Philly veterinarians make home visits with Vetter

It’s Saturday night and your dog has what looks like an eye infection. But your veterinarian’s office is closed on Sundays, and you doubt they’ll have any openings on Monday—that’s assuming you can even take the time off from work to bring your dog during office hours anyway. It doesn’t seem worthy of the emergency room, but given the circumstances, you don’t know where else to go.

The landscape of pet health and care is tough for even seasoned pet owners to traverse, but Vetter Pet Care, a new model for veterinary general practice, is taking this challenge and turning it on its head with convenient vet visits in owners’ own homes.

Vetter is a Philadelphia-based business that began seeing patients in August 2017. According to founder Ryan Connell, it was born out of a desire to improve the lives of modern day pet owners and the health of the animals they love. Not only does it enable owners to seek convenient and affordable vet care, but it provides pets with the opportunity to receive the routine care they need to avoid preventable and potentially life-threatening diagnoses down the line.

“Veterinary medicine continues to advance through innovation and medical breakthroughs, but the delivery of vet care has not changed in decades,” Connell said. “Vetter was founded to do just that.”

Founder Ryan Connell and Humboldt, his Great Dane

Servicing the modern pet owner

Vetter is entirely web-based until the vet makes it to your door. After creating an account on Vetter’s website – which is fully mobile compatible – owners can pick an open appointment time, often with 24-hour availability. Currently, Vetter has six Philadelphia veterinarians at the ready with varied availability. After scheduling, the owner receives an email containing information about the veterinarian, who later arrives for the appointment prepared with an assistant, medical bag, and knowledge of the dog or cat from his or her online profile. Vetter can even procure medical records from owners’ prior vets.

Connell said most appointments are booked for weekends or evenings, reaffirming the need he saw for vet care outside of regular working hours. But not all of Vetter’s clients are the working professionals he anticipated—the vets have made calls to retirement facilities, visited stay-at-home parents, and are now branching out into Philly’s suburbs.

Dr. Rebecca Bernstein, one of these such vets, said the benefits of home-based care extend beyond owner convenience. In addition to making house calls with Vetter, Dr. Bernstein continues to work at one of Philly’s emergency animal hospitals where she said she too often sees the ramifications of forgotten routine wellness checks and ignored preventative care.

“I was frustrated. I’d see pets come in whose lives could have been saved if they’d just received that vaccination or had that physical exam to detect the abnormal growth,” she said.

Dr. Rebecca Bernstein with a patient and owner

Dr. Bernstein and Connell are married, and seeing Dr. Bernstein’s heartache and frustration helped Connell frame Vetter’s development around improved veterinary care. Their own dog helped him understand the benefits of home-based care, too.

Together, Connell and Dr. Bernstein own a Great Dane named Humboldt who they said is an example of the perfect Vetter patient. Slightly dog-reactive and weighing over 100 lbs, Humboldt is not the easiest dog to transport to the vet or handle in a waiting room. Owners of dogs like him may forego vital wellness checks, waiting until they think something is wrong to finally visit the vet. If one of Humboldt’s owners wasn’t a veterinarian, they might have missed the cancer that cost him his toe in June. Dr. Bernstein said she sees worse in the ER every day.

For both dogs and cats, there are countless reasons to want to avoid the traditional vet office environment, she said. A dog who came in for an eye infection may leave with a flea infestation she picked up in the waiting room, and a nervous cat who’s had his carrier sniffed by a strange dog may be in no shape for a physical or behavioral examination.

“How can you expect a vet to examine your cat at its ‘normal’ when it’s panicking in an office?” Dr. Bernstein added.

“It’s like Uber for vets”

Pet owners want to be proactive about their pet’s health, Connell said, adding, that by providing owners with an easier way to access healthcare for their pets, they’re more likely to seek this care on the regular to maintain vaccinations, tests, and yearly checkups, Connell said. But it’s about more than conveniently getting pets their shots. He said he hopes to foster more impactful relationships between veterinarians and patients with Vetter, one where owners aren’t afraid to ask questions or waste their vet’s time. For many, this starts at kitten or puppyhood.

“Looking for a vet was hard, but finding one that would meet with me at a time where I didn’t have to take off from work was impossible. Then I found Vetter,” Jacquelyn Gerrick, a Vetter client, said. Her French bulldog Penelope recently completed the puppy wellness program, a series of three to four visits covering a host of vaccinations and tests.

Gerrick takes the train from her apartment in Center City to her job in New York City each day, so she said she enjoyed the flexibility of the service and communication from its vets. Dr. Bernstein visited Penelope as early as 7 a.m. and as late as 8 p.m. to fit with Gerrick’s busy schedule and regularly answered Gerrick’s questions via email.

