How a Bad Vet Taught Me To Take Better Care of My Dogs

I was young. I was stupid. I was afraid to ask questions.

And my dogs paid the price.

But one experience with a bad vet did teach me how to take better care of my dogs.

My dogs, Agatha and Christie, post in the garden.

Poor Agatha and Christie. They were my starter dogs who suffered through all my mistakes and bad judgment.

How To Find a Bad Vet

I adopted my first dogs, Agatha and Christie, from the Philadelphia SPCA. They were about 4 months old.

Back in the early 1990s, no one spayed or neutered young puppies. The general practice was to wait until they were at least 6 months old.

For the SPCA, it was a gamble. They wanted the dogs to be older before having the surgery. But what if careless owners didn’t follow through? Or what if they waited too long and their dog produced an unexpected litter?

The SPCA sent me home with a voucher to spay each of the girls for free. I also got a list of the Philadelphia vets who would do the free surgery. One was a few blocks from my house. So when Agatha and Christie were six months old, we took them to the West Philly vet.

The vet had a pet care radio program. He was in the neighborhood. And he was on the SPCA’s referral list. What could go wrong?

Signs of a Bad Vet

The office smelled. And I’m not talking about antiseptic and cleaning fluids. It smelled like animals.

The office was in an old house. Every floor in the waiting area was carpeted, never a good sign.

My misgivings about the office were forgotten somewhat when I met the vet. He was very gentle with Agatha and Christie and had a good dog bed manner.

We arranged a date with the office manager to bring Agatha and Christie back for their surgery. We did not feed them, per the instructions, for 12 hours before they came in. I planned to pick them up the next day after they came out of anesthesia. And that was the last positive interaction I had with this vet office.

The Bad Vet Nightmare Begins

As I had been told, I came to pick up Agatha and Christie following their surgery. But they weren’t ready.

The office manager told me the vet didn’t have time to do the surgery but that he’d do it the next day if I just left the dogs one more night. And I did.

See? I told you I was stupid.

I did wonder if the girls had eaten after fasting for the surgery that didn’t happen. But I told myself that someone must have given them something to eat when it became obvious the vet wouldn’t do the surgery.

I came back the next day to pick up Agatha and Christie and was told the vet did not have time to do the surgery yet again. But if I left them one more night, I could pick them up the next day.

Did I tell you I was really stupid? Because I yelled at the office manager about my poor, starving dogs waiting to be spayed. But I left them one more night. Ugh. I hate myself just thinking of it.

The next time, the dogs were waiting for me and ready to go home. If by ready to go home, you mean with their fur soaked in urine and covered with fleas.

Paying For The Bad Vet

The spaying was free. But it cost me a fortune.

At the time, I lived in an enormous, three-story, six bedroom duplex. It wasn’t long before fleas were everywhere. I had to bomb the house several times. Flea treatments don’t kill flea eggs. So every treatment must be repeated each time eggs hatch.

I vacuumed every day, throwing out the vacuum bag.

My dog got fleas at a bad vet.

Someone obviously understands the heartbreak of fleas.

But the worst was that Christie wasn’t healing from her surgery.

Agatha looked good. But Christie had a seeping wound at her surgical incision.

I asked a few of my neighbors for the name of a good vet and found one in Center City Philadelphia. They were hard to get to. I had to park in a nearby garage, take Christie for her first elevator ride, and walk several blocks to the vet. But the doctor was highly recommended.

The vet suggested exploratory surgery to see what was preventing Christie’s incision from healing. When I picked her up after her surgery (exactly as scheduled and flea-free), the vet presented me with the metal sutures the bad vet had used to close her wound.

With the nasty metal sutures gone, Christie healed quickly and never had any other problems.

Shadow got good vet care.

Through two years of cancer, Shadow had excellent vet care.


Learning From Good Vets

Because I had never been responsible for caring for an animal before, I didn’t know what to expect.

You could argue that I should have listened to what my heart knew was wrong and you’d be right. But I’ve always been slow to listen to emotional cues.

Luckily, I’ve only had good vets to learn from since then.

Not only have I gotten excellent care for my dogs over the years, I’ve felt listened to and supported by my vets.

Honey the golden retriever has a good vet.

My vet tells me to take a ball and call her in the morning.

