Pros and Cons to This New Trend in Veterinary Medicine

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

at home veterinary care

Story at-a-glance -

  • The popularity of in-home veterinary care is growing for a variety of reasons and can be a great solution for certain pets and demographic groups
  • In-home visits allow your veterinarian a more complete picture of your pet’s behavior and health, along with potential environmental and lifestyle challenges
  • Potential downsides to veterinary house call practices include availability, appointment scheduling and limited services

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), a growing number of pet parents are choosing veterinarians who make house calls over traditional veterinary practices.

These days, three groups in particular are interested in at-home veterinary services. The first group includes pet parents who want their animal companions cared for in the stress-free environment of their own home to avoid the anxiety associated with carriers, car rides and veterinary offices.

The second group is made up of younger pet parents looking for convenience and personalized care. The third group includes older adults with mobility issues who are concerned for their own safety and that of their pet during challenging, often stressful visits to the veterinarian’s office. In-home veterinary care can also be an ideal solution for families with pets who are:

  • Shy, scared or skittish
  • Elderly
  • Large, with mobility problems
  • Aggressive, unsocialized

Having your vet come to you instead of the other way around can also be a blessing for:

  • Multi-pet households
  • People with hectic or unpredictable schedules
  • Couples with a new baby or young children at home
  • Shut-ins and people who don't drive
  • Breeders who don't want to expose very young animals to other patients

Dr. Jess Trimble of Fuzzy Pet Health, a provider of in-home veterinary services in San Francisco and New York City, thinks another reason for the increasing popularity of in-home veterinary practices is transparency.

"We have a lot of people that say: 'When I go to the regular veterinarian to have my dog's nails trimmed or his blood drawn, they take him to the back — the elusive back. What is that? What happens back there?'" Trimble told JAVMA News.1

According to the 2017 to 2018 edition of the “U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook” published by the AVMA, the average house call charge for dogs is $138 for routine or preventive care, and $109 for cats.

At-Home Visits Allow Your Veterinarian to See the Whole Picture

Seeing your pet in his own environment and not under stress gives your veterinarian a more complete picture of the state of his health, which can mean the difference between catching a problem early and a potential misdiagnosis.

"I've … learned as a mobile vet how much more information I can get to help my patients by examining the pet in their own environment,” writes Dr. Lisa Aumiller, owner of HousePaws Mobile Veterinary Service in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. “In other words, house calls allow veterinarians to truly examine a pet holistically.

During a house call, I'm able to see how the pet greets newcomers and responds to strangers. I can assess a pet's gait by seeing how he moves in his home or around the yard. I can also examine the pet's environment: how he lives, how the home smells, where and how he's fed, what's in the yard (and note if there is a yard) or litter box.

All of this helps me make important recommendations for the pet. Along with factors of physical location, I'm also able to observe other important dynamics, like how the pet interacts with other animals and how the people in the house treat him — all of these can shed light on many issues, particularly behavior."2

During one at-home visit involving a cat with a supposed hairball problem, Aumiller noticed immediately that the house was filled with cigarette smoke and the poor kitty had developed asthma as a result. Her dry, hacking cough sounded like gagging or retching, thus the hairball diagnosis by three separate veterinarians who saw the cat at their clinics.

In another case, a dog needed to be let out to potty "all night," according to his owners. Aumiller took a walk out into the backyard and observed melena, or black tarry stools on the ground. Melena can be a sign of gastrointestinal bleeding, and is a side effect of the drug carprofen, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory the dog was taking.

The value of the extra information gleaned by seeing pets in their home environments can’t be overstated. The ability to watch an animal interact with other pets and people can provide important clues in diagnosing behavioral problems and illness. At the same time, the veterinarian can offer practical tips to help the entire household.

For example, two incredibly helpful things Aumiller learned through home visits were that 1) based on her “litter box tours,” lots and lots of cats are constipated, and 2) the majority of kitties with chronic vomiting are free-fed.

Potential Drawbacks to Using a House Call Veterinarian

While there are a number of benefits to using an in-home veterinary service, there are also some possible drawbacks to be aware of.

Availability of services — While house call practices are catching on with both new veterinarians and those who want to expand their existing practices, there are still many more brick-and-mortar veterinary practices. If you don’t already know of a house call service, you might want to contact your state veterinary medical association for assistance.

In addition, at the present time most house call vets are the equivalent of primary care doctors for humans. In other words, it’s very unlikely you’ll find veterinary specialists who make in-home visits.

Appointment scheduling — Due to travel, set-up time and other peculiarities of in-home visits, house call vets are able to see fewer patients each day than their counterparts in regular practice. You could run into a situation where appointments are booked far in advance, which may or may not work with your needs or the needs of your pet.

Limited services — In-home veterinary services are typically limited to routine and preventive care. If your pet is seriously ill or injured, a visit to an emergency animal clinic, which has the ability to take x-rays, run blood tests and perform diagnostic and surgical procedures is necessary.

But for routine check-ups and less-urgent medical attention, at-home visits can be ideal. And some house call veterinarians have mobile vet clinics that allow them to do many of the same procedures and diagnostic tests as brick-and-mortar veterinary clinics.

If at-home care is not an option for you, you can still help to ease some of the stress and anxiety of taking your pet to the vet by seeking out a provider with a fear-free practice. To reduce stress on appointment days, consider using pheromones — Adaptil for dogs or Feliway for cats, calming nutraceuticals and carrier covers.

Products I use in conjunction with behavior modification include homeopathic aconitum or Hyland's Calms Forte, Bach Rescue Remedy or a Spirit Essences stress or fear blend. Calming nutraceuticals and herbs that I've found helpful include holy basil (tulsi), valerian, l-theanine, rhodiola, ashwagandha, GABA, 5-HTP and chamomile.

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