Trust. Any choice you make is about you and a professional entering into a long-term partnership for the care of your cat.

In our line of business, we often get asked to recommend a vet because ...

  • You're probably new to the area.
  • There's half a dozen vets in a 10 mile radius.
  • You can't find any independent information on any veterinary practice.
  • You're relying entirely on the say-so of friends, neighbours or colleagues to tell you anything good or bad about any individual vet or practice.
  • You know that like animal shelters and charities that catteries have plenty of contact with the local veterinary industry.

The cost of consultations might sway you, but that only makes a difference when you're attending a dozen appointments a year … While it's not our policy to recommend any particular practice, it's fair to say that in our experience finding a vet you feel comfortable with is far more important than registering at your nearest surgery.

Our experience of veterinary surgeries

Although cats are notorious for not enjoying car journeys, we've taken cats to almost every vet in the area at one time or another. It's usually as an emergency covered by our special cattery insurance but also as a favour to our clients. We've also taken courses at surgeries for animal first aid and the like. Some practices are accredited and even inspected by RCVS every few years but it's about as meaningless as a cattery claiming to be FAB listed. Our experience only gives us an insight into the cleanliness, professionalism and thoroughness of any surgery on a particular day.

Risk and hygiene

We know life's a risk. The world can't be cleaned or separated from it's health dangers. People generally know that chocolate can kill a dog or the pollen of certain lillies will kill a cat, but apart from antifreeze, household cleaners are far more likely to kill domestic animals.

In the cattery business, cleanliness is serious business. We use the same disinfectants on our walls and floors as surgeries use in operating theatres. We use the same grade of antibacterial and viroidal hand cleanser as used in human hospitals. The aluminium food bowls are cleaned every day at the highest temperature in the dish washer and soft furnishings are replaced regularly throughout a cat's stay. While airborne viruses and contact with contaminated clothing is unavoidable, surface cleanliness is the absolute basic necessity.

When people view the cattery, "how clean the place is" is one of the most popular observations … When people choose a vet, cleanliness doesn't seem to figure in at all. If the staff are welcoming and the foyer is shiny what else is there?

No one views a visit to the veterinary clinic as risky.

No one is thinking that every potentially contagious dog for miles around has taken an almost identical route from the car park to the front desk. No one imagines when you take your cat in for it's annual boosters, every slobber, cough or sneeze is cavorting through the air looking for a new host to infect and take home. People know about the situation with hospital superbugs, ostensibly, a veterinary clinic environment is no different, it's a Mecca for every illness and cross contamination imaginable.

Every surgery is inundated with sick animals so there's not a lot you can do about that, but … You can review the facilities just like you do at Tiger Barn. You may never need them, but if your cat does, you might feel happier if you know the place is visibly clean.

When you go into a veterinary clinic for the first time, ask to see the overnight facilities.

  • Is everyone clean and comfortable?
  • Are the cat pens separated from the dog pens by a significant distance?
  • In more rural settings, ask to see the farm animal section to see if anyone has at least pressure washed the area recently.
  • Maybe the operating rooms are grubby, full of ageing equipment, peeling walls, or dusty and stained sinks?

When you're in the consultation rooms, look at the details ...

  • Are the floors clean? Have the windows and sills been wiped over recently?
  • Is there enough time between appointments?
  • Is the inspection table cleaned and sprayed with disinfectant and left the requisite time for it to kill any pathogens?
  • Animals moult. Has fur from the previous appointment been collected up?

When veterinary meets cattery ...

In the cattery there's an entirely different dynamic from a visit to the Vet. People are going on holiday and they're almost always excited. They've already made the decision to trust us because of all the available options, they're bringing a treasured member of their family to us. The cats are almost always in good health, people know that while their cats are here, we treat them like one of our own and while they're away they have peace of mind. The conversations are more personal and friendly. They're more relaxed and wide ranging than any conversation I've ever had with a vet. Professionally, we have to see vaccination certificates, ask which vet to contact in case of emergencies or if any medical conditions have changed and take notes on any medicines to administer. That's the moment people choose to get their vet stories off their chest - Short or detailed, it's always centred at the extremes. If everything works out perfectly, then it's all praise for how lovely a vet is, but if something went wrong it's all about how bad a particular vet or practice has been.

Complaints are all similar, exorbitant costs, general incompetence and bedside manner difficulties. People have perfect examples of malpractice and rarely even know it.

I'll say now that while putting this article together I realised that "choosing a vet" is no more complicated than the opening statement. However, the reality of animal health and welfare is: Sadly, things go wrong … and there's very little recourse.

Mistakes and recourse

There are over 12,000 vets operating in the UK today, and 99% are competent, conscientious, honest and do an amazing job. However, if you suspect that the service you purchased was not carried out with either reasonable care or the necessary skills - Is anybody going to admit to making a mistake and is there any way to prove that they did?

