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Getting a Second Opinion: How to Do It Without Breaking the Bank (or Offending Your Vet)

By Teresa Traverse

Like people, our pets can be diagnosed with a condition that might require a second medical opinion. However, unlike in human medicine, it can be hard to find information on how to go about getting another vet to chime in on your pet’s condition. Find out more about how to get a second opinion, how not to offend your primary vet while doing it and why sharing information with your vet is important, below.

How Do You Get a Second Opinion?

The first person you should ask about getting a second opinion is your primary veterinarian.

“The veterinary community is very small, so your veterinarian likely knows the right specialists,” says Ann Hohenhaus, DVM and staff veterinarian at the Animal Medical Center in New York City.

Hohenhaus acknowledges that many pet owners don’t want to tell their primary vets that they are looking for another opinion because they’re worried about hurting the doctor’s feelings, but it can be detrimental for your pet if the vets aren’t working together.

“No single veterinarian can know everything out there that there is to know. So collaborating and sharing of information is really an important thing in practicing any kind of medicine,” Hohenhaus said.

Maybe your vet will miss things that a second vet will catch. Maybe they’ll collaborate to come up with an effective treatment plan that you and both veterinarians are happy with. She advises that it’s usually best to have one vet coordinating care and discussing lab results with other vets, assuming you’re working with multiple vets. At the animal hospital where Hohenhaus works, pet parents are not charged for time the vets spend talking about cases amongst themselves as the staff works as a team. Pet owners are only billed for individual appointments they have with a particular veterinarian.

How to Find a Specialist

All veterinary specialists are required to belong to professional organizations for their respective specialties, so you can begin your search for a second opinion with these organizations (should your primary veterinarian not have a recommendation for you). For a complete list of specialty colleges, visit the American Board of Veterinary Specialties. Another option, Vetspecialists.com, includes listings for board-certified internal medicine specialists, surgeons, cardiologists, neurologists and oncologists and is searchable by location and whether the doctor focusses on large or small animals.

If your vet recommends a specialist or veterinarian, that’s usually a good sign. “What that probably means is that those two veterinarians work well together. They have a clear line of communication. And having your [veterinarians] know each other and talk to each other and try to coordinate what’s doing on will have you spend less money because it will be an organized focus of testing and treatment,” says Hohenhaus.

But let’s say you don’t live near a specialist. How do you find a vet who can help? Again, start with your primary vet, who might recommend a vet in your town that has expertise in a certain aspect of veterinary medicine, but isn’t a certified specialist. “If there is someone in your town who is good, but not board certified, you have to do a bit more homework and check with your veterinarian,” says Hohenhaus.

Heather Loenser DVM, and veterinary advisor, public and professional affairs for the American Animal Hospital Association, also stresses that general practitioners and specialists have mutually beneficial relationships, and recommends going from a generalist to a specialist.

“If you have a medical issue with your animal, it makes the most sense to go from generalist to specialist. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to go from generalist to generalist,” says Loenser. However, she says if you aren’t clicking with your first veterinarian, that would be an appropriate time to find another generalist.

What Conditions Require Second Opinions?

Just about any condition can require a second opinion, says Loenser. A few of the most common ones include cancer, eye health issues, dermatological conditions, behavior problems, neurologic conditions, advanced dental procedures, organ failure and some types of surgery. “Anything you’ve ever heard of a person getting, animals get too. And we have a specialist for that area,” she said.

According to Hohenhaus, the three biggest reasons for seeking out a different opinion are: You don’t like the prognosis, you’re following whatever your plan your vet has outlined and your pet is not getting better or your veterinarian has prescribed a drastic course of action and you’re not sure if it’s appropriate.

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How to Avoid Hurting Your Vet’s Feelings

To avoid making things uncomfortable between you and your current veterinarian, Hohenhaus recommends making sure you don’t say anything personal when you discuss getting a second opinion. Some possible ways to start the conversation include:

  • “The diagnosis doesn’t make sense to me. How can we confirm that this is the right answer?”
  • “This is a drastic step for me. This is a serious problem for my pet. Because of that, I would feel better if a second opinion agreed with that course of action.”
  • “I’ve been following your directions for the past month and my pet is not better. Do you think a second opinion would shed any light on how we could make my pet better?”

The one thing you don’t want to say? “I think you’re wrong.” This, Hohenhaus says, doesn’t help anyone.

How Can Pet Parents Get a Second Opinion Without Breaking the Bank?

Since multiple trips to the vet can put a serious dent in your bank account, it’s best to ensure that you bring any diagnostic tests, X-rays and notes to the second vet you see, Loenser said. That way, the vet won’t have to re-do any initial rounds of tests. Additionally, it’s also best to request that both vets discuss the case over the phone too. “It really ensures that you have a good quality of care and continuity of care for your pet,” she said. 

If your pet has received a serious diagnosis and you want a second opinion, try to get it as quickly as possible. Don’t wait for the condition to become an emergency, says Loenser, who worked as an emergency vet for ten years.

“I would see animals coming in with issues that cost thousands of dollars that would have cost hundreds of dollars had they come in days to hours beforehand,” she says. “And that’s frustrating for everybody.”

What to Do Once You Receive a Second Opinion

Once a pet parent has received multiple opinions or diagnoses, you’ll need to begin trying to make the best decision possible for your pet.

“The family needs to ask themselves what they want do [and] what they think is right for their pet. Talk to the veterinarian who is change of the whole thing and ask, 'does this make sense?'” says Hohenhaus.

If your pet is being treated at a large hospital, you can consult with a social worker who can help you sort out your feelings and what the best treatment plan is. Sadly, it also might be time to accept that euthanasia or hospice care is the best remaining option for your pet.

Especially as pets age and some treatments become costlier and more invasive, investing the time, money and energy in a care plan that might only prolong your pets’ life by a few weeks or months may not make sense. Discuss with your doctors to decide on the best course of action for your individual pet.

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