published Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Wheelin' and healin': More veterinarians making home visits

  • photo
    During a house call, Dr. Jennifer Kolb of Riverview Animal Hospital, standing, prepares to remove staples from Ella’s ears as Kaitlyn Halleron, right, and Hailey Kreek hold the Weimaraner still. Kolb says home visits are less stressful on pets and owners.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

First Nannie, then Ella stand still on the edge of the Oriental rug in the neat-as-a-pin Riverview living room.

With owner Hailey Kreek and veterinary tech Kaitlyn Halleron soothing and cooing, Dr. Jennifer Kolb of Riverview Animal Hospital is able to go about her business with the large, black Newfoundland and the tall, mouse-gray Weimaraner.

"Good girl," the veterinarian adds to the dialogue, clipping surgical staples from Ella's ears. "Such a good girl."

In 15 minutes the work is done, and the vet, tech and their device-laden, yellow-and-black Stanley toolbox are on their way. It's a far cry from a waist-high table in an antiseptic examination cubicle.

Kolb is one of a growing number of the country's 85,000 veterinarians who provide house calls for pets. The practice has been around for years in areas where care for cows, horses and other livestock is necessary, but the service is on the rise for small animals in the home.

"It's a stress decrease for the clients and the animals as well," says Dr. Shannon Dawkins, who began Paws and Claws Mobile Veterinary Services this spring. "So many circumstances can be taken care of in the home. You get to see how they're actually caring for the animal, their animal husbandry. I'd rather see it than have them describe it."

Plus, she says, it's a benefit for animals that can't or don't travel well or get along with other animals, or clients who have difficulty getting around or have little time to take their animal to the vet.

In the Chattanooga area, some veterinarians operate house-calls-only practices, while others are connected to a bricks-and-mortar clinic or hospital. Most traveling vets provide a wide range of services from inoculations to euthanasia. Chronic care and limited urgent care also are usually offered, with referrals made for surgeries, X-rays, ultrasounds and specialized care.

Kolb, who did large-animal work after graduating from veterinary school, says that, while making farm calls, she thought it would be a great job to make house calls on small pets.

Later, after she joined Riverview Animal Hospital several years ago, owner/veterinarian Ty Federico, who had done some house calls of his own, mentioned he would like to have a vet who would take over all house calls.

"You're in luck," Kolb remembers saying. "I'd love to do that." She's now been making house calls up to four days a week for about two years.

Dr. Alison Gussack, who has operated Vet2Go in the area for nearly two years, hoped to have her own business without the expense of a stand-alone practice. The idea of a mobile veterinary service combined her veterinary training and her entrepreneurial spirit. It "fell into my lap," she says.

Dawkins treats exotic animals such as birds and rabbits as well as cats and dogs. "I saw a need for it," she says.

Kolb says she makes from one to four calls a day, Gussack makes three to five home visits and Dawkins two to five per day.

"It really does vary from day to day," says Gussack. "That's [some]thing I like about it. I'm never bored."

Pet owners find many advantages to having their pet treated in the home. "We try to make the clients as happy as we can," says Kolb. "It's a convenience for them."

Among her home-visit patients, Dawkins visits 19-year-old Buddy the cat, 12-year-old Roger the mixed breed dog and 8-year-old Bobby the dachshund at Dawn Christopher's house in Murray Hills. Christopher says she'd been searching for a vet who would come to the home because it's just so hard on her older animals when she piles them in and out of the car for a trip to the clinic.

After getting home from one recent visit, she opened the door and Roger "tried to jump out of the car," she says. "His legs kind of gave out on him and he hit his nose on the ground and I felt so bad."

She found Dawkins through a friend, she says, and now, when the vet comes to the house, "she's like a visitor," not a doctor, as far as the animals are concerned. "And their exam is her touching them, so they love that."

"I enjoy going into people's homes," says Gussack. "It creates a more personal relationship. You learn a lot more about relations between owners and pets and the problem the pet's having. A lot of times, it's easier to find a solution when you're right there."

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    Dr. Jennifer Kolb, top left, has been making house calls up to four days a week for two years.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

Hospice care and euthanasia are vital parts of most traveling vets' practice. Hospice care for dying animals, they say, varies with the pet. The animal may require a visit once a month, once a week or once a day, perhaps to have fluids administered, fluids withdrawn or alternative therapies performed.

"Animals, especially cats, get stressed [with transportation to a clinic]," says Kolb, "and that stresses the owners out. You want to try not to make the last few months unbearable."

Euthanasia, though understandable and humane, is never an easy decision for clients to make, vets say. Having the procedure done in the home is "a much more relaxed experience," says Gussack, "much more so for everyone involved."

"It's really nice for the client," Dawkins says. "They get to spend that emotional last time with their pets in their own home."

Kolb says she doesn't like performing euthanasia, "but I like the aspect of helping the owner. I enjoy the interaction. They want for you to say, 'It's time.' They know. And their response to it has been so positive."

Some owners want to be there, she says, and some can't face it. They tell her the animal is in the back yard and ask her only to return the pet's cremated remains afterwards.

Dawkins, Gussack and Kolb all say the charge for their basic services is roughly the same as it would be in a clinic. The only difference is a house-call or mileage fee, based on how far away the client is.

"I'll go as far as they want," says Dawkins, who keeps her SUV packed with the "basic necessities" and is licensed in Georgia as well as Tennessee. But with the fee increasing in 10-mile increments, she says, it doesn't make sense for clients well out from Chattanooga to have the vet come to them.

Kolb, with the services of Riverview Animal Hospital behind her, feels "set up perfectly" during those times when she must put a pet in her red Jeep and bring it back to the clinic for more specialized services.

"You can't buy medicine in that kind of bulk," she says, "or carry around hundreds of thousands of dollars of a thousand kinds of medicine in your car."

Gussack, who is also licensed in Georgia, routinely makes calls on evenings and weekends. She even has made calls to hotels, where owners of show dogs and touring musicians have requested services.

"Part of my selling point is convenience for the pets' owners [and] figuring out a good time for me to come. A lot of people are working during the day. I want to make it as convenient as I can."

Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCoperCTFP.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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