And while my vets had my dogs’ best interests at heart, they also looked for ways to keep costs affordable so I could continue to get the preventive care for my dogs that is so important in giving them a long and healthy life.

Some of the good vet practices included:

  • multi-pet discounts
  • giving me recipes for homemade food that would support my dog’s health for less money than premium, prepared foods
  • teaching me how to give acupuncture treatments so I wouldn’t have to make the 45 minute drive to the vet’s office
  • arranging for me to separate vaccinations by bringing my dog in for a tech to give the shot without paying for an office visit
  • teaching pet first aid at a local groomer’s shop so I could take care of small emergencies or improve my dog’s chances until we get to a vet
  • reviewing the latest vaccination guidelines with me so we weren’t overvaccinating or leaving my dogs without needed protections

I’ve had five good vets since that first bad one. And I’ve never had a moment where I felt my dogs weren’t getting good care.

Bad Vets and Television Ratings

Did you see the 20/20 exposé on vet care?

No, I’m not going to link to it. It was shoddy work that didn’t even deserve to be called journalism.

It was created to get a ratings buzz. And if it succeeded, it has the potential to drive even more thoughtless people away from getting appropriate vet care for their animals.

But it has created some terrific discussions online. Dr. Marty Becker reacted with hurt and anger over having less than two minutes of his 90 minute interview with ABC News (and I use that word under protest) being used to support the show’s premise, that vets are recommending treatments dogs don’t need to make more money.

And I’ve gotten a strong response to my post on Facebook about the Secret Confessions of a Veterinarian.

Although I have used alternative treatments for my dogs, I’m not a fan of Dr. Andrew Jones, the centerpiece of the 20/20 interview. The show implies that he lost his vet license for refusing to up sell vet services. I have read that he lost his license for improper ethics in marketing “insider secrets” for pet care. The veterinary board’s investigation of Dr. Jones is no longer available online so I could not confirm that. But the huge sales page for his two websites tempts me to lump him in with diet plans and get rich quick schemes.

But I’m glad people are talking about vet care. What is good vet care? What is bad vet care?

Honey the Golden Retriever is not happy in front of Ithaca Falls.

So you think that if I stand in the cold mist it will make me live longer? I’m not sure I think too much of your alternative medicine.


How a Bad Vet Caused Me To Take Better Care of My Dogs

I’m still very ashamed that I didn’t advocate better for my dogs when I met my first (and hopefully only bad vet).

But I learned lessons that have made me a better caregiver for my dogs.

  • if it doesn’t smell right (literally or figuratively, run away)
  • rely on people you know and trust to recommend a good vet
  • don’t be afraid to ask questions

And when you find a good vet, sing her praises, bake her cookies, and pay your bills on time. Because you don’t want to know how much a bad vet will cost you (or your dogs).

Your Turn: Do you have a bad vet story? Have you met vets that you felt were more concerned with making a profit than caring for your animals? Or have you found vets that give good and compassionate care?

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  1. Great post – I didn’t see the 20/20 show, but will go take a look at that and the links you provided. I have one more item to add to your list of lessons learned: If your DOG reacts badly to the vet, you might want to rethink. This happened with our Sally at the vet where she was spayed and treated for about 8 months when we first got her. After one visit she started to REFUSE to even walk down the street to the vets office. She dug in, sat down and would not move. She was still young enough for me to pick up and carry…but then I thought, wait a minute, why am I forcing my dog to go somewhere she obviously doesn’t want to go (mind you she was normally a very compliant dog). Anyways, we stopped going there, shopped around for a new vet and eventually found one we went to for years – until we moved. So in addition to your warning signals…watch your dog for reactions too.

    • Very good advice, Kate. I’ve never had a dog who reacted badly to a vet. Maybe my dogs are as slow to read emotional messages as I am. :)

      But you’re right. If our dogs don’t feel good about an experience, why, in a world with many vets to choose from, should we force them?

    • Excellent reply, Kate! I sometimes wish I had paid attention to my gut instincts about our first vet here! Kissy wasn’t comfortable either but adapted well to everything back then.
      Pamela, there is no shame in making mistakes, only in not learning from them. I would say we have all learned well from our earlier mistakes.

