As a board-certified veterinary emergency specialist, I'm often amazed at what owners will put up with as they care for their animals. Take a recent client of mine. She'd brought her sick cat to her regular veterinarian, who said Felix needed intravenous fluids. The vet didn't have 24-hour care, though. So Felix's owner picked her cat up at closing time and drove him to an after-hours emergency clinic where he could stay overnight. In the morning, she got to the clinic before it closed at 8 am so she could bring Felix back to her vet. She did this 4 days in a row before she and Felix ended up in the emergency room of the university vet school where I work.
When I saw her, she was physically, mentally, and financially exhausted. And Felix was really sick—he was in severe kidney failure and needed much more aggressive care than either his regular vet or the after-hours clinic could provide. He survived, but it was touch-and-go.
I promise I don't have my eye on my wallet when I say this: There are times when your pet needs someone other than the wonderful vet you've been using for years. I know it can feel uncomfortable to ask for a referral to a specialist. But from my vantage point as an ER vet—I work and teach at a tertiary care center, where the very sickest animals end up—that reluctance can cause major problems. Here, my short list of the top errors and omissions in pet care.
1. You Don't Call In A Specialist
I have a simple rule: If you'd need to go to a specialist for a problem, your dog or cat probably does, too. Most general practice vets simply don't have the experience that comes from doing hundreds of ultrasounds or bone marrow tests a year, even if they have the equipment. The same holds true for other advanced or invasive tests or treatments. (Besides, if your pet does end up at a major center like mine, those tests will likely be repeated—at extra expense—because we'll want them done by specialists.)
2. You Overvaccinate
I know you can't believe a bona fide veterinarian is saying this, but chances are good that if your pet is full grown, you should skip the shots this year. The reason: Once he's gone through the full puppy or kitten series of shots and has had annual vaccines for 4 to 5 years, his immune system is in good shape. At that point, current veterinary recommendations are to switch to vaccines every 1 to 3 years (depending on your state's laws on rabies shots, which must be kept up to date). This doesn't mean you can skip the vet between shots. A middle-aged or geriatric pet still needs an annual physical exam, which should include routine blood work (among other things) to check how well his kidneys and liver are working, and to look at his electrolytes and red and white blood cell counts. Abnormalities in these levels can be warning signs of disease.
3. You Don't Get Help Fast Enough
The last pet care mistake on my list actually happens at home, which is where even the most caring owners can mistakenly remain when their pet has a problem. It's understandable, because signs of illness can be subtle—such as decreased appetite, lethargy, more panting than usual, or general malaise. But vets know that it takes a lot for your tail-thumping dog or self-contained cat to show these kinds of symptoms. So don't give your pet too long to improve on his own. A day is generally fine, but you can have a full-blown emergency on your hands if you wait 2 days with no signs of improvement.
Bottom line: When in doubt, call for advice immediately—or just grab your pet and head to your vet!
How to Find a Vet Specialist
If your pet has internal bleeding, cancer, or any kind of complicated case—including non-life-threatening problems such as a persistent skin allergy—chances are your vet will want you to see a specialist. So just ask for a recommendation. Or, to find a specialist on your own, go to prevention.com/links to locate one near you.
Justine Lee, DVM, is an assistant clinical emergency specialist at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. She has a pit bull and two cats, and is the author of It's a Dog's Life…but It's Your Carpet.