One of the most important choices a new pet owner has to make, next to choosing the pet, of course, is the veterinarian who will be charged with maintaining that pet's health. While we'd all love to take our puppy or kitten to kindly old Dr. Herriot (who, by the way, still practices in England's Yorkshire Dales), it would seem a bit impractical to pack Rover off to the British Isles every time he gets the sniffles or needs his annual shots.

So what do you do with that new puppy or kitten due for its next round of vaccinations--or you've just arrived in town with pets in tow, facing the vast list of names in the Yellow Pages?

On what do you base your decision--location, prices, personality?

"The most important thing is the personal relationship between you and the veterinarian," claims Phyllis Wright, vice president for Companion Animals for The Humane Society of the United States. "Can you ask him or her questions? Does your pet respond well to the doctor? Veterinarians are not machines. Each of them has likes and dislikes, as well as special talents."

"Many personal decisions have to go into selecting a veterinarian," echoes Dr. Max Decker, Washington representative for the American Veterinary Medical Association, "many things other than his or her competence as a professional."

The first step in the process is to decide what type of veterinary practice you want. No longer does the average vet graduate from school, hang out a shingle and proceed to treat everything from pet caterpillars to bulls. Much like the medical profession, vets are becoming more and more specialized, many limiting their practices beyond the traditional divisions of large animals (horses and cows) and small animals (dogs and cats) to specialties like radiology, ophthalmology and cardiology.

Even selecting among today's GP dog-and-cat vets, you'll have to choose between a vet who's practicing alone, with one or two associates, or in a large animal hospital with 20 or 30 other vets. All have their advantages and disadvantages. While the one-man or -woman practice guarantees that you'll see the same person on every visit, office hours are likely to be far fewer than those for a larger practice. Although the large animal hospital may be stocked with the very latest in up-to-date equipment, you (and/or your pet) may be more comfortable with someone who's familiar with your pet's personality and medical history.

Wright solves her problem in a unique way--by having cards on her dog and cat on file at three different veterinarian's offices. "The one I like best is gone from Thursday to Sunday showing her dogs," she says, "so I have another one close by, mostly for emergencies, and still another that I go to when one of my animals needs surgery--except that to see him you have to make an appointment weeks in advance."

You'll probably be able to get by with just one vet, and you can begin narrowing down that list of names by seeking references.

"Ask friends you trust who their vet is," recommends Wright. If you're new to the area, or can't find anyone who's wild about their vet, call your local animal welfare organization and ask who they work with regularly. You may also want to visit a dog or cat show and ask some of the breeders for names.

The next step is to take your list of names and call your local Better Business Bureau (in the District, 393-8000) or Office of Consumer Affairs. Someone there should be able to tell you about complaints that have been filed against the vet, and how those complaints were resolved.

But don't rule out a vet simply because complaints have been filed against him or her: Pets tend to arouse their owner's deepest emotions and sometimes the prices charged may cause a shock, according to AVMA's Decker. Only if the vet has had a series of similar complaints filed, or if there was no amicable resolution in several cases, should you cross the name off your list.

Wright and Decker agree that the next step is the most important: Visit the prospective veterinarian's office BEFORE you actually need his or her services. The first thing you should do, says Wright, is use your nose. There should not be obvious animal odors. The waiting room should look neat and professional and the receptionists should conduct themselves accordingly.

"If the receptionist is wearing torn jeans, chewing gum and talking to her boyfriend on the phone when you walk in, the kennel people (who will be performing many of the actual services for your pet) have probably been selected with a similar disregard for professionalism," says Wright. "It doesn't matter how young or old the staff is, but they should be polite and able to take pertinent information as well as your pet's medical history."

Talk to the veterinarian, advises Decker, "to see if the services he or she provides sound like what you're looking for." Ask to see the treatment areas to be sure they are clean, ask if the vet is on call for emergencies or will refer you to one of the local pet-emergency clinics and don't be afraid to ask about price structures.

All the latest equipment is terrific, says Wright, but the overhead will be reflected in the fees, and "the best equipment isn't going to be of much help if the vet isn't available when needed."

Watch how the veterinarian responds to your pet. Does he or she stroke the animal first as a method to relieve stress? Or does the vet rush to restrain or muzzle the animal--even if it has shown no inclination to bite or struggle? Don't be put off if the vet insists that the animal be held by an assistant instead of by you.

"If you're holding your pet, it's more likely to become defensive towards the doctor in a misplaced desire to protect 'Mommy' or 'Daddy,' " says Wright. But do watch the skills of the assistant. A good vet usually hires good help.

Even after you've balanced location, office hours, prices and professionalism, your ultimate decision will probably (and should be) based on your "gut feelings," says Wright. "If the office gives you more bad vibes than good ones, get out immediately."

Don't be afraid to shop around. When you find the right combination, you'll know--and so will your pet.