Just as you choose physicians to treat your family, you want top-

notch care for your pets. You can't assess all aspects of a veterinarian's skills, but you can judge many factors central to good care:

Does the vet listen and communicate well? Spend enough time with you? Arrange appointments quickly? Give useful advice on preventing diseases and warning signs, and on treatments you can give on your own? Seem competent and thorough?

The nonprofit Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine has evaluated 155 area veterinary clinics and hospitals. Through a special arrangement, Inquirer readers can access Checkbook's ratings of vets free through Dec. 31 at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/vets. To evaluate the vets, Checkbook surveyed its members and Consumer Reports subscribers. Most vets received favorable ratings, but some practices received low scores on many questions.

Besides completing four years of college and four years of veterinary school, almost all vets have undergone additional years of practical training in a clinical setting. Vet grads must pass an exam as hard as the one for physicians to qualify to practice.

Vet hospitals can become accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association by meeting certain minimum standards. But among the practices evaluated by Checkbook, AAHA accreditation seems to have little relationship to service quality. For example, on its customer-survey question "apparent competence- thoroughness," AAHA-accredited practices, on average, scored about the same as non-accredited ones.

Though you want the best possible care for your pet, you don't want it to cost your life's savings. The most common complaints Checkbook receives are about excessive and unexpectedly high bills. Many comment that the veterinarians not only failed to discuss less costly treatment alternatives, but also pushed treatments of little value to pet and owner.

To compare vets for price, Checkbook's mystery shoppers called the 155 practices it evaluated to collect their prices for six procedures. There were big variations. For example, to spay a seven-month-old, 25-pound dog, area practices charge fees ranging from $164 to $752. To clean the teeth of a four-year-old, 65-pound dog, fees ranged from $135 to $674.

Because treatments can be expensive, more consumers are buying pet health insurance. Several companies offer these policies, many of which appear affordable. But before springing for insurance, review the provisions and limitations of any policy. All policies have significant limitations and/or impose high deductibles, and benefits usually are limited to a per-procedure price schedule.

For example, one plan Checkbook evaluated pays $355 for treatment of a fractured leg using a splint or cast, considerably less than most vets charge. If the fee your vet charges for a procedure or treatment is more than the plan pays and you can't negotiate a discount, you'll have to pay the difference. The plan also limited payouts to $7,000 a year; routine care, such as vaccinations, annual physical exams, behavioral problems, heartworm protection, flea control, spaying or neutering, and teeth cleaning are not covered, nor are congenital conditions.

Is the coverage you get worth the price? Checkbook's view is you shouldn't buy insurance unless you need to protect yourself from expenses that would disrupt your finances. Buying insurance to cover non-catastrophic expenses means you pay to cover the profit, sales costs, and administrative costs for an insurer to process bills you could pay yourself. And your premiums also cover a pool of other policyholders, some of whom may be more prone to using excessive care.

First, determine what you would do if your pet required expensive medical care. Many pet owners will pay anything; others won't. If you belong to the pay-any-price group, consider pet insurance if huge vet bills would severely strain your finances. In terms of total out-of-pocket costs over the life of your pet, most pet owners do better without insurance.

How best to choose a policy?

Be aware that no plan covers pre-existing conditions.

Carefully review the policy, including fee schedules. Red flags are large copays, high annual premiums, and limitations or exclusions for conditions that might require costly care (such as cancer) or chronic conditions that require continual care. Stick with plans that offer a set schedule of fees, or that pay a percentage of total costs.

If the policy has a fee schedule, ask your vet to compare the practice's fees to the plan's allowances. If they are a lot lower than the vet's fees, find a different plan.

You can usually get lower premiums by choosing the highest affordable deductible.

Don't pay extra for some plans' "wellness care" options.

If your plan's premium increases suddenly, consider switching, but remember that a new plan will not cover pre-existing conditions.

Prepaid health plans are offered by some vet practices. You pay a set dollar amount for specific procedures and/or shots (at a discount) through the year.

Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org rate service firms and professionals. See ratings of 155 area vet clinics and hospitals free at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/vets until Dec. 31.