Horses get rural dose of medicine in the suburbs

Urban sprawl changes practice for Howard vet

April 20, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Cruising down the winding roads of western Howard County in a big white truck full of veterinary equipment, Fred Lewis looked out the window and named farm after farm that used to be there.

"Instead of cows, they're raising houses," he said, pointing to large new homes standing where cattle once grazed.

But even as he recalls the farms where he started his career nearly five decades ago, Lewis is not slowed. A booming horse population keeps him on scheduled calls five days a week and running to emergencies every day, including nights and weekends.

"I'm busier now than I've ever been," he said.

As rural neighborhoods across Maryland grow increasingly suburban, traditional veterinary medicine has undergone a transformation.

Large-animal vets such as Lewis still cover the rural areas of central Maryland, making house calls to barns and pastures. But the barns are more often behind houses on cul-de-sacs, and the pastures are small areas in divided-up larger fields.

More vets are focusing on swelling populations of suburban horses, including an increasing number of homes with one or two horses and a growing group of riding and boarding stables.

And they are practicing a more sophisticated brand of medicine, using new high-tech tools and supported by modern horse treatment centers in Leesburg, Va., and Kennett Square, Pa.

"Mixed [veterinary] practices are becoming less common in our area, and practices that are specializing in species are increasing," said Dr. Michael Erskine, an equine veterinarian and former president of the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association.

It is a trend that has been developing for many years, he said, and although the state does not keep track of specific concentrations of its 1,500 registered and practicing vets, Erskine sees horses providing plenty of opportunity for skilled veterinarians.

A 2002 census by the Maryland Horse Industry Board and other partners found 42,000 horses of breeds not used for racing and more than 10,000 draft horses, ponies, donkeys, mules and burros in the state. An additional 34,000 horses in Maryland are racing breeds. Howard County is home to 5,190 horses at more than 1,200 locations.

`Not enough vets'

Lewis, 76, has seen the changes in Howard firsthand. He arrived in the county in 1954, after growing up in Dover, Del., graduating from veterinary school at Cornell University and working one year in Pennsylvania.

"There was farm after farm after farm" in Howard County, he said. "It was so gorgeous."

At that time, "there were not enough vets to go around," he said, recalling that he was the only vet living in Howard County for a while, though a few others from neighboring counties worked in the area.

In the early years, Lewis said he did 90 percent rural work, caring for cows, horses, pigs and other animals on local farms, and 10 percent small animals, which he treated on a table at one end of his kitchen.

He started out renting a farmhouse that still stands at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. Then he built a hospital at Routes 29 and 108 with living quarters on top. A few years later, his family bought a house on Route 108. In 1970, they moved the business to a new hospital nearby.

Over the next decades, Lewis, a Rotary member, Boy Scout merit badge counselor and avid fox hunter, saw his practice change to 90 percent small animals and 10 percent large, as he supervised six doctors.

Rouse Co. bought out many farms -- offering owners parcels of land elsewhere along with financial payments -- to build Columbia. Many remaining operations succumbed to the difficulty of making a profit and the high value of the land.

In 1995, Lewis sold his hospital to Veterinary Centers of America (VCA), which operates animal hospitals in 34 states. After two years with that group, Lewis left the small-animal practice to them and took the large-animal cases as a solo practitioner.

By that time, a small but busy group of equine vets had started setting up shop in the area.

Lewis' son Jim -- the second eldest of 10 children raised by Fred and Mary Agnes Lewis -- joined one of the largest groups, Damascus Equine Associates, in 1992.

That group, which includes Erskine, grew from four members in 1990 to seven last year. Now, with a main office in Glenwood, they minister to horses in Howard, Montgomery, Carroll, Frederick and other nearby counties.

Jim Lewis, 50, returned to practice in Maryland after veterinary school in Italy, a stint in the Peace Corps and a diverse career that combined practice in the United States with animal projects in other countries. He worked in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Egypt, and spent several years in West Africa and in Cambodia.

Now he lives in Poolesville and trades vet services for a chance to play polo.

The eldest of the Lewis children, Rick, also became a veterinarian, focusing on small animals, working in his father's clinic and then moving to Academy Animal Hospital in Overlea two years ago.

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