Mixed Species Veterinary Practice

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Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst Photography

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst Photography

Equines, bovines, camelids, canines and felines, oh my! Veterinarians who service multiple species of animals haven’t been swept off to the magical land of Oz. Quite the opposite: They’ve found a world of new clients. For some practices, accepting a variety of species is an opportunity to offer additional services to existing clients.

“When we expanded into small animal care, we thought it would start out as an additional service for existing horseowning clients,” said Ashleigh Olds, DVM, DABVP, of Aspen Creek Veterinary Hospital in Conifer, Colorado. “It turns out that the small animal portion of the practice has drawn its own client base, many of whom don’t even own a horse.”

For some equine practices, it’s rather unexpected to suddenly be in a mixed-animal practice. “We didn’t mean to service dairy calves, but when an animal needed help, we tried, then tried again and tried again,” said Tracy Bartick-Sedrish, DVM, of Upstate Equine Medical Center in Schuylerville, New York. The practice, a dedicated equine clinic with a full surgical suite, is surrounded by dairy farms specializing in designer genetics and embryo transfers that produce calves valued at five figures or more.

“There are large animal veterinarians in the area, but there isn’t anyone in the area who will perform surgery on calves,” she said.

And for still other veterinarians, it’s a necessity. “I wanted to specialize in large animal practice (horses and cattle), but when the economy tanked, agriculture and stables full of show horses disappeared in my area, so I had to accept other animals to pay the bills,” said Delores E. Gockowski, DVM, of North Ridge Veterinary Services in Sturgeon Lake, Minnesota.

Nearly 50% of the members belonging to the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) operate clinics that are not exclusively equine. According to Sally Baker, the AAEP’s director of marketing and public relations, 43% of the members describe their practice as 100% equine focused, while 50% said their practices offer services to species other than horses to varying degrees (7% of members did not respond).

Benefits of Multi-Species Practice

Working with more than one species has its benefits. A diverse case load encourages practitioners to think outside the box, especially in cases that do not follow textbook explanations. “Treating other species gives me more insight into equine cases,” said Andrew Wirz, DVM, of Cotati Large Animal Hospital in Cotati, California. “For example, if a horse presents with a mass on its throatlatch, I could think maybe I’ve seen this in a cow and perhaps a similar course of treatment could work.”

Servicing a variety of species keeps things interesting. Cases, diagnosis and treatment methods can change hour to hour and season to season. “Spring and early summer is packed full of equine and small ruminant work; winter is full of sled dog work. Cats and ‘regular’ dogs fill in the gaps throughout the year,” said Tamara Rose, DVM MS, of T Rose Veterinary Service in Fairbanks, Alaska.

An increased case load helps offset fixed overhead costs, including the facility, equipment and staff. An equine hospital with a full lab can use the facility to run blood work for other species. Seeing patients in the building justifies the cost of a physical location. “As a practice owner, it’s nice to be able to have the facility and equipment pay for itself more quickly,” Olds added.

Not Without Challenges

Servicing other species is not without its challenges. “Some medicines cost the same, but a horse owner is more willing to pay a higher price than dairymen and cattlemen who operate on tighter budgets. It’s challenging to find a balance,” Wirz said.

Solo practitioner clinics can find it challenging to have all the knowledge necessary to respond to every situation. “I would prefer to know everything there is to know about each species. That’s impossible,” Rose said. “So I have to be more of a generalist than any kind of specialist.”

Developing relationships with referral hospitals can help bridge the gap in knowledge. “I don’t have all the ‘toys’ available in my practice, so it’s nice to know that within 120 miles there are larger practices I can refer clients to,” Gockowski said.

Medications—specifically dosing and legal requirements—vary widely across species. Each animal metabolizes antibiotics, vaccinations and other medications differently. Laws dictate what type of medications and drugs food animals can receive. “We don’t want to harm patients or people down the line, so it’s important to stay current with the legal side of things,” Sedrish said.

Accepting a wide variety of patients as a sole owner/operator presents a unique set of challenges. “It takes a toll on me and my family. There isn’t a lot of time for myself or my family,” Gockowski said.

Staying Up to Date

Whether it’s planned, a lucky coincidence or a financial necessity that you have a mixed animal practice, there’s a lot to learn and retain. Continuing education is critical, be it online, in print or in person.

“We make it a point to have weekly rounds where we all discuss what we have seen in practice. We talk about disease we have encountered, and treatments—and bounce questions off one another,” Wirz said. “Even if you don’t hire another veterinarian, find a mentor you can bounce ideas off of and share cases with,” Olds said.

Take-Home Message

Owning or working in a mixed animal practice isn’t for everyone, but there seem to be more equine-only practices that are adding small animal practitioners to their staffs. Other practices are combining resources with small animal and food animal groups to share facilities, equipment and support staff. Due diligence is needed to make sure that expanding from an equine-only to a mixed-animal practice is in the best interest of your business.