choose a veterinarian who specializes in your sport.

“All other things being equal, vets who have a deep understanding of a particular discipline know and understand the performance issues that face competitors in that discipline,” says Thal. “But this must be balanced with all the other factors, which may in fact be more important.”

3. Character

Thal ranks character as his No. 1 item of importance. He calls it “that combination of intangible factors, coupled with intelligence, integrity, hard work, desire to serve, and all the other factors that make us who we are on a personal and professional -basis.”

Owners should also decide how they rank their veterinarian’s “bedside manner.” One owner might not feel comfortable unless a vet is friendly and chatty. Another might find that superfluous, especially if the practitioner excels in other areas.

4. Good Horsemanship

Watch how a veterinarian handles horses. Good horsemanship should be part of the package, says Thal, who adds that a veterinarian “should be a confident, calm, and highly effective horse handler.” Procedures should go easily and smoothly.

Not every horse is easy to handle, of course, but veterinarians should not lose their temper, even with the difficult ones, says Thal. They should be able to explain to the owner what they are going to do to solve the impasse and, whatever the solution, it should look like it’s easy rather than an epic struggle.

If procedures seem stressful to you or the horse, and the veterinarian has not explained why and what he or she is going to do about it, then ask if there is a better way.

5. Multi-Veterinary Practice vs. Solo Practitioner

Whether you want a veterinarian who works alone or is part of a larger practice is a personal choice. You might only feel comfortable when the same person sees your horse every time. On the other hand, using a multi-vet practice could give you access to more experience and knowledge than one vet might offer.

“It is helpful for the same practitioner to recheck cases to ensure that real progress is made,” says Sonder. “Subjective assessments of improvement in lameness or overall condition can vary from practitioner to practitioner, and consistency is key.”

A multi-vet practice can get around this with many of the new diagnostic technologies. “If my associate goes to recheck a wound,” Sonder says, “she will often take a digital image of the horse with her iPhone or video so that we can confer and assess response to treatment.”

Thal believes another reason well–managed multi-vet practices offer advantages is that with more hands on deck, processes can be more standardized and sustainable than when one person tries to do it all 24/7. However, he notes that quality control can become a problem. “A large shop can sometimes shuffle clients around from one vet to another, with no one ultimately taking responsibility,” he says.

A solo practitioner can, perhaps, offset the advantages of a multi-vet practice by referring clients to hospitals or other referral facilities. Your general practitioner physician might refer you to a specialist, and a good veterinarian should be willing to do the same when necessary.

Veterinarians must establish good working relationships with farriers, Sonder adds. “The veterinary-farrier relationship is essential to success when dealing with lameness issues,” she says. “It’s important to find a DVM and a farrier who are willing to work together.”

6. Availability

One disadvantage solo practitioners pose is limited availability, though they can overcome this by making good after-hours arrangements. You should discuss nighttime/weekend backup plans with your veterinarian, no matter the type of practice.

Your must decide how important availability is. For example, you might think you want the absolute best Western performance horse practitioner. But if that veterinarian is located too far away to assist your horse quickly in an emergency, maybe he or she isn’t the right choice.

Be reasonable in your expectations, however. “If your veterinarian is already taking care of an acute colic, he or she might not be able to get to your barn immediately upon your call,” says Dwyer. “Sometimes owners may expect their one and only veterinarian to come within two hours of calling for vaccinations midweek.”

7. The Facilities They Offer

Check out a prospective veterinarian’s facilities. Decide whether you require a practice to have every piece of diagnostic and surgical equipment and if you are willing to pay a higher price for that.

“Keep in mind that these modalities are only as good as the operator,” Thal says.

Sonder suggests that practices benefit from affiliation with a nearby veterinary school. “I feel fortunate to have UC Davis in my backyard,” she says, “and that I can assure my clients that their animal will receive state-of-the-art care when their medical requirements exceed my field capabilities.”

8. Their Species Focus

Thal recommends using an equine-only practice, though he says some mixed-animal practitioners perform excellent work on horses.

“I do believe there is too much to know about equine practice for a practitioner’s focus to be diluted by other species,” he says. “There is only so much room in our heads for information and only so much time in the day to keep up with advances in veterinary medicine.”

Dwyer points out that circumstances might require you to choose one criterion over another. While you might rank experience at the top of your list, Dwyer recalls one situation she heard about where an owner’s choices to treat a horse were a small-animal veterinarian, a cattle practitioner, or an equine veterinarian right out of school. In that case the owner chose the new graduate, with a positive outcome.

9. How They Set Expectations

How your horse responds to a veterinarian’s treatment will be a major consideration in your selection. Before treatment begins, you and your veterinarian should discuss the prognosis and what to expect.

“Can you judge the quality of your vet by whether or not you perceive that your horse is ‘fixed’?” asks Thal. “This relates greatly to the expectation that you have for what ‘fixed’ means. A very important part of our job is managing client expectations. That includes explaining what the odds are and what to look for in a positive result.”

Not all health challenges end well, no matter how skilled the veterinarian.

“A true test of a veterinarian-horse owner relationship actually happens when we lose a horse, and yet the horse owner feels a sense of satisfaction, closure, warmth, and gratitude,” says Thal. “They should have a sense that their vet did everything possible, and that they were empowered as an owner to do their very best for their treasured horse.”

Take-Home Message

The decision of which veterinarian to hire is personal and complex. “The relationship forges itself when the alignment of ideals, philosophies, personalities, and mutual respect occurs,” says Sonder.

Think about what criteria are important to you and your horse when selecting a veterinarian. Ask other horse owners for references, and don’t be afraid to interview prospective veterinarians. You should be comfortable with the veterinarian you choose and be able to communicate well with him or her in order to accomplish the goal you both have–supporting the continued health of your horse.

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Written by:

Tracy Gantz is a freelance writer based in Southern California. She is the Southern California correspondent for The Blood-Horse and a regular contributor to Paint Horse Journal, Paint Racing News, and Appaloosa Journal.

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