At VetriScience® Laboratories, we provide products for veterinary clinics all over the country. Our Clinic of the Month is chosen through recommendations from outside sales representatives, or by coworkers right here in our Vermont office. We’ve been very fortunate to interview several local vets through people in our marketing department, and this month, I’m pleased to introduce my own vet and co-founder of the Old North End Veterinary Clinic, Dr. Susan McMillan. We didn’t visit her clinic for our interview. Instead we were invited to a client’s home to get a closer look at Susan’s Vet To Pet Mobile Veterinary Service, designed to offer veterinary services in the comfort of your own home.
On a sunny morning in early January, we pulled up in front of Rebecca Grannis’s home in the south end of Burlington, where her two huskies and her cat were getting routine vaccines for boarding. We were greeted by Rebecca and her 10-yr-old dogs, Diego and Siris–both rescue dogs from same litter. Outside temps were in the single digits, but once inside, it only took a few minutes for our faces to regain feeling and to begin what has been one of the more casual interviews we’ve had in our Clinic of the Month series.
Adrienne asked Rebecca how she found Dr. MicMillan, as I became distracted by the dogs who were vying for my attention. Rebecca’s word-of-mouth vet story was similar to many stories you hear around Vermont, how many people find their doctors, veterinarians, and other services involving personal relationships through friends and family. Rebecca told us that her partner was the former director of Local Motion, where Susan and her partner were members. “He liked to do business with the members,” Rebecca told us. Her father had also experienced a home visit with another local vet, and he was very pleased with it. Rebecca loved the idea, so she and Susan connected. “There are only three vets in the area who make house calls. It works out really well for some folks,” Susan adds as she trims a dew claw.
The Old North End Clinic has only two employees. Susan and her partner Becky Roberts own and operate this popular local clinic. Because of recent family events and the influx of business, the clinic is currently focusing on the Vet2Pet service. In fact, they currently are not accepting new clients through their clinic in the Old North End (or the ONE, as locals call it). The ONE clinic has become so well-known for its affordable, quality care that Susan and Becky haven’t put out a single ad in five years.
“We were getting too many calls, and we couldn’t deal with them all. So we’re not doing anything to advertise. We’re basically sending people away, unfortunately,” Susan tells us. But the lack of advertising hasn’t slowed business at all. Even with practically shutting down for the past two months, Susan and Becky still did more business last year than the year before.
While there are many different reasons that people prefer the Vet2Pet service (people with multiple pets, or animals who don’t travel well, or people who simply don’t have transportation), many clients chose the ONE clinic as their regular vet because they can afford it. “Vet work is so expensive that if you can get a low cost option, most people will take it,” Susan explains. The affordable care is definitely what drew me to her clinic, along with the dozens of friends who suggested Susan’s practice when I put the word out that I was looking for a vet. I immediately liked both Becky and Susan during my first visit 7 years ago. The clinic was small and inviting, and Becky was friendly both over the phone and in person. But what really made my decision was how impressed I was with the way Susan handled my 9-yr-old rescue cat, Nella.
As a rescue, Nella is skittish and not the most affectionate cat; she will not let you hold her, nor will she sit on your lap. If Nella wants attention, she comes to you. No exceptions. You can imagine how she behaves in a vet’s office. I’ve been to some veterinary clinics in which none of the doctors or techs could get Nella out from under the table. She wouldn’t let anyone but me hold her during the exam. Nella is completely calm around Susan, and will allow her to do anything, including trim her claws. The last time I tried trimming Nella’s claws, it looked like a Warewolf had attacked me by the time it was over. I am grateful to have a vet that Nella and I both trust.
And Nella isn’t the only cat who trusts Susan. Rebecca’s cat N’dogo is 15 and weighs only six pounds, which is fitting since the name N’dogo is Swahili for “little one.” She remained calm the entire time, even while Susan cleaned her ears. We then ask how other home visits compare to this one, in which the animals seemed to be at ease. “A case like this easy because I know the dogs and the cat; I know Rebecca,” Susan says, “I know there aren’t a lot of pitfalls or things to worry about, so this is a really easy house call.” Susan then explains how home visits can be rewarding but also challenging at times. Her next scheduled house call with a new client and a geriatric cat is one example.
Susan never knows what to expect when entering a new home, especially one with a sick or geriatric pet. But she deals with these challenges by taking extra time getting to know new clients and their pets before beginning the exam. This gives her an opportunity to establish the animal’s history from the first visit.
Diego is a perfect example. As Susan gently pulled back his hind legs, she could tell that he was getting some arthritis in the hip because of his resistance. Rebecca explained to us that Diego was attacked by a much heavier Golden Retriever a few years ago, putting his back out, and Diego never fully recovered, which Susan already knew. Because of her intimate knowledge of his history, she knows that arthritis becomes much more of a concern as he ages.
For Susan, having the opportunity to take her time with the animals (and the owner) is one of the advantages of a home visit. Then there’s the simple fact that the animal will be much calmer at home. Even if the clinic provides an ideal atmosphere, such as an all feline clinic for cats, there’s still something to be said for how relaxed animals are in the comfort of their own space. But before she even touches the animal, including one she already knows, Susan likes to take a minute to settle in. By starting with questions about changes in appetite, attitude, etc., it gives the animal a chance to get used to her presence. She also tries to get the client to leave the pets alone when she first arrives.
“Usually, their first instinct is to say ‘quick go get the cat, the vet’s here!’ ” she jokes. Taking a moment or two before the exam benefits everyone involved, according to Susan. With particularly skittish cats, Susan may ask the client to put the cat in a room isolated from other people or pets, because if the animal disappears, it doesn’t always end well.
“I’ve left house calls without even seeing the animal, but I’ll stay and look,” Susan tells us, adding, “I’ve been in basements, attics, rafters, under couches, and beds, and sometimes you find the animal, and sometimes you don’t.” When the client makes the first home appointment, Becky will tell client to sequester the cat beforehand. Susan points out that cats are more likely to hide than dogs because they aren’t asked to do anything most of the time, but then the vet shows up and suddenly the cat is asked to do a lot during the examination.
Owners are sometimes offended when Susan uses a muzzle on dogs, but she says, “it’s not about the owner.” Even when taking every precaution to ensure that everyone is safe, the animal may still react poorly to the visit. “Sometimes you bring out the worst in the animal because they are scared, and sometimes they are being protective,” she concludes.
Finally, when it’s time to weigh the dogs, I smile because I already know this trick from home visits with Nella. Susan first weighs herself and then picks up Diego and records that weight. Then she simply does the math. Rebecca offers to weigh Siris, who is slightly heavier than his taller, lankier brother. Siris has also gained a little weight. Susan is not too concerned, but when we asked what issue she sees most often in her practice, obesity was the immediate answer. We’ve found this to be the case with many vets we’ve interviewed. Many pet owners don’t understand the importance of providing plenty of exercise and a proper diet.
“Feed them the best quality food you can afford,” Susan says, adding, “For long term health, feeding them good food and keeping them thin is key. Everything else is chance–genetics, bad luck, factors we can’t control, but the one thing we can control is their weight and the quality of the food that we feed them.”
Next week, we will springboard off of this interview, and others, by discussing how diet is so essential to overall health and longevity in animals. In the meantime, we would like to thank Dr. McMillan for setting up this interview, as well as Rebecca, Diego, Siris, and N’dogo for inviting us into their home.