  2. The first vet I took Kissy to after moving down here in ’93 was a disaster. But I didn’t realize it until I had been working as her receptionist for about 2 months. I won’t go into details here, but how she remains licensed is beyond me. Anyway, one of her other clients told me of another vet she occasionally took her dog to, so I decided to check her out. Once I did, I never looked back. A few years later, Kissy needed vet care on a Saturday morning. Dr. Timms’ back-up vet was open on Saturday so I brought her to him. He was gentle with Kissy and explained things to me in every-day terms, and I liked him immediately. About a year later, when I started my full-time job, I switched all of Kissy’s records to Dr. Steve and he has been our vet ever since (for over 13 years). Meanwhile, Dr Timms retired the year after I made the switch; but I had already thanked her for her wonderful care of Kissy when I got the job that made it necessary for me to switch.

  3. Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry that happened to you.
    It’s interesting that you say something about the smell of the office. Our vet’s office also smells more than other offices I’ve been to, but in the year we’ve been taking our animals there, that would be my only complaint. She never tried to sell me vaccinations I didn’t need or push me into lab work that she didn’t think was necessary. She does the 3-year rabies booster whereas every other vet I’ve been to insist they need it every year (even when I told them my cats don’t go outside) and Bailey is always extremely excited to Catie, the receptionist and one of the techs. When one of my cats was throwing up a lot, she suggested it was the hairball formula food we use and give us a ziplock bag of some sensitive stomach formula to try. She didn’t push us into buying some crazy expensive bag of food. And, we recently went there with my evil cat, and while I went there ready to put him on some kitty Prozac, she suggested getting him some more toys and playing with him more. She did run a very expensive blood panel, but it was because I wanted to play it safe and not because I felt like she pushed me into it. Maybe I’m nieve, but I feel like those a some pretty good signs. We’re not BFFs, but I can’t complain either.

    She’s one of at least 5 vets in literally a 3-mile radius near my house so she has plenty of competition. I’ve often thought about finding a more “holistic” vet, but my husband doesn’t see the point in switching because aside from the smell, she’s been pretty good.

  4. I didn’t see the 20/20 because I could have predicted what it would be…and I was right.

    I’ve never had a bad vet but I did go to a clinic that was all about pushing product. The lobby was a cute pet boutique with collars, leashes, shampoo, conditioner, brushes, toys, lotions, vitamins and supplements, flea treatments, etc. etc. and lots of Science Diet.

    The staff was taught to push product for every ailment the dog or cat might have. Dry skin? Here’s the product for you. Science Diet is a corn based food and my research showed it was not worth the premium price so eventually when my favorite vet got pregnant and left, I found another clinic that didn’t have a cute boutique in their lobby.

  5. Our first vet was a disaster! I too was young and naive and I didn’t realize that there was anything wrong. I look back now and realize that he was an old school vet, with a prejudice against mixed breeds and hybrids. He ignored my concerns for so long, pawning me off with he wrong prescriptions and a ridiculous amount of kennel cough boosters. I shared the whole, awful story at Dawg Business a few months ago:

  6. I have been so lucky. I have had the same vet clinic for 20 years. I love all the vets, and they give wonderful care.

  7. Ugh…that is a horrible story. I am glad it turned out ok and that you were able to chalk it up to a learning experience. I have not had a horrible vet experience to compare to my possibly mediocre vet experiences. As far as I know, my vet experiences have been good. There WAS one time I had to take Gretel to an emergency vet and they had a terrible bedside manner….for both me and Gretel.

  8. The problem is that the vet doesn’t have to be THAT bad and the parent doesn’t have to be THAT “stupid.” I think the hardest thing is the tell when a average-quality vet is good enough for average things but sometimes not good enough for serious ones.

    That’s been our downfall. Everything seemed right. It was good average. But it wasn’t good enough.

    For most part, an average vet is all one will ever need. But there are times and cases when an exceptionally good vet is needed and it is important to recognize such time and be able to find such vet.

  9. We went through quite a few vets before we found our current one that we love! Mom didn’t really know that there were good and bad vets either until she was in Germany and had some terrible experiences. We are so grateful to have found a great place finally!

