Anatomy of a Veterinary Clinic


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Photos courtesy Country Club Animal Clinic

Most of the time, when you take your pet to the vet, all you really see is the waiting room and the exam room. The harried, usually masked, receptionist is the main face you see. Sometimes the vet’s assistant will take your pet “in back” for a procedure—to trim the nails, collect a blood sample, clean a wound, etc. During our recent COVID pandemic when most practices went on lockdown, using Curbside Service, you saw even less! A scrubs-clad figure wearing a surgical mask emerged from the front door and collected your leash, pet, or carrier, and from there on you communicated only by phone.

But who are those people in scrubs? What is this “in back?” What happens back there? This article will walk you through the building and explain what goes on. Keep in mind that every practice is different, but almost all have the same basic parts.

Waiting Room

An open area with seating, the Waiting Room probably has windows overlooking the parking lot. There are displays of pet foods, treats, and a few retail items. There may be pictures of pets, other ornamental items, educational posters, and brochures. And probably copies of Pet Companion Magazine to browse during what is hopefully a brief wait.

And of course, there is a counter, behind which sit the humans known variably as Receptionists, Client Service Representatives, or Greeters. These essential people have the daunting job of remaining cheerful while dealing with clients from all walks of life who have one thing in common: they are worried about their pets. This doesn’t always bring out the best in people. So, the veterinary reception is a bit of a miracle. Often with little training except what they got their first few days on the job, they must answer the phones, juggle the doctors’ schedules, guess how long the “limping” dog might take to be seen, and squeeze it in between the senior wellness consult and the vomiting cat that could be anything from a hairball to intestinal cancer. Between these calls they greet clients with a smile (even if you can’t see it behind the mask), communicate your arrival to the assistants … oh, and keep the water reservoir filled in the Keurig so you can have fresh coffee while you wait. These ladies (and occasional gentleman) must be like swans—serene and unruffled on the surface but paddling madly below the water!

This large exam room includes a mobile treatment table that rolls out of the way when not needed, such as for large dogs who can be examined on the floor. PHOTO COURTESY COUNTRY CLUB ANIMAL CLINIC

This large exam room includes a mobile treatment table that rolls out of the way when not needed, such as for large dogs who can be examined on the floor.

Exam Room

Next, the assistant comes out and escorts you and your pet into an Exam Room. The assistant may be a highly skilled veterinary technician but, in most cases, they are working their way to that position. Typically, these folks have received training in handling of dogs and cats—and other species, depending on the practice. It’s their job to find out why you are here today, perhaps initiating some basic tests, like looking at a sample from an infected ear or obtaining X-rays for a pet who is limping, coughing, or showing changes in their breathing. They will weigh your pet, takes its temperature and heart rate, and draw up any vaccinations that are due.

Again, this is familiar territory. Every doctor’s office anywhere has separate private rooms where stuff happens. At the vet clinic, it’s less about privacy and more about security. A smaller room helps the animal settle down in many cases, establishing physical limitations and reducing proximity to the front door, where a frightened pet might run out. Here we can remove the leash or take the small pet from its carrier, allow it to move about the room and get a good sense of their gait, attitude, and energy level. A significant part of the exam takes place without even touching the animal.

Depending on the size and attitude of the pet and the inclinations of the doctor, we may place the animal on a table, which is standard equipment here. Or we may sit right down on the floor for others. Typically, the assistant … well, assists in this process by holding on to the pet.

If all you needed was the exam and a couple of shots, that’s pretty much it. But let’s say your dog needs to have her nails trimmed, a blood sample collected, wound cleaned up, bandage applied, a test run, or a minor procedure. The assistant will probably remove your pet from your presence for this part of the visit and take her “in back.”

Treatment Room

“In back” refers to our Treatment Room. This is a large, multipurpose space with lighted tables and sinks, and drawers full of things like bandage materials and nail trimmers. With lots of big, fluffy towels to cuddle nervous pets, clippers and jars of antiseptic for cleaning scrapes and oozy spots. This is where most of the work happens in a veterinary clinic. There will be banks of cages for pets who need to stay awhile, oxygen for those whose breathing is abnormal, IV fluids for the dehydrated pet, etc.

Here is a large treatment area, with a “wet table” in the foreground, a cage bank and ICU cage visible and two dental stations against the far wall. PHOTO COURTESY COUNTRY CLUB ANIMAL CLINIC

Here is a large treatment area, with a “wet table” in the foreground, a cage bank and ICU cage visible and two dental stations against the far wall.

But why take your pet there for a minor thing like a blood draw? There are many reasons. Surprisingly, most pets are better behaved when their owners are not present. We have directed lighting to make it easier to get a clear view of what we are doing. Most of these procedures require two people but not the veterinarian. So, we have a second technician or assistant “in back,” whose job it is to help the room assistant, and it’s far more efficient to bring the pet to them than to send that technician to the exam room. There are “wet tables”—basically a sink that is about 5 feet long with a platform over it for the pet to stand on. This makes it easier to clean up any mess we make.

Another reason we might “borrow” your pet for a bit is to free up the exam room for another pet to be seen. Some days we just don’t have enough rooms to go around!

Treatment is also where we prepare pets for surgery if needed and, in many cases, it’s where dental procedures are conducted. It opens into the operating room and the laboratory and X-ray areas, for convenience.

Depending on the size of the practice, all these things may be going on at the same time! The better use we can make of our available space, the more efficient our staff is. You may not realize that, despite the high cost of veterinary care, the staff and doctors don’t get paid nearly as much as their counterparts in human medicine. This leads to frustration and financial stress. People tend to migrate out of veterinary practice at a disturbingly high rate. By increasing the amount of time they are productive, we can pay them that little bit more without having to pass the cost along to the pet owner.

Finally, when the tests or treatment are complete, we return your pet to your welcoming arms—hopefully the better for our care!

Lillian Roberts, DVM
Lillian Roberts, DVM
Dr. Lillian Roberts graduated from the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in 1987. After a pioneering private-practice internship in California’s Bay Area, she moved to the Coachella Valley. Here she spent several years at the Animal Emergency Clinic — culminating in the publication in 1998 of a book, EMERGENCY VET: TRUE STORIES FROM THE ANIMAL ER. Dr. Roberts opened Country Club Animal Clinic in 1996, providing personalized service to pet owners in the growing Coachella Valley. Built mostly by word-of-mouth, the practice continues to serve discriminating pet owners at its convenient new facility opened in 2008. After more than 25 years of practice, Dr. Roberts still loves what she does — and it shows! “Whether it’s a wellness visit or a challenging medical or surgical case, I take real pleasure in making every client experience a positive one,” she says. “I look forward to interacting with my patients and consider many of their owners to be personal friends.” When not providing excellent veterinary care, Dr. Roberts enjoys world travel, hiking, cycling and kayaking, as well as wildlife and nature photography. She is the author of four books, including the Andi Pauling veterinarian mystery series, serves on the boards of Loving All Animals and the Palms To Pines Rotary chapter, is past president of the Desert Camera Club and supports numerous animal-related and other charities.


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