The Veterinarians and Clinic that you partner with are going to be some of the most important people in helping you be successful as a rescuer. When you are first starting out and have a small number of animals, you’ll likely be working with a single vet who handles all of your medical needs. As your rescue grows, you will likely also need to take advantage of clinics which may be able to help you have medical work done on a larger number of animals at once, or have several trusted vets that you work with to make sure you always have the medical attention your animals will need available.
Choosing your Primary Veterinarian
There are several considerations you’ll want to keep in mind when choosing the primary vet who will be working with your rescue, including proximity to your rescue, experience with the types of animals you will be working with, their schedule and availability, pricing for different services, and any special considerations they provide to rescue groups.
It’s ideal to find a vet who is close enough to where you will be operating your rescue that you will be able to transport animals quickly who need urgent medical care. Having a vet nearby means that if you are dropping animals off for more routine medical treatment you won’t be losing as much time out of your busy schedule to drive them back and forth. A relationship with a local vet is also beneficial to the Veterinarian’s practice as well, since you will be able to refer local clients that adopt to you and let them know that their practice is where you feel comfortable seeking treatment for all of the rescue’s animals.
The most important factor in considering what Veterinarian to work with is their experience with the type of animals that you are going to be working with. If you are operating a cat or dog rescue, you won’t have a problem finding a vet who can help you with your animals, but if you are operating a rescue for hamsters you’ll need to make sure the vet you are working with has experience working with that type of animal. Ideally, you’ll be able to track down a vet within reasonable driving distance that can work with the type of animals you will be bringing in to your rescue. If you aren’t able to find a vet with a lot of experience with the specific species you need help with, consider looking for a vet who is open to learning more about that species and developing their skills while helping you with your rescue animals.
When you are talking to a potential vet to work with your rescue, it’s a good idea to talk about what their regular schedule and availability is and if they are able to offer or refer you to another service for any after hours or emergency services that you need. Some Veterinarian practices will have multiple vets, and may have someone on call for nights and weekends, but other practices will be operating with just a single Veterinarian who may not have the ability to be available around the clock. While you’ll need to have a plan for emergency medical care, having a vet who isn’t available off-hours is not a deal breaker necessarily if there is another service you can work through for emergency calls. What can become a problem is if you plan to work with a vet clinic that only has a vet who can see the species of animal that you work with on a certain day, that will put a greater constraint on you when you need to schedule vet appointments and can be more problematic.
Rescues operate on limited funds so it’s important to consider the pricing you will pay for different services, although it’s also important to remember that it’s more important to have a competent vet who will work safely on your animals than to secure the absolute best price for those services. Pricing for the same services can vary greatly between practices even in the same regional area. When contacting vets to check them out, consider making a spreadsheet to gather and compare prices for the most common services you will be seeking for those animals. For example, when I was starting out North Star Rescue I called all of the vets in my area to determine which vets would work with pet rodents, and then asked for a list of pricing including office visit fees, spay or neuter services for each species, and asked for ball park pricing on treatment for common things like respiratory or eye infections.
If you are a non-profit group, you may also find a Veterinary practice that is able to offer different discounts or additional services to you that may be beneficial. They may waive the office visit fee since you will be bringing in a higher volume of animals than their typical client. You can ask about discounted pricing since you will be a volume client. You can ask about payment terms, if you are able to arrange to have monthly payments for services to offset expensive emergency treatments. If your Veterinarian is located close to where you operate, you may also be able to ask if they are willing to do a monthly on-site visit to check on the animals for a flat fee. If you are working with a larger number of animals, you can ask if your vet can dispense larger quantities of medication at a discounted rate for things like mite or flea treatment where each animal may not need to be seen in person. Your Veterinarian may also offer discounted or free services for new clients that you refer in who adopt from your organization.
Secondary and Back Up Veterinarians
Your Primary Veterinarian is going to be your first pick for your medical services, but there’s going to be times where you won’t be able to work with that vet either because of their scheduling restrictions, or because you are working with more animals who need to be seen immediately than your primary vet can get to in a timely manner. Your Primary Veterinarian is a good resource to ask about who they would recommend as a back up for your rescue.
If you are growing beyond a small regional area, you may also want vets that you can work with in different areas so that none of your foster homes are too far away from medical help if the need should arise. It’s never a bad thing to get to know more vets outside of your immediate area and learn about what services they offer, as this will be helpful information to offer to adopters who are traveling in to adopt from your rescue.
Working with Veterinary Clinics and Schools
Another good resource for medical help for your rescue will be relationships you can build up with local clinics or schools that offer Veterinary programs. A Spay/Neuter clinic may be able to offer lower pricing than your primary Veterinarian for sterilization surgeries, which will help with your budget and leave your time with your Primary Veterinarian more open for working with animals who have different care needs. If you are working with a larger volume of animals, Spay/Neuter clinics are also generally able to accommodate a larger number of animals coming from a single source, which means you might be able to make one trip on a single day to have ten animals spayed or neutered versus scheduling five different trips to a smaller Veterinary practice to have them done two at a time across a greater time period.
Another helpful resource is to connect with any Veterinary or Veterinary Technician programs in your area. These programs may be able offer free or discounted services for the animals you are working with, while you will give the students an opportunity to get more hands on learning experience with the animals they are going to be caring for in the future. A good example of this is North Star Rescue’s partnership with Foothill College’s Veterinary Technician program. Several times a year, Foothill College hosts a small animal surgery day where Veterinarians donate their time to perform spay and neuter surgeries, as well as the occasional other surgery like a tumor removal or dental service. The students get to work under the supervision of an amazing team of Veterinarians and Instructors, and can participate in the entire surgery cycle to learn how to handle their patients, prepare them for surgery, and keep them comfortable after their operations are complete.
Your Relationship with Your Veterinary Partners is Symbiotic
Remember that the relationship you establish with your Veterinary partners should be a symbiotic one and it should be a positive experience for all parties. This means having open lines of communication between both parties, being honest and transparent about practices on both sides, and being respectful to each other.
I have seen some rescuers sour relationships with vets because they think they are “owed” additional benefits for being a long-term client, or because they engage in dishonest practices like obtaining discounted services for other animal owners by saying they are animals from the rescue. As a rescuer, it’s important to realize that if your Veterinarian is offering you additional services or discounts that these are things that are only available to your rescue, and your Veterinarian is still counting on being able to charge their regular prices to regular clients so that they can afford to extend these courtesies to you.
Similarly, you should expect to receive an appropriate amount of respect and courtesy from your Veterinarian. You should not be treated with any less courtesy than any other client that visits the practice because you are a different type of client. You should not feel that you are not allowed to ask about the treatment plan for an animal or that you have to ‘settle’ for any kind of service because it is being discounted. You should not feel obligated to sell adopters on any service that you do not personally feel good about recommending to get your Veterinary partner additional business.
A good relationship with your Veterinary partner will benefit both parties. You will have someone you are comfortable working with for the medical needs of your animal, whose advice you trust and respect. Your Veterinarian will appreciate having a client who brings in a reliable volume of animal patients to treat, who is respectful and courteous when working with both them and their staff. You will feel good about having a competent Veterinarian to refer your adopters to locally, and your Veterinarian’s practice will benefit from your recommendation.