How important is it to find the right veterinarian for your cat? Just ask anyone who has had a bad pet-medical-related experience. Searching online for your nearest local clinic or thumbing through the yellow pages can be a recipe for disaster. Cat owners often don’t even interview veterinarians before making that first office visit, says Roberta Lillich, DVM, spokeswoman for the American Association of Feline Practitioners.

You want a veterinarian who understands you and your cat and who will help your feline to live a fulfilling, happy and healthy life. Take the time at the outset to find such a professional by visiting several clinics. Our experts offer this checklist to help you in your search:

Comfort level A growing number of practices are devoted solely to felines, but you may not be able to locate a cats-only clinic in your community. You might also find that other factors lead you to choose a veterinarian who cares for both cats and dogs. In any case, the clinic you choose should understand how to keep your cat calm and relaxed.

Cats tend to be more nervous and to like a quieter environment. If it’s not a cats-only clinic, look for separate entrances for dogs and cats. “Ideally, a clinic that is not feline-only will have a separate waiting room area for cats so they aren’t subjected to strange dogs sniffing their carriers or barking right next to them,” says Karen Becnel, DVM, who runs a cats-only practice in suburban New Orleans. “Hopefully, they will also have a separate ward in the hospital for those cats that need to be hospitalized.” If the veterinarian doesn’t have a separate waiting area, note how the staff segregates cats. They should be able to efficiently move kitties out of the waiting area and into a quiet exam room.

Staff experience Gentleness and a true love and understanding of cats should come through when you are speaking with veterinarians or observing them in action with your pet. Ask how a clinic handles fractious cats, says Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant in Redwood City, Calif. Staff members should understand how to remove a scared or annoyed cat from a carrier without a tussle. Also, you can inquire about their own personal pets or clinic cat. “You certainly don’t have to have children to be a good pediatrician, but it helps in his or her understanding of the species if your veterinarian has cats as personal pets,” says Dr. Becnel. Make sure you meet each veterinarian who might care for your feline.

Cleanliness You want your kitty treated in a clean, sanitary facility. Ask for a tour of the clinic if possible and note the cleanliness of the cages where cats are kept.

Fees and payment methods You should know what a veterinarian charges for such basic services as office visits, vaccinations and annual checkups. A veterinarian should also freely discuss the potential costs of any treatment plan up front and be willing to provide itemized estimates. “A veterinarian shouldn’t wait for the client to ask for an estimate,” says Dr. Lillich. “A veterinarian should make you feel comfortable talking about the financial implications. A lot of times, it can put you at ease knowing that there’s not going to be a big surprise at the end of the road.”

Breed-specific knowledge It’s important that your veterinarian understand traits and genetic tendencies unique to your kitty’s breed.

Current veterinary practices Sometimes it helps to think like a pro. “For example, vaccination protocols have recently changed,” Krieger says. “I like to ask veterinarians what their vaccination protocols are. It’s important that they keep up with the new information and are reading journals and staying current.”

Emergencies Understand practice hours and how emergencies are handled. Are weekend and night calls referred to a certain emergency clinic? If so, it’s a good idea to make a practice run to that clinic as well, say the experts.

Finally, you should feel comfortable with the way a veterinarian lets you know what’s going on with your kitty. “You want to make sure there’s good communication,” says Krieger. “Is the vet available for follow-up? Will they call you back? Will they talk with you? Ignore you?” You’re both working together for your kitty’s well-being, and your relationship with your veterinarian should lead to a long-standing, rewarding partnership.