Vet who makes house calls is cat's meow to pets, owners

Woodbine doctor part of national trend

Small business

Howard Business

February 12, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

It's an old-fashioned way to doctor, but it works for Carin Rennings.

When her clients need a routine vaccination, a checkup for an ear infection or a blood test for leukemia, she gathers her syringes and medicines in a tackle box, climbs into her Chevy Silverado pickup truck and heads out to meet them at their bedside - and they don't even try to bite when they see her coming.

Rennings, a veterinarian, is the owner of Home Veterinary Service, an in-your-house and at-your-service business that provides routine medical care for dogs and cats in Howard County.

Her small business is part of a growing trend nationally that is popular among people who own more than one pet and those looking for convenience. There are between 2,000 and 3,000 house-call vets across the country, according to Dr. Jonathan M. Leshanski, president of the American Association of House Call Veterinarians, and at least a half-dozen are in the Baltimore region, in addition to Rennings, says the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association.

"I would say it's a trend, and it's on the upswing," said Dr. Carin A. Smith, author of "The Housecall Veterinarian's Manual," a guide for vets who want to start a house-call practice.

For Rennings, the business is a venture that has been well received. After initially focusing on Montgomery County - a short distance from her Woodbine home in western Howard County - her business has grown since she shifted the focus to Howard. Rennings said she has seen her business double each of the past two years. She estimated that she has about 500 clients who hire her a few times each year to screen their pets for worms, cure diarrhea or eliminate ear mites.

Rennings started the company in 1995, a year after graduating from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and after working in a busy Baltimore practice where, as in many animal hospitals, the appointment schedule required a vet to treat a pet and then discuss care and explain medications to the owner within a few minutes. It was there that Rennings took note of the clients who struggled - those with several animals who had to shuttle their flocks in shifts, and elderly or disabled customers who labored to get to the office.

"I got a sense for the struggle that people had," Rennings said. " ... I started to think someone should be offering this in the home for people who have multiple pets and ... [for those who] have a hard time coming to the vet."

So, she started her practice with little overhead; her only costs were for advertising and an assistant she paid on an as-needed basis.

Rennings said she sees a fraction of the clients she would if she worked in a hospital - about five a day compared with 20 - but she still pays only for advertising and an assistant, and she can spend more time with her customers.

"There just wasn't enough time to do what needed to be done," she said of her experience in the hospital, adding that she spends at least 30 minutes on each house call.

A client pays $35 for a house call, similar to an office visit fee that hospitals charge, and pays for each medication or treatment for the pet. A typical annual exam for a cat with two or three vaccines or tests costs between $80 and $100.

Clients with several pets pay one house-call fee, and some say the convenience makes the service worthwhile.

"We get everything done at one time," said Mary Rosenbaum of Woodbine, who hires Rennings to treat six cats and a dog.

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