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Animal docs make house calls

By Jennifer Dix Daily Planet Correspondent
Wednesday March 14, 2001

The 18-year-old cat complains mildly as veterinarian Bruce Max Feldmann inserts a needle in his neck and prepares to give him a fluid infusion.  

Veterinary nurse Annie Van Nes holds the animal firmly and croons in his ear as he growls softly. But for the most part, the procedure passes quickly and quietly. As soon as he’s done, Thomas Cat gets a nibble treat and instant gratification – release in the familiar surroundings of his own home.  

No hated cat carrier, no barking dogs or strange smells, no fluorescent lights or metal tables.  

Thomas is one of hundreds of local pets that get the doctor to come to him, rather than the other way around. While house calls for sick humans may have gone  

the way of the horse and buggy, a growing number of American veterinarians are switching to a traveling practice. The American Association of Housecall Veterinarians estimates there are at least 1,000 vets nationwide who make house calls their primary business. And many veterinary hospitals today offer the option of a home visit for certain procedures, most notably euthanasia. 

Vets are willing to make house all for one major reason: freedom. The cost of owning and operating a fixed clinic, especially with the Bay Area’s astronomic rents and housing prices, means that veterinarians today have to take on a lot of overhead. Most veterinary hospitals have several owners and a large staff. Feldmann, a Berkeley resident who ran his own practice in Kensington for 10 years, said, “I had a huge ‘nut’ of fundamental expenses I had to cover each month just to stay in business.” Now he has almost eliminated his overhead and he has much more flexibility to travel and take days off when he wants. 

Oakland-based Dr. Charles McKinney, who runs the All-Seasons Mobile Veterinary Clinic, went to work in a veterinary hospital when he graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 1975. He assumed that was the setting in which he’d serve out his career. But as he got to know the business better, he could envision himself “suffocating in bills,” he said. 

“At a fixed clinic, I’d have to see at least eight patients a day, and I’d have to average $600 each to make my overhead,” McKinney said. Since he created his mobile practice 10 years ago, McKinney limits himself to a maximum of six visits a day.  

Making house calls inevitably takes the veterinarian into some unusual situations. While both Feldmann and McKinney decline to tell tales, McKinney says he’s “eliminated a whole class of people,” difficult and sometimes unreliable clients, by giving up night calls. As for the day-to-day experience of examining a pet in its own home, there are some tricks of the trade: See the animal in the kitchen (where the best light usually is), and ask the owner to be prepared for the visit (confine your cat before it runs under the bed). 

Feldmann and McKinney bill more up front for their visits than clinics charge. A typical office visit for a cat or dog runs $38 in Berkeley. Feldmann charges $60 for his house calls; McKinney charges $70 for his. But the traveling vets also can save their clients some money. Feldmann provides flea medicine at a discount to his customers, and McKinney says that while most pet vaccinations run $28 at a clinic, he charges only $11. 

House-call veterinarians are a minority among their colleagues. In the East Bay, there are three: Feldmann, McKinney, and Dr. Jenny Taylor, a holistic vet who runs a business called Creature Comforts out of Alameda. Initially, they may be viewed with a bit of suspicion by established clinics, but both Feldmann and McKinney say they often have customers referred to them now.  

“My best advertising is other vets,” McKinney said. “They realize there is a need for someone to go to the home to perform euthanasia, or where the owner is elderly and can’t easily get out.” Other clients include parents of young children or those with multiple animals.  

Veterinarians like Feldmann and Taylor do not have access to the specialized medical equipment of a fixed clinic, but all the same, they can take care of many of a pet’s basic needs: vaccinations, teeth cleaning, even minor surgeries. Feldmann claims he can take care of “98 to 99 percent of what needs to be done” right in the family kitchen. 

“He does surgery right on the counter; it’s so cool!” said Kim Zvik, who has had Feldmann come to her home to remove an abscess from her cat, Bear. With a menagerie that includes two dogs, a fish, a horse, and a couple of children, Zvik is only too happy to have a vet who comes right to her house. She’s been a customer for four years. 

McKinney is able to perform even more procedures with his mobile clinic, including spaying, neutering and treatment of simple fractures and wounds. More serious or specialized cases are referred to a veterinary hospital.  

The largest part of the house-call visit is also the hardest. Feldmann and McKinney estimate that about 20 percent of their calls involve putting a pet to sleep. Performing euthanasia at home eases the pain both of the animals and of the human guardians, who don’t want their sick pet to endure the stress of a trip to the hospital at the end of its life. As one client told Feldmann, “I don’t want my dog’s last experience to be the place he hates the most.”