Having worked with a number of veterinarians from large animal, small animal, exotics, equine, and mixed practice here are some questions to ask when you are looking for a vet for your goats.
Imagine you are on the phone…here’s the phrases you want to use:
“Do you do small ruminants?”
Why this phrase? Goats can be intimidating to some vets. If you get a small animal practice that does mostly dogs and cats the receptionist will probably laugh at you at this point, and you know you have the wrong vet. I actually had three of them laugh at me face to face one time. If the receptionist says “yes, sometimes” or “sure” follow up with the next questions.
“I have some goats and I want XYZ done”
Now here’s a good weed out point. Veterinarians in vet school generally learn how to work on dogs and cats. They can choose to expand their knowledge to livestock, exotics, wildlife, etc but many do not. Most vets, if they don’t know a lot about goats will intelligently be reluctant to do certain procedures because they don’t want to get sued for doing something wrong. However, for your peace of mind, you need to go into the conversation knowing the sort of answers you want to hear from them. If you ask for castration and they seem reluctant ask them if they have ever done surgical castration on large animals, (horses/alpacas/llamas is good – NOT calves). If they’ve done it on large animals the same principles apply to a goat, except that lidocaine is best injected into the testicles rather than putting the whole animal out. If you ask for pulling blood, make sure they have the red top tubes you need for shipping blood samples.
If you ask for vaccines tell them exactly what vaccines you want (CDT and IMRAB SHEEP rabies – not any old rabies) to make sure they have it in stock or can order what you need. Remember that call for goat vaccines is very low and vaccines don’t last very long in the fridge. Therefore you may be required to purchase the entire vial of vaccine from the vet + a $10 -$20 service charge to get the vaccine even if you don’t have enough animals to use the entire vial. Being a vet is a business – they won’t take a loss on a vaccine just to help you out!
“Can you teach me XYZ”
Lets say you need someone to demo pulling kids for you or banding. It is best to get an experienced goat keeper to teach you most of the techniques you need because they can approach it from your level and most owners are very happy to teach newbies the ropes. You can also ask your vet. However, veterinarians often have conflicts with teaching people certain techniques. The altruistic reason for this is that some higher risk techniques, (such as surgical castration or tubing), take practice to do correctly and a vet might not feel comfortable demoing it once and then going “now you can do it whenever you want”. Sometimes they legitimately don’t know the technique, (don’t ask your dog and cat vet to help you understand pinging and feeling for bloat in ruminants). The less altruistic reason, but one that is a part of understanding that vets, like doctors, are running a business is that if they teach you a technique you won’t have to pay them to do it anymore. Also realize that veterinarian technicians can lose their license if they perform certain techniques for you outside of a vet’s supervision. Don’t put your vet tech neighbor’s career on the line just because you don’t want an $80 vet bill!
Therefore, if you need to learn a technique like surgical castration, how to do sutures, how to pull blood, or similar try to find an older vet who has already paid off his immense student loans and is therefore subconsciously not afraid to teach you something because he’ll run out of business. The ability to blindly stitch a displaced abomasum, (traditionally a vet-only skill), has been passed onto cattle dairies by older vets.
Another tactic is to demonstrate to the vet that teaching you a technique saves him suffering in the long run. If he helps you pull kids once or twice then you can do it on your own and he won’t get a call at 6pm right as he sets down to dinner to come help you with kids in freezing January weather. You can also offer to pay for instruction specifically if the vet seems excessively reluctant to demonstrate to them that their is financial value as well as less hassle for them in giving you basic emergency or care skills.
“I need a herd health certificate”
It is in your best interest to identify what paperwork you need to fill out for a herd health certificate in your state or your export/import state before you call the vet. Also determine if the vet doing the inspection must be USDA certified or have some other qualification. This way you can ask the right questions on the phone! Why? Because being a vet is a big freaking hassle and they only get paid like $35 to do this herd health inspection. The easier to make their job the more likely they are to want to do these low pay, high effort jobs for you.
“Do you do emergencies?”
This is a biggie. Kidding season, goats with severe fractures, broken off horns – all these are reasons why you want a vet you can call at 3 am when shit really hits the fan. As a goat owner is is important to have done your research and know some steps you can take in all the above events and others to keep the animal alive. But sometimes you need the good pain killers, the real suture threads instead of staples, and someone with more than a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy. Ask your vet if they have someone “on call” – that is the phrase for a vet or tech that will be available after hours in emergencies. If they don’t, is there a nearby clinic that does do emergencies? If that doesn’t work, is there a phone number you can call to get after hours emergency help via the phone, (state veterinary schools often offer this service). If none of the above works out, then you can decide if this is the vet for you or not. In some areas there is no after hours emergency care available for goats, and your best bet is to make friends with a more experienced goat owner who keeps their cell on and to study before kidding season on how to handle these problems yourself.
