Your veterinarian is one of the most important parts of your pet's health (after you, of course). How can you tell if you have found a great vet? Background, experience and education are all very important factors. However, perhaps an even greater measure is how the vet makes you and your pet feel.
Education and Experience
When choosing a vet, you can start by researching the vet and her clinic. Ask others for input about their experiences. Research the vet's background and education online if possible (or simply call the clinic and ask about her). Information about the vet is often available on the clinic's website. You can usually verify a veterinary license by looking online through your state's licensing board or secretary of state.
To become a vet, one must obtain an undergraduate degree (usually a Bachelor's of Science) followed by four-year post graduate education in veterinary school. It is quite difficult to get into vet school as there is much competition and not many vet schools in the U.S. (compared to medical schools). In addition, the vet school curriculum is rigorous. After vet school, candidates must take and pass a complicated test (boards) in order to become licensed. Some vets complete one or more internships after vet school, though this is not a requirement. Know that by getting accepted into vet school, completing the program, then passing the licensure boards, your vet has already shown great knowledge. This being said, not all vets are created equal. Experience and continuing education within the field allows a vet to hone her skills and become excellent.
The Vet's Office
Once you have chosen a vet, it's a good idea to visit the clinic first. To meet the vet, you generally need to make a appointment (choose something like a routine exam unless your pet is sick). Let them know you looking for a new vet and trying them out.
Before meeting the vet, consider your experience with the animal clinic staff and facility. You will likely meet at least one receptionist and one vet tech or vet assistant before you meet the veterinarian.
Bedside Manner / Professionalism
When the veterinarian enters the exam room, she should be warm, friendly and introduce herself. She should take a moment to greet your pet, then a few minutes to talk with you about the reason for the visit and listen carefully to any concerns you may have about your pet.
During the examination, you should notice your vet looking over every part of your pet's body while the tech or assistant handles your pet with care. Some experienced vets are really fast at their exams, so don't assume something was skipped. Ask if you think the vet missed something.
The vet should talk to you about her exam findings then make her recommendations. In some cases, it is as simple as saying everything was normal and making recommendations for basic wellness (like vaccines and routine lab tests). If your pet is not well, or if something abnormal was seen on the exam, your vet should discuss the details of your options.
If diagnostic testing is recommended, the vet should explain what tests she wants to do and what these tests will tell her. If treatments are recommended, she should explain what the treatments involve and how they will help your pet. All of this should be explained in a way you can understand, using common terminology (not too much medical jargon). The vet should take steps to make sure you understood her and ask if you have questions before leaving the room. Communication is the key to a successful vet-client relationship.
Note that it is normal for vets to ask their techs or assistants to go over information with pet owners. Usually this is basic, general information. For detailed medical recommendations, you will usually speak with the vet herself. Of course, vets are busy people. Good vets will train and empower their staff members to help clients and pets as much as possible (within reason and in accordance with their training and education). Give the staff a chance to help you. However, if at any time you feel you would be better served by a direct conversation with the vet, speak up. A great vet will be more than happy to talk to you!
Overall, if your vet is amazing, you will leave that appointment feeling satisfied and confident about your pet's medical care.