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Health Horizons : New Pet Theory for Business Success: Big Chains of Veterinary Hospitals : A new breed of clinics is changing the animal care industry and creating new opportunities for employment.


Barbara Starr, a Brea veterinarian, didn't want the downside of private practice--the debt and paperwork of running a small business. She just wanted to treat people's pets and spend time with her husband and young son. So she went corporate.

After working for nine years in small practices owned by others, Starr recently went to work as one of two vets at the Brea branch of VetSmart Pet Hospital and Health Centers, a privately held Portland, Ore.-based chain owned primarily by veterinarians.

"What I want to do is cure sick animals; it's as simple as that," Starr said. "Being a business manager takes time away from my real job."

Starr got the work style she sought thanks to what could signal a dramatic shift nationwide in the low-key but lucrative pet-care industry. Until recently, veterinary medicine had trundled along as largely a mom-and-pop enterprise, as optometry did before the advent of Lens Crafters and other large eye-wear companies.

But in the last year or two, several interstate chains of veterinary hospitals have appeared, and they are remaking the industry, creating new opportunities for those who want to make a living working with animals.

"This is new; it's just cracking the egg," said Robert Hansen, associate dean at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "We estimate that 20% to 30% of our graduates will get jobs in these new areas, the multiple and corporate end of veterinary medicine."

Beyond the multiple offices of chain hospitals, there is a growing number of opportunities in the corporate world, outside traditional private practice, for veterinarians, vet technicians and those who like to work around animals but have no specialized skills.

"When people think of veterinary medicine, they tend to think of the James Herriot books and that type of environment. But there are a lot of opportunities outside that," said Brad C. Gehrke, a research analyst with the Schaumburg, Ill.-based American Veterinary Medical Assn.

Gehrke noted that although 80% of U.S. vets still work in private practice, there is a growing demand for vets and vet technicians in fish and wildlife agencies and other government public health programs; academia; nonprofit rescue foundations, and corporate research and development of products ranging from vaccines and medications to new food for pets and agricultural animals.

The newest employers are the chain hospitals.

VetSmart Pet Hospital and Health Centers has a deal with the PetSmart chain of more than 180 pet-supplies stores around the country to put a small-animal hospital at each location. Now in its first year of operation, there are 36 VetSmart hospitals, with plans for as many as 500.

"We're one practice with multiple locations," spokesman Alex Schrage said.

By "one practice," Schrage means that VetSmart keeps its medical records on computer, easing transfer of an animal's medical history among hospitals when the owner moves or a pet gets sick when its owners are on vacation.

Vets and vet techs can also transfer jobs without leaving the company. VetSmart offers flexible hours and training for employees--techs, vets, office personnel--who want to advance. "There's a lot of opportunity for movement," Schrage said. The company aims, once the hospitals are "up to full production," to offer experienced vets salaries of $90,000 a year or more, roughly comparable to those in private practice, Schrage said.

Veterinary Centers of America, based in Santa Monica, was formed in 1986 but has seen its greatest expansion recently. It has doubled its size this year over 1994, to 40 pet hospitals around the country, including 15 in Southern California. "We're a traditional dog-and-cat hospital company--we just happen to have a lot of them," said Art Antin, chief operating officer.

VCA says it also offers employees competitive salaries, educational assistance and movement among locations for both vets and the technical staff.

For recently licensed vets, VCA offers a one-year paid internship program at the VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital. Antin says this gives a new vet experience, so that he or she can leap from a salary of $35,000 a year, which is typical pay for a vet fresh out of school, to as much as $55,000 in the second year of practice. Antin added that one VCA vet is about to start a three-year postgraduate course in animal ophthalmology that VCA will pay for.

"The ability to network within an organization, to have continuing education programs, it's very difficult for individual practitioners to do that," Antin said.

The new chains are still feeling their way. Indeed, Pet Metro Inc., an Irvine-based outlet for pet supplies and veterinary services--with stores in Pasadena, Riverside, Huntington Beach and San Diego--filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April.

But most industry experts predict that the chains are here to stay, and that in the end, they will be good for all veterinarians, including those in private practice.

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