I have heard many people complain about “why won’t the vet help me out – this is a life threatening thing for my animal!”. The reality is the vets are people who need to sleep, eat, and get a break. Vets don’t make a lot of money off of treating livestock either – the bread and butter is in dogs and cats. Kindness, paying promptly and on time, making sure cold water and food is always available for vets and in general treating them well for years is the only way sometimes to cultivate a vet who will, at 3 am, come and save your goat.
There is one caveat to this discussion – if you have a vet that says they will respond to emergency calls after hours and you end up having to call for a kidding problem, do not leave the vet with the doe and walk off. Vets often have a protege with them. Usually it’s a kid ranging from high school to past college age that is training with the vet in anticipation or because they are already in vet school. This person may not be familiar with pulling kids or removing dead kids from the womb. They same can be true of the veterinarian – they may pull a lot of calves, but very few kids. Goats are more fragile than cattle internally. You can put your hand through the wall of the uterus if you try hard enough. I have seen a student vet punch a hole through the wall of the uterus by accident trying to pull kids and the doe had to be put down. Stay with your animals while the vet works, and if you are worried, try dropping a hint that less force might work better. That being said, accidents happen. Vets are human, just like you and me. To err is human, to forgive is divine.
What do you do if your only option for vet care is reluctant?
This is a biggie. I know what they teach in vet school. I know, that somewhere in the distant past pretty much all vets were taught how to surgically castrate ruminants and do other goat type procedures. However, that doesn’t mean they want to do it now that they’re out of school! So how do you convince them? You must build a relationship, (I know..ewwe…time consuming…aargh…). Bring your guard dog by regularly and mentioning you have goats. Indicate that you will be spending regular amounts of money with them and you have enough goats to make it worth their while. Consider banding together with other local goat owners to demonstrate to the vet that their is a large and lucrative population of goats out there that they can corner the market on servicing. After you’ve demonstrated that a population and money exist, try to bring animals by to the office itself regularly (every month at first, then every few months) for small things. Weigh your goats on their scales. Bring in kids for a vaccine or something. Little things that won’t cost you much but will keep goats on the mind of the vet.
Remember that the receptionists are the door guards of the vet. If you win them over, that’s half the battle because they determine whether your request for assistance even reaches the vet in the back. So bring those adorable goat kids. Offer to bring animals to the office instead of doing a time intensive farm call. Say you can hold the goats in the parking lot instead of bringing them into the waiting area where they’ll upset the dog clients. Drop off some fresh baked cookies on your way to the auction.And always always always pay on time and at time of service with no reluctance or wheedling for discounts. If there is one thing that drags out in the world of the vet office it is the hassle of extracting money from reluctant owners. It’s agonizing, and it puts you in a bad light if they have to annoy you for payment.
When it comes to tests and paperwork, realize that most vets are not up on the latest and greatest rules for testing or health checking goats and because there isn’t a lot of money involved they won’t be motivated to do the legwork themselves to become experts. Again, vets are human! So when you walk into their office, make sure that you ARE the expert. If this is a vet that doesn’t know you well, bring proof that you aren’t pulling these rules out of your butt that is easy for the vet to verify in 4 minutes or less. Have all of the paperwork filled out perfectly and ready for a vet signature. Be nice, be patient, and be ready to make your case. If samples need shipped, show up with a box and cool packs for them to use, (but don’t pack the samples – the vet will feel more comfortable if they can verify that the samples were packed by their office). Remember that a vet can lose their license if certain paperwork is filled out falsely or incorrectly. When they sign that form it is their entire career on the line. That’s why they are reluctant, nervous, and difficult. Imagine if it was you signing for someone you only sort of knew and if that person screwed you over you’d still have $100,000 of school debt and no way to pay it back.
IN SUM: Finding a good goat vet is hard, just as finding a good adult pack goat is hard. If you have the patience to raise a goat for 4 years, extend the same patience in cultivating a relationship with a veterinarian.
*Oh, and I am not a vet or tech. I’ve just worked for a lot of them*