What Is a Veterinarian?

Like other medical professionals, vets are regulated and must typically attend a post-secondary institution, obtain a degree and be listed as a member in good standing with a state veterinary association to open a practice. A "vet" who practices without a license can face stiff fines at both the municipal and state level if caught. Vets operate out of clinics and take appointments for animal visits. Most major cities have at least one emergency clinic which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and takes pets on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Much of what vets do falls into the category of preventive medicine. Pet owners make regular appointments to have a checkup for their dog or cat, which will include things like measuring its weight, checking its teeth, and possibly testing its urine. Vets also perform immunizations for a fee. The immunizations — necessary if you ever need to take your pet to a kennel or have a professional pet sitter come to your home — include shots for diseases like rabies, distemper, kennel cough and feline leukemia.

If your pet has a specific ailment, your local veterinarian can also help. Urinary tract infections, for example, are common in dogs who swim in local lakes or rivers. Vets can identify the infection and prescribe antibiotics to cure it. They can also schedule and perform certain surgeries such as spaying and neutering, which prevent your pet from accidentally getting pregnant or getting another pet pregnant. In female animals, spaying involves the removal of the ovaries and uterus; in males, neutering is the removal of the testicles.

What Services Do Vets Offer?

In addition to checkups, immunizations and neutering, many vet clinics also offer specialized services to pet owners.

Cat declawing is one popular option, and advanced techniques allow this procedure to be carried out using a very precise laser, minimizing the risk of injury to the animal.

Ultrasounds are available in some facilities as well, which let vets scan abnormalities in your pet's organs without requiring an incision.

Blood tests and waste analysis are common services which allow vets to determine whether your pet has an infection or if any abnormal substances are present.

Kenneling and dog "day care" are becoming popular options as well as many vet clinics attempt to provide full service for pets.

Vets may also provide services for pets which cannot be saved by medicine. Many offer cremation services and a selection of urns for owners to choose from; some provide in-home euthanasia services for cats or dogs that are suffering and need to find relief.

How Can I Pay for a Trip to the Vet?

Vets typically accept payment in all major forms — credit cards, debit cards, cash or personal check. Checks may only be accepted from known, repeat customers, especially as some services can be very expensive. For this reason, pet owners may also choose to purchase pet insurance, which covers more costly treatments once owners pay a deductible. While this insurance is rarely needed, a single large bill can often be enough to offset the monthly costs, though the worth of insurance varies significantly by provider.

Expect vet costs to break down two ways. First is the cost for the medication, immunization or surgery itself, and second is the cost for the vet's time. While some basic procedures can be performed by veterinary nurses, anything more complex will require the attention of a certified vet, which in turn will increase the price.

There is wide variety in prices across states, cities and even between rural and urban areas. No standardization exists for price-setting, which means owners must be diligent to ensure they are not being gouged.

Why Selecting a Vet Is Important

When you start your search for a veterinarian, it's important to remember this is ultimately a relationship of trust. You need to feel comfortable with your vet. Your vet should understand that your pet is a family member and relate in a way that puts the animal — and you — at ease. A great vet doesn't just have a degree from a respected institution and no history of complaints lodged against her; a vet should be compassionate and kind.

Ideally, you'll be visiting the vet over the long term, and this means you need to develop a relationship of trust and respect. The right veterinary clinic provides a sense of familiar comfort for checkups and offers a haven in the event of more serious issues.

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