Almost without exception, unless you understand the situation, the answer is no.

Veterinary practices keep all problems in-house - All investigations are carried out by the surgery staff, giving senior partners the role of judge and jury in every case. All the advice is to talk your problem over with the surgery. Keep smiling, but remember this is a dispute resolution procedure. Cups of tea and friendly phone calls are about damage limitation, not redressing your grievances - No matter how understanding or sympathetic they seem, they are not independent arbiters. You're a lay person. In most cases, they assume you have no specialist knowledge. If all you have are suspicions, you have nothing - If the dispute hangs on a 'he said, she said' with a single vet in a consulting room, your version of events is meaningless. If you suspect that a vet is lying to protect themselves or other members of staff or the situation isn't going to be dealt with to your satisfaction, it's probably best to get it off your chest and walk away. If you don't believe what you're being told or communications break down with your practice, there are only two further routes to explore: Court or The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. Of course, if you think something has gone wrong, you can request and pay for a post-mortem examination from a second veterinarian before the evidence is cremated and returned to you … If your suspicions are correct, you'll probably have a settlement and a sincere apology before you leave the building.

What can you expect from taking your complaints to lawyers or the Royal College?

Medical malpractice adverts aren't splashed across every commercial stations' daytime TV slots for a very good reason: A court case with a lawyer and an expert witness will cost more than you could ever hope to recover. You won't successfully refute a practice's denials of misdiagnoses, delays in misdiagnosis, negligent assessments, mistreatment or surgical errors without both.

If you're seeking low end punitive damages, say suing for simple negligence because your cat escaped during an examination - It's likely to have been witnessed and it's entirely in the vets interest to have you settle extremely quietly out of court with the vets insurers.

Veterinary reform groups say that vets are wholly protected from disciplinary action by their governing body …

If you feel that your vet or practice is responsible for say failing to carry out a surgical procedure correctly, or treating a fracture with worming tablets, you could make an official complaint to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. This is problematic because as far as the records show, unless your vet publicly admits negligence, malpractice or professional misconduct, the Royal College has virtually no interest in taking any disciplinary action.

Veterinary reform groups accuse the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons of only acting against vets who bring their profession into disrepute. Doctors and Dentists are struck off regularly for any number of acts or misdeeds. The fact that virtually no Vet has ever been struck off the register for negligence or malpractice is nothing short of miraculous considering the number of complaints lodged.

OK, now back to choosing a vet - Is a large or small practice better?

In general terms, cats die of relatively few causes, road accidents, renal failure and cancer figure very highly. However, when it comes to rarer conditions and illnesses, larger veterinary practices, if they ever have time to communicate have a greater pool of veterinary knowledge to draw from ... and often more expensive onsite equipment to suggest using - Having more equipment is a double edged sword of course. The options to test for this, that and the other is a highly profitable venture for the larger practice. Once you enter this territory, without proper insurance, a larger practice will empty your bank balance faster than a month long losing streak in Las Vegas.

The smaller practice has to send blood samples and biopsies off to laboratories or other vets, so it takes time to get results. This would suggest pressure to opt for a more focussed approach.

A large veterinary practice might have 3 or more vets dealing with domestic animals over an extended day - This means you'll almost certainly be able to get an appointment with someone the same day ... The downside is that larger practices operate like factory conveyer belts with back to back appointments. You can't guarantee seeing the same vet which leads to a higher risk of mis-diagnoses and unnecessary or ineffective drugs being administered.

A smaller veterinary practice might only have one or two vets and a receptionist running the show - This means you might find it difficult to get an emergency appointment … or possibly only get to see a locum on evenings or weekends. The upside is that if there's no emergency, you'll have a relationship with the vet, and your pet's history will be familiar - You'll also tend to receive a more personal and genuinely friendly service.

What do you need to see a vet for?

There's no reason you can't have your cat's record in two Surgeries. If all you want is the annual boosters, shop around for the cheapest and turn up with your certificate. Regulations stipulate that all cats boarding in a cattery must have a valid certificate for cat flu (feline herpesvirus and feline calcivirus), feline enteritis (feline panleukopenia virus). Some vets also offer vaccinations against feline chlamydiosis and feline leukaemia. These vaccinations are not essential for cattery boarding but if your cat goes outside, find a vet who includes leukemia vaccinations.

In terms of low level illness, check ups and general welfare, a smaller surgery with one or two vets building a relationship with your pet will often be the best option.

If you have an emergency or an injury that requires immediate surgery, then a large practice will probably have the largest operating theatre, the most equipment, technicians and someone skilled to carry out the procedure.

The conclusion is the same as the first line ...

Trust. Any choice you make is about you and a professional entering into a long-term partnership for the care of your cat.