Vets hit the road to help pets

Booker the black Labrador retriever needed to go to the veterinarian when he became too frail to walk last year, but he was too big for owner Lindsay Whalen to put him in the car.

So she called the veterinarian to come to her.

Kevin Collins, whose business card reads "heals on wheels," took his mobile surgical clinic to Whalen’s house and examined Booker in the living room. The prognosis was bleak: At 13, Booker’s back problems had progressed to the point where he needed to be euthanized.

"Booker had been abused before I got him so trips to the vet made him really nervous. It was a lot more comforting for Dr. Collins to come here because Booker wasn’t nervous or scared. He laid where he was comfortable," Whalen recalls.

She’s a convert to mobile veterinary services and calls Collins whenever she needs something for her new puppy.

As a shift-working town with urban sprawl and a high senior population, the Las Vegas Valley is an ideal market for mobile veterinary services, says Debbie White, spokeswoman for the Nevada Veterinary Medical Association. That’s why she’s surprised there aren’t more veterinarians who make house calls.

Sprint Yellow Pages lists two mobile vets: Ace Mobile Veterinary Services and Waggin’ Wheels Mobile Clinic. Rebel Animal Services is listed, too, but it’s more of an ambulance for pets, says owner Bill Freer. Collins takes clients only through word of mouth and referral.

"I think they definitely offer a great service," says White, who used to make house calls but stopped several years ago. It was too time-consuming and costly, she says.

But mobile vets are equipped to visit homes and can provide a much-needed service to clients with mobility problems and people who have larger pets or multiple pets, she says.

Nationally, interest is growing in veterinary house calls, says Tony McCorkle, a member of the American Association of House Calls and Mobile Veterinarians. He started Ace Mobile almost six years ago.

He tows a 19-foot surgical trailer that is equipped with everything he needs to perform most surgeries and exams. It contains anesthesia, monitoring equipment, pulse oximeter, dental machine and most of the supplies that would be stocked in an office hospital. He draws blood and urine for lab work and sends the samples to a local laboratory. The results are faxed to him.

"I thought I’d try something different and be my own boss," says McCorkle, who managed veterinary hospitals for 10 years. "I wanted to be independent but I didn’t want to make a commitment to buy the land and build a hospital. I didn’t want a huge debt."

A mobile clinic can cost about $100,000 but a hospital, with land and a building, could run in the millions of dollars just to get the doors open, he says.

Liz Armitage, who breeds Siamese cats, likes to use McCorkle because of the convenience. She doesn’t have to round up her five cats and transport them to the vet, plus, the animals are in their home environment and likely to be more relaxed, she says.

Collins and McCorkle say they both take calls at all hours of the day.

"It’s unbelievable, Dr. Tony has come to the house in the evenings to suit my working hours," Armitage says. "It’s very stressful to put the animals in the car and drive them to the vet. At home, their heartbeat isn’t up, he sees them as they are. They’re not tensed, not stressed, although there’s one or two who do recognize the white coat. It’s a very good thing for me."

While there are many benefits, for both sides, there also are drawbacks.

All of this personal service comes at an extra cost, one that McCorkle and Collins’ clients are willing to pay. There are transportation costs, including gasoline, insurance and vehicle maintenance. Each call also takes longer than a traditional office visit, meaning they see far fewer clients, about eight in one day versus 50 in a hospital, McCorkle says.

Collins charges $75 to $90 for a house call and exam. The cost of procedures varies, he says.

McCorkle’s house call fee starts at $50 and increases according to the distance he has to travel. The exam fee is $30 while the price of additional services varies. An average office visit costs about $40 for an exam only, he says.

Some mobile units also are limited in the services they provide, McCorkle says. He sometimes must refer clients to a hospital if the animal is too ill to care for. All of his X-rays are referred out, too, and he doesn’t do emergencies.

It would probably be better to use a veterinary hospital during an emergency, White says, unless a pet owner has an established relationship with a mobile veterinarian.

"But there are certainly some things they do very well in the field," White says.

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