Mobile Vets Are Driven To Succeed

New innovative mobile vets are growing.


Published:

Cris Kelly

Affordability, practice requirements and revenue growth are important considerations when establishing a mobile veterinary clinic.

Mobile clinics may be self-contained units, an insert or box, or chassis-mounted. They may provide just the basics—exam room, surgery area, standard equipment—or be colossal examples of today’s high-tech design, complete with the latest equipment.

They roll along without overhead, property taxes or other real estate costs a brick-and-mortar clinic would require.

Koni Wade, senior sales consultant for La Boit Inc. of Gahanna, Ohio, says each unit is customized with as much or as little equipment as a practitioner wants. “Of course,” she says, “the more options and upgrades you add, the higher the cost. For instance, more clients are putting digital X-ray in their clinics, which raises the complete cost by $40,000.”

Without digital radiography, La Boit’s self-contained clinics usually are available for about $150,000. The base price starts at $104,495, with financing available and no down payment required, Wade says.

“La Boit also provides working capital,” Wade says, “which is great for veterinarians just starting out and needing to keep as much of their cash in hand as possible to grow the business.”

Satisfied Customer

Seely E. Rotigel, DVM, of Augusta, Mich., has operated her mobile practice, The Visiting Vet, for seven years.

After working in small-animal practices for nine years, she researched mobile practices. She found that building a traditional small-animal practice would cost about $1 million; she could set up in a mobile practice for about $250,000.

After considering a used mobile veterinary clinic, Dr. Rotigel visited La Boit. Within a few months, she established financing for a 26-foot mobile clinic, as well as equipment and inventory.

With a good client following in her area, she gradually built her business.

“I will never get rich via this option,” Rotigel says, “and I don’t make as much money as I would working for someone else in a land clinic, but there are benefits.”

She works 40 to 50 hours a week, scheduling clients around her family’s needs. Today, she has 1,800 active patients.

One of the downsides to a mobile practice, Rotigel says, is the clinic gets “only about seven miles per gallon of gas.”

Another challenge: a digital processor is expensive. “I sold my X-ray machine,” she says. “I refer patients for radiographs at local clinics.”

These land clinics reciprocate, referring patients to Rotigel for at-home euthanasia and for house calls to homebound clients.

Rotigel parks her clinic at a pet store twice a week, performing surgery in the morning and appointments the rest of the day, with house calls on the way home. She assists the humane society with a low-income feline spay/neuter program and takes clients when the clinic is parked at home.

Her clinic includes a veterinary test lab analyzer, stat spin centrifuges, microscope, scales, laptop computer/printer, microwave, refrigerator, autoclave, laser, electrocautery unit, TonoPen, gas anesthesia equipment and a dental machine.

“Although it may never pay for itself,” she says, “the laser is nice; it is the most expensive piece of equipment I have. I’ve gained a few clients because we can perform a laser front declaw.”

Big or Small

Dodgen Industries of Humboldt, Iowa, sells self-contained mobile veterinary clinics from 20 to 32 feet long. Bumper-hitch or gooseneck trailers are custom built.

“Veterinarians who want to be totally mobile find large models easier to use,” says Dennis Day, vice president of Dodgen’s commercial division. “More space allows more working room and accommodates any lab instrument.” 

Dodgen’s largest and most expensive model uses a Freightliner M2-106 diesel truck chassis, allowing models 28 to 32 feet long.

“We have small models without options that start at less than $100,000,” Day says. “Larger models loaded with options can exceed $200,000, including equipment.” 

Dodgen offers bank-rate financing on  loans of up to seven years. Lease/purchase options are available.

Dwaine McIntosh, DVM, of Moses Lake, Wash., bought his first Dodgen mobile veterinary clinic in 1977. He has put more than 1 million miles on five units.

“They are the most dependable vehicles I’ve ever owned,” he  says. “I’ve averaged about $250,000 per year in income above my stationary practice. A mobile practice is profitable, flexible and extremely rewarding in personal independence.”

Built to Accommodate

Though Port-A-Vet and Bowie Manufacturing merged to become Bowie International, Executive Vice President Steve Sinnard says both lines are staying true to their designs and customers. Both manufacturing plants are under one roof in Lake City, Iowa.

Pricing ranges from $3,000 for a box insert in an SUV to $20,000 for a chassis-mounted unit. Chassis-mounteds, Sinnard says, offer more room for portable equipment.

For the most part, Valerie A. Biehl, DVM, owner of East Coast Equine and East Coast Animal Medical Center in Vero Beach, Fla., operates an equine/ small-animal practice out of her chassis-mounted Bowie International Galaxy II.

She bought her Galaxy in 1992 for her equine practice; Dr. Biehl uses it today for small animals, too. The original truck has been repainted, but everything else looks brand new, she says.

“Its gull wings lift up and everything is easily accessible,” she says. “I am short and I can reach everything. Even when I was nine months pregnant, I could still get up into the vet box.”

Her favorite equipment is the portable X-ray/ultrasound unit. “I use it quite a bit, and my clients appreciate that we can take care of their animals in the field,” she says.

Biehl considers hot and cold running water, a  refrigerator and extensive storage for medications and equipment the finer points of her truck.

The two other veterinarians on her staff have metal-box inserts in their SUVs. “The boxes are adequate, but they don’t have running water,” she says. “They are jealous of my truck.”

Biehl says her most lucrative investment was $60,000 spent on  computed radiography equipment. “It took me five years to pay it off,” she says, “but the cost-to-benefit ratio is tremendous.

“Image quality is important. Not only can we e-mail radiographs to clients and other veterinarians, it is great for digital recordkeeping.”

Start-Up Practices

Sinnard said the affordability of Bowie and Port-A-Vet clinics appeals to recent veterinary school graduates and to vets downsizing their practices.

Associates breaking from an established practice to start a business are good prospects for all three manufacturers. Customers, they agree, are sometimes adding to their stationary clinics or upgrading to new equipment or a second vehicle.

La Boit’s Wade says  her customers include relief vets who decide to go mobile.

“We are seeing that a higher percentage of buyers are women,” says Day, of Dodgen Industries. “That follows the trend of percentages of students currently in vet schools.”

Day says good blood analyzers are on the must-have list for all doctors.

“The Abaxis equipment is pretty friendly to the mobile environment. It uses very little space,” he says, adding, “Anesthesia equipment gets sold into almost every vehicle we build.”

Wade offers another recommendation: “Cleanings and dental work are definitely money makers for the vets, especially since dental equipment is not that expensive.” 

This article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of Veterinary Practice News.

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