  10. I’m very lucky, because I don’t have a bad vet story. Because of blogging, I’ve learned to follow my gut. Our first vet didn’t like rescue dogs and I stayed there way too long. He cared for our dogs well and his staff was great, but after our last visit with him, I couldn’t go back and didn’t. When Blue was hit by a car, our neighbor took him to that vet and they refused to come out to the car to check on him; he passed on the trip and wouldn’t have survived his injuries, but this showed me that they had forgotten why they had gotten into the business in the first place.

    When I first contacted our new vet, I explained that I’m a blogger and I do a lot of homework on our pets; I know that I don’t know everything, but it gives me comfort to know something. They have always welcomed my questions and I appreciate that so much. Our last vet hated to answer questions and would get really defensive and rude.

    It’s so important to follow your gut. Don’t worry about hurting someone’s feelings when you take your dog and walk out. Maybe that move will make the vet rethink how they run their practice, treat patients, and the humans that pay the bill :)

  11. OMD! What a terrible experience. :( Pierson may have had a very bad experience at the vet when he got fixed. But since he can’t talk to me about it, I’m not sure if it is because of his fear of being in strange places or if something else happened that I’m not aware of. He recovered well, but the next time I took him to the vet for routine vaccinations he peed on himself. He gets frightened easily, probably because of the hypersensitive and wary nature of his breed mix, but I’ve never known him to be this afraid.

  12. I am so sorry you had to experience such a traumatizing event in the first place. It is agonizing to me that there are vets and clinics like the one you described. It is natural to trust a clinic to know what is best for one’s pet. I have not been to veterinary school and as a new pet owner I was just as naive about so many things. It is awful to think that not only did this vet not honour your original appointment, but that his staff treated your dogs so abominably. I do hope that clinic has long since been shut down.

    I have had bad veterinary experiences myself and have written about them in the past but luckily none so bad as this. It’s a hard thing to learn that we have to be more proactive with our dog’s health – as well as our own. Just because someone calls himself or herself a doctor doesn’t mean we should assume they speak the whole truth. Doing your research, trusting your instincts, and asking the right questions are so important. We have yet to find a new vet for our pets now that we have moved and I am committed to doing it right.

  13. I have been very lucky from day 1. I have had the best vet you could ask for. I have been with her for almost 25 years. She was just becoming a vet when I started going to her practice. She has been most patient, understanding, and helpful. I live in a different state now and travel back to her for everything. She returns my calls after hours and is always attentive to any concerns that I have. She has since started her own practice and I followed without any doubts. The other vet in the last practice was not my favorite, he was better with larger animals. No bedside manner or communication skills for the new pet owner. I don’t know how I will find someone to replace her when she retires. Dr. Kate Crumley is the best I know and I have met many working with an animal rescue. Wish everyone could find a Dr. Crumley.

  14. Fortunately most of my experience has been good as I’ve worked in most of the vet clinics I’ve used and I wouldn’t have worked there if I was comfortable with the care.

    But hindsight with my first dog made me realize the first vet I used wasn’t great. We adopted Whitney on a Friday from the local shelter and ended up at the vet on Monday due to her vomiting and diarrhea. She had parvo. he gave her subq fluids, told us to feed her hamburg and rice and gave us some antibiotics. I was 16 years old and though I had read a lot about dogs, I knew nothing about parvo. When I got a job at a vet clinic when I went to college I saw what parvo looks like. Fortunately Whitney survived, but I shudder now remembering walking her around the block proud of my new pup while she had a very contagious, deadly disease.

  15. I’m very lucky that the only bad vet I have met was the one in France this year who charged us 90 euros for some tables for BD which the year before had cost us 20 euros.

    If my French was better I would have argued with him!

  16. Hi Y’all!

    Great post!

    Y’all come by now,
    Hawk aka BrownDog

  17. What a horrible experience for you and your dogs Pamela! I think sometimes the best life experiences we receive are not necessarily the ones we like but learning from the ones we don’t like.

    I had a bad experience when Delilah went for spaying. We ended up changing vets and I couldn’t be happier.

  18. I absolutely hate leaving Alfie at the vets, but fortunately we’ve never had a bad experience like you had. These days you can read reviews online which can be really helpful in avoiding the worst vets clinics when you move to a new place, and that’s exactly what we did when we recently moved to San Francisco.