05/27/2014 03:56 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Are You Seeing the Best Veterinarian for Your Pet?

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I've been thinking a lot about veterinarians lately. Not only do I work with them on a daily basis, and take Welly and Monty to see one on the regular, but every year I have a hand in sorting through the thousands of nominations that pour in from across the country for Petplan's Veterinary Awards. As I prepare once again to take on this task, I can't help but be in awe of the many contributions of the veterinary community to animal health, animal welfare and public health.

We often think of veterinarians only as they relate to our individual pets (giving vaccines, counseling about nutrition, examining lumps and bumps), but these client and colleague testimonials help paint a bigger picture -- underscoring all that vets do to enrich the health of our four-legged loves and protect us from the spread of disease.

The U.S. has the highest number of licensed veterinarians in the world; with close to 100,000 vets graduating from 30 schools, Americans enjoy a 1:1,794 vet-to-pet ratio. That's pretty remarkable! We are so fortunate in this country to have access to lifesaving innovations in veterinary medicine -- not to mention many of the brains behind them. And what brains they are! The talent and compassion of these professionals is something truly worthy of celebration.

So with all of the talent out there, how can you tell if your family veterinarian is among the best of the best? Consider the following during your next visit:

Did your appointment begin on time?
While there are situations when an emergency will require a vet's attention during the first 20 (or more) minutes of your scheduled time, the examination should start when it is supposed to for the majority of your appointments. Being kept waiting is not only unprofessional, but it causes additional stress to your pet -- and for those to whom visiting the vet is a trauma in of itself, this can make the difference between smooth sailing or a total meltdown during an examination.

What advice were you given to improve your pet's health?
Knowing all that we know now about the way our pets' bodies and brains work, it is no longer enough for your vet just to say, "He looks great," after an examination. Your pet's doc should really dispense advice for addressing issues or improving overall health during your appointment. Diet is especially important to discuss. What you're feeding your pet has an enormous impact on his overall health; the right foods can help him heal after surgery, slow cognitive decline in senior pets, support joint health, promote dental hygiene and more. A good vet will ask you about feeding habits and make recommendations specific to your pet's needs.

Were you asked about your pet's habits and behavior?
A pet's behavior can cue us into so many things: how he is adjusting to a new family member, if he is in pain, if he needs more exercise and enrichment, if there's an underlying medical problem developing. When it comes to your four-legged friend, there's no such thing as an insignificant change in behavior. Your vet should always ask you about what your pet has been up to since your last visit, and for any details regarding deviations from his normal disposition. If your doc fails to do this, he or she may miss important indicators that can help detect disease in its earliest stages, or prevent behaviors from escalating into serious problems down the road.

If your visit is related to an illness or condition, is your pet improving?
While not every sickness can be solved, in general you should see an improvement in your pet's health after following your veterinarian's recommended course of treatment. Even chronic conditions that will never be totally cured can be managed effectively with the right plan in place. If you're visiting the vet over and over for the same reason, with no improvement whatsoever, it may be time to see a specialist. A good vet will always act in the best interest of your pet and refer you to a specialist if resolving the condition is beyond what a general practitioner can do.

How did the visit make you feel?
Helping a sick or injured pet can be stressful, confusing and at times heart wrenching. Do you sense genuine concern from the doctor and staff of your vet practice? Do they take the time to answer your questions without making you feel like a bother? Clinical know-how is wonderful, but compassion can be just as powerful. Some of the best vets in the world accomplish amazing things when their compassion pushes them to try a new treatment or go above and beyond to solve a problem. If you leave your vet's office feeling like you missed something, or didn't get a chance to really express your concerns, that's a red flag you should not ignore.

With so many exemplary professionals out there it should be easy to find a veterinarian who will take the very best care of your pet. Be mindful of the advice above during your next visit, and if you find that your doc is deserving of a gold medal, nominate your veterinarian for an award! And above all, don't forget to say "thank you."