“I can’t even keep track of my own doctor’s appointments, so it was great to have all of the documents, dates, prices–everything–on Vetter’s site,” Gerrick said. “They took care of all of the silly things that made me feel at peace as a new pet owner. Dr. Bernstein answered all of my questions without making me feel bad for asking and stayed as long as I needed her to.”

To Connell, these “silly things” are an important part of the Vetter experience. Not only are each of Vetter’s veterinarians appropriately licensed VMDs or DVMs, but they were also chosen for their ability to communicate professionally yet empathetically with pet owners. Among these vets is Dr. Megan Murray who worked as a bartender for three years before attending vet school. In school, she co-directed a non-profit organization providing vet care for Haitian communities. Dr. Murray brings to Vetter all of these skills from those experiences, from calming pet owners during times of stress to thinking critically in unfamiliar territory.

Connell contacted Dr. Murray and the rest of the current Vetter team after asking Dr. Bernstein about some of her most dedicated and skilled colleagues in vet school. All of the current vets are graduates from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Ryan called me up with this idea and said, ‘It’s like Uber for vets,’” Dr. Murray, who has been with Vetter since its launch, said. “Now I love what he’s doing. I love that I am a part of it.”

Like Dr. Bernstein, Dr. Murray is an emergency room vet. For both of them, this gig provides a welcome opportunity to step out of the often traumatic environment of the ER and into Vetter’s new idea of general practice. They get to watch healthy puppies and kittens grow, and when tragedy does strike, they have the opportunity to help owners say goodbye in their own homes with Vetter’s end of life care. Through these experiences, Vetter provides Drs. Bernstein and Murray with the opportunity to continue honing their skills as well-rounded world class vets.

“Every home I’ve visited has been really great. People are really gracious, saying, ‘Sit down and let me feed you!’ It’s a really nice experience compared to the sterile veterinary exam room. People take me around their homes, show me pictures of their kids with their pets. I get to have a very different connection with these people than I ordinarily would in the ER,” Dr. Murray said.

The future of Vetter—and of veterinary care

Vet house calls are not a new concept. However, it’s very hard for one vet alone to execute the idea, Connell said. Such vets are usually wearing all of the hats that make a business function—running their own websites, handling the accounting, advertising their practices, booking appointments, providing customer support, and finally, making the housecalls. With Vetter, the only thing the vets need to worry about is taking care of patients.

“I’ve visited families eating dinner on a Friday night, watching football, and prepping for vacation. The animals and their owners are just so relaxed. There’s nothing else like it,” Dr. Bernstein said.

Models closer to Vetter exist in cities like San Francisco and New York, but they operate more as luxury items than as accessible services. Dr. Bernstein performed an externship at one such business, where a house call cost upwards of $500. While Vetter is not a low-cost service, house call appointments begin at $105. Connell strives to be transparent with rates for services outlined on the Vetter website.

“Our clients are, simply, any Philadelphia pet owner,” he said. “Vetter is a premium service, but one offered at an affordable price–an important combination. On-demand, customizable services are on the rise in general and used by many demographics. We want Vetter to be Philadelphia’s on-demand veterinary service. Vetter is flexible: people can use the service as their go-to vet or as a back-up when their primary care vet can’t accommodate them. After all, people have more than one doctor, so we have vets for any pet who needs one.”

Connell has his sights on continual innovation and disruption within the space of vet medicine, including the incorporation of telemedicine, an annual membership package, a Vetter app, additional functionality to enhance pet owner experience, and expansion to additional northeast cities. But currently, he and the Vetter team are working to raise awareness of their service across Philadelphia as they partner with fellow Philly pet lovers and host events.

Vetter has raised over $1,200 for PAWS, sponsored the adoption of a pet from Morris Animal Refuge, and in November, Vetter presented Drink Beer, Save Pets, a fundraising event at a local brewery benefitting the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team. Pet owners will get to see the vets in action on December 9 at Litterpaw Pet Supply during Vetter’s first pop-up vaccine clinic.

“When I first had the idea and began evaluating the opportunity, I was so surprised that a similar business didn’t already exist. As an engineer, I really enjoy understanding a problem, developing a plan, and then implementing the solution, and Vetter has been no different,” Connell said. “We’re encouraged by the initial reception of the business and the initial data points that confirm business viability and product-market fit. We’ll continue our expansion efforts but will remain disciplined to ensure the quality of the service remains second to none.”

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