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Veterinarians: Yes, they make house calls

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011

When Dr. Barbara Smith started her mobile practice in the South Hills 18 years ago, few in the PIttsburgh region had heard of a veterinarian who makes house calls.

"I was the only one back then," Smith said.

Smith saw going mobile as filling a niche for people who couldn't get their pets to an office or hospital, and for those who preferred a home-based setting.

Over the years, that niche has expanded. New patients sometimes must wait to get an appointment with Smith, now one of several veterinarians making house calls in the region.

Dr. Nancy Ruffing, a North Hills veterinarian who started her house-call practice four years ago, even specializes. She provides hospice-type care for older pets and those with chronic health problems.

Although such practitioners won't replace animal hospitals or specialty clinics, there's anecdotal evidence that the demand for home-health-care pet services is growing, said David Kirkpatrick of the American Veterinary Medical Association, based in Schaumburg, Ill.

"More vets are seeing great value in providing house call services for clients," Kirkpatrick said. "Sometimes, it's a matter of convenience. Sometimes it is very, very stressful for a pet to ride in the car or get to the vet, and that stress gets carried over to the owner. And for end-of-life care, there is great comfort on the part of the owner to have that occur at home.

"The human-animal bond has gotten so strong many people are demanding the same level of care for their pets as family members."

Smith thought her house-call service, which jump-started her veterinary career, would appeal to older people and those with older dogs and cats. But today, she treats a wide range of patients and clients, most in the city and its South suburbs.

"It's pretty much what you'd see in any veterinary office," Smith said, although there are some limitations. Sometimes, she must refer clients for more specialized services.

Peg Nagem of Mt. Lebanon has relied on Smith to take care of her cat Banshee for 12 years. Smith also cared for Nagem's cat Ariadne -- named after a Cretian goddess -- in her home.

Nagem said Smith taught her how to hydrate Ariadne and provide comfort care as the cat aged. And she lent a compassionate hand at the end.

"Dr. Smith came to my house and examined Ariadne and said, 'Yeah, it's time.'

"Ariadne was able to be in my lap with a towel, and Dr.Smith gave her first shot to make sure there'd be no pain. I made sure Ariadne knew she was loved. Dr. Smith stayed with me and took her pulse and said, 'Yes, she's gone.'

"There was no added stress of putting a sick cat into a carrier into a car and taking her into an office where she'd be scared out of her mind in addition to being in pain," Nagem said.

"What she does is just an amazing service."

Smith said the home environment helps her, too.

"It's a much more relaxed environment. When you're in the home, you see things that might make a difference, like plants or toys, that people wouldn't think to bring up in the office."

Other suggestions, Ruffing said, might include "taking an arthritic dog out the front door rather than the back door, where they have to climb more steps."

Ruffing's house-call practice, Gentle Journey, specializes in end-of-life or hospice-type care, although she provides other veterinary services in an area ranging from Cranberry to Bridgeville and Monroeville.

Karen Kern of Shaler said her 8-pound, 15-year-old Maltese, Klondike, is a tribute to Ruffing's skills.

Klondike spent two weeks in a veterinary hospital last summer because of age-related illnesses -- failing eyesight, diabetes and an irritable bowel.

When Kern took Klondike home after he stopped eating, she called Ruffing. It seemed time to say goodbye, but Kern couldn't bear having that happen in a hospital.

"Nancy came ... to euthanize him, but I told her he just didn't feel ready, to me, to die," Kern recalled.

"She said, 'Fine, then we'll go with plan B.

"And what I thought was going to be 12 hours turned into 12 months. ... She saved his life and gave him an incredible quality of life," Kern said on a recent afternoon at her home, as Ruffing gave Klondike his insulin shot.

Kern said Ruffing taught her to give Klondike his shots, draw blood and provide intravenous fluids. She even suggested placing yoga mats around Klondike's bed to make it easier for him to get around.

"She showed me what was possible," Kern said, tears welling in her eyes.

"Everyone loves their pet and these days the love goes even further because we can provide more care," Ruffing said, as she loaded her veterinarian's bag into her car, on her way to another call.

On the road and into the home

Several Pittsburgh area veterinarians operate house call veterinary practices.

• Dr. Barbara Smith

House Call Veterinary Services


• Dr. David Ruble

Vet to Pet


• Dr. Nancy Ruffing

Gentle Journey Veterinary Hospice


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