At the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (better known as the RCVS) our core mission is to enhance society through improved animal health and welfare. We do this by setting educational, ethical and clinical standards for veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses, thereby helping to ensure the service that you, the pet owner, receive is the best possible.

So, for example, we make sure that the education and training of veterinary surgeons and nurses in the UK is up to scratch, require veterinary surgeons and nurses to keep to expected standards through our Code of Professional Conduct, and investigate any concerns raised about veterinary surgeons’ or nurses’  fitness to practise or professional conduct.

All this helps to keep UK veterinary surgeons and nurses at the forefront of professionalism across the world, offering the best possible service to the country’s animal owners. But first – you need to be registered with a vet.

Why you should register your pet with a vet

Whether you own a cat or a dog or a hamster or a bearded dragon, we recommend that you register your pet with a practice that is right for you and your pet. Being registered with a practice means that, should your pet fall ill or have an accident, you have somewhere you know and trust to get them treated.

Through regular health-checks, as well as access to other services such as veterinary nurse advice clinics on diet, flea and worming treatment, socialisation etc, being registered with a veterinary practice can also help prevent your pet getting ill in the first place.

You can find the veterinary practice that is right for you and your pet using our free online Find a Vet search tool. This free resource allows you to search for your nearest practice, for RCVS-accredited practices (see below),  for practices that treat particular types of animal (eg birds and reptiles) or have veterinary surgeons that specialise in particular areas (eg dentistry or feline medicine). You can also check for practicalities like opening times, contact details and car parking. To give it a whirl, visit www.findavet.org.uk

Who’s who in your veterinary practice

Once you’re registered with a veterinary practice, you might want to know who works at your average veterinary practice and what they do. The answer to these questions may depend on the overall size of the practice (eg is it a small general practice or a large veterinary hospital/ referral practice) and whether it specialises in any particular field of veterinary practice or treatment of any particular animal.

However, whatever its size, every veterinary practice will have at least one veterinary surgeon. The title ‘veterinary surgeon’ is protected in law, meaning that only those who are registered with the RCVS can use the title in the UK. UK-trained veterinary surgeons have either five or six years’ education and training in all aspects of veterinary surgery including diagnosis, treatment and major surgery. Such tasks can generally only be carried out by vets – although there are some exemptions. As part of their licence to practise, we expect vets to follow a Code of Professional Conduct and keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date through continual professional development, or CPD.

Most practices now also have at least one registered veterinary nurse on the team who would have qualified from an approved veterinary nursing training course and will be on the RCVS register. Veterinary nurses are trained to provide a high standard of nursing care based on a patient’s condition and needs, and can also provide advice on issues such as dental hygiene and nutrition as well as providing guidance on how to administer medicines. Like vets, veterinary nurses abide by a Code of Conduct and are expected to undertake a set number of hours of CPD every year.

You may also encounter vets who are either Advanced Practitioners or Specialists. Advanced Practitioners are vets who have achieved an advanced qualification in a specific field (such as Small Animal Medicine or Diagnostic Imaging) and who have demonstrated their knowledge and experience in this chosen area. RCVS-recognised Specialists are those who have achieved a postgraduate diploma or above in a particular field of veterinary practice and who have proved to the College that they make an active contribution to their specialty, have national or international acclaim and publish widely in their field.

You can search for individual veterinary surgeons (including Advanced Practitioners and Specialists) and veterinary nurses using our Find a Vet search tool.

What should I expect from my veterinary practice

Now you’re signed up and know who’s who at your practice it is time to consider what you should expect in terms of the service offered. Our Code spells out a number of obligations that veterinary surgeons and nurses have to their clients including being open and honest, providing independent and impartial advice, providing appropriate information about the practice (including the costs of services and medicines) and communicating effectively with clients.

It is important to remember there is no ‘NHS for animals’ and that, most of the time, veterinary practices will charge a fee for their professional services. While we are unable to set veterinary fees, we do expect vets and vet nurses to be open and honest about their fees and to itemise their bills to show what you are paying for. We would recommend that you consider pet insurance to help offset the cost of bills, provide peace of mind for unexpected costs and help pay for investigations and treatments that might otherwise be too expensive.

And finally, all veterinary practices should take steps to provide 24-7 emergency first aid and pain relief for their clients’ animals. This generally means that your practice will either have a member of staff ‘on-call’ to deal with any emergencies that arise outside the practice’s normal opening hours, will partner with other local practices to share emergency cover, or will outsource its emergency care to a dedicated emergency service provider. Whatever their out-of-hours emergency arrangements, your practice should provide you with full details in advance. It is important to note that vets are not obligated to attend to a case out-of-hours if they do not, in their clinical judgement, believe it to be an emergency or do not feel it would be safe to do so.

If you are not happy with the service you have received from your veterinary practice there are a number of steps you can take. Our recommendation is that, in the first instance, you raise the concern with the practice itself to see if the issue can be resolved through discussion with practice staff. If, however, no progress is made or you consider the complaint is sufficiently serious, then you can get in touch with us.

Once you have contacted us with a concern one of two things will happen. If we consider that the complaint could constitute serious professional misconduct by the veterinary surgeon or veterinary nurse then it will go through our own complaints investigation process. If considered serious enough it could ultimately end in a public Disciplinary Committee hearing in which the veterinary surgeon or nurse could be reprimanded, suspended or removed from the Register.

The other option is that we will refer you to the Veterinary Client Mediation Service, an independent service funded by the RCVS which resolves complaints made about a veterinary practice which do not meet our threshold of serious professional complaint using mediation. The types of complaints the service deals with might include poor customer service or disputes over the levels of fees charged. Details about this service can be found at https://www.vetmediation.co.uk.

This is just a short overview of what you should expect from your practice. More details about all of the above will soon be available on our dedicated animal owner website at www.rcvs.org.uk/animalowners.

Is your practice RCVS accredited?

Last but not least, we would really like to tell you about our Practice Standards Scheme, a voluntary quality assurance initiative open to all veterinary practices large or small.

More than 60% of veterinary practices in the UK are now part of the Scheme, meaning that their services and facilities have passed (or are about to pass) our rigorous accreditation process and are maintaining the highest standards of veterinary care.

From 2015 practices in the Scheme have also been able to achieve special awards that highlight the areas in which they excel, for example, in the services offered to their clients or their diagnostic services and facilities or their emergency and critical care services. As with the accreditation process, practices will go through a rigorous quality assessment process before receiving their awards.

If you want to find out if your existing or prospective practice is in the Scheme keep a lookout for the RCVS-accredited practice plaque (pictured) – award-winning practices will also have smaller plaques with details of their achievements.

For more details about the Practice Standards Scheme watch our fun animation at www.rcvs.org.uk/rcvsaccredited

And finally…

At the College, animal health and welfare is our utmost concern and we are always happy to hear from you should you want advice or information on professional standards for vets and vet nurses, should you want to raise concerns about the professional conduct of a veterinary surgeon or nurse or should you want to find out more about becoming a vet or vet nurse.

For more details visit our website www.rcvs.org.uk or get in touch with us via Twitter (@RCVS_UK) or Facebook (/thercvs).