Back To The Future: House Calls

For Gale Pippin, taking her 14-year-old Yellow Lab to the veterinarian had become a Sisyphean task. The car ride had morphed into the transit from hell with a large, stressed-out dog. Then the tell-tale smell of a vet office terrified him.

Moreover, appointments — and the attendant down time — were rarely convenient for Pippin, who works full time in the accounting office of a Tampa law firm.

The South Tampa resident needed an alternative and asked around.

She found Vet Calls, a mobile veterinary service. Five years — and one euthanasia and two little Yorkies — later, she’s still waxing grateful.

“I think Dr. (Jennifer) Claxton is wonderful,” she says of her Vet Call vet. “The dogs totally trust her. And they obviously have her total attention. There’s no one else in line, no distractions.”

By all indications, Pippen is part of a national trend. According to the American Association of House Calls and Mobile Veterinarians, some 5,000 vets now make house calls nationwide in both rural and urban areas. Several dozen are here in the Bay Area.

As for Dr. Claxton, 41, four days a week she leaves her St. Petersburg home in her 24-foot, customized (mini pharmacy, EKG and lab equipment, computer) RV and drives to South Tampa, to rendezvous with her assistant, Lisa Hearne, 28. They then head out on the day’s appointed rounds – that can be as far afield as Westchase, South Pasco, Brandon and Riverview.

Her clients tend to be busy moms, the elderly, those without transportation and those with old, large or multiple pets. Her patients: 60 per cent dogs, 40 per cent cats. The procedures: 80 per cent routine, 20 per cent problem-solving and minor illnesses. Neutering, spaying, dental cleaning and micro-chipping can all be done in the van. More serious cases are referred to specialists and hospitals. Standard house call fees are $35 for South Tampa and $45 for North Tampa and vicinity. Basic exam fee is $36.

“It’s easier on everybody,” says Claxton, who has three dogs (mixed-breed rescue animals) and four cats of her own. “And it’s more personal. I can’t imagine being a stationary vet. We’re making veterinary care part of a lifestyle – instead of a huge challenge that some people – and pets – dread.”

No call, however, is more daunting – nor ultimately more appreciated – than the one for euthanasia. It’s a significant percentage of most mobile vets’ house calls.

That’s certainly the case for Dr. Mary Schenk of Tampa. She estimates that nearly a third of her calls are to euthanize a pet. And while it’s painless, it never gets easier, she says. But a “last memory at home,” she stresses, is always preferable to the impersonal.

“It’s peaceful, and the owners are grateful,” Schenk, 37, adds. “It’s easier on everyone.”

From the perspective of Lutz-based Dr. Octavio Blanco, 51, house calls – irrespective of their nature — create much more of a “natural state” – and he’s been creating them for 15 years. “The animal is always more relaxed at home,” he explains.

According to Blanco, the house call trend could burgeon further. Most pet owners, he maintains, still don’t realize such a service is available.

“The medical profession has done a real good job of training the masses,” points out Blanco. “The public is so trained to go to a physician, they assume they have to go to a vet as well.”

But now they’re finding out — increasingly — about those with a special calling.

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