Veterinary Emergency Service makes animal well-being its pet project

If there’s one thing you can say for certain about animal lovers, it’s that very few of them survive into adulthood without experiencing a broken heart. With the exception of tortoises and some parrots, pets rarely outlive their human companions, and that’s an unavoidable recipe for emotional upheaval.

Indeed, most pet owners will tell you that losing a dog or cat is like losing a family member – or, perhaps more accurately, that their pets are family members.

That’s a reality that the folks at Veterinary Emergency Service (VES) unfortunately have to deal with on a regular basis. While the vast majority of VES’s pet emergencies end happily – with animals heading home to rejoin their families – the nature of the business means some simply aren’t destined to make it.

As a business, it’s a grim reality from a customer relations perspective, but it can also be a morale issue.

“We want to do everything we can to give [people] the ability to do what they can for their pets.” – David Wirth

“Oh, yeah, I think the burnout rate is high in emergency [animal] medicine,” said David Wirth, president and CEO of Veterinary Emergency Service, which has locations in Middleton and Madison. “I think people get emotionally drained from having to see that all the time, so I guess [you have to develop] kind of a thick skin. But I don’t think any of us want to get to a point where it doesn’t affect you anymore. You wouldn’t probably want to do this anymore if it didn’t affect you.

“I think you try to have conversations about it, and I think everybody’s supportive of each other, which is important when they have a case that they’ve worked with for a period of time and it turns out that it’s not going well. They get a lot of support from co-workers.”

Of course, while the emotional toll of treating a sick animal is no doubt high, the impact on pet owners can be no less than devastating.

That’s something that VES, a recent winner of a Dane County Small Business Award, is intimately familiar with.

“Because of the types of cases we see, the percentage of pets that are either euthanized or die here is higher than it is in general practice, because we aren’t seeing patients for things like vaccines – you’re not going to die from that,” said Wirth. “But being hit by a car, significant trauma, those types of things, your risk of them not making it is much higher. So we go through those conversations a lot more with owners and we see the ones that are older, at the end of their lives. And so having more times when you are with people as they go through that grieving process makes you better at it, and so I think our staff does do a good job with that.”

But while heart-wrenching outcomes are inevitable, Wirth is quick to note that most animals that come through VES’s doors leave healthy and happy, which does its employees’ hearts good.

“Oh, yeah, I think that’s why we do it,” said Wirth. “It is rewarding.”

Giving back

In addition to helping see customers through difficult times, VES does its part in supporting the community.

In the past, it has sponsored dogs for the Wisconsin Academy of Graduate Service Dogs (WAGS) and has also partnered with Madison’s K-9 unit, providing training to members of the police force in the treatment of their dogs. Wirth says he’d also like VES to train first responders in helping them treat animals they encounter at accident sites and fires.

In addition, the company provides a discount toward the care of animals taken in by area pet rescue groups such as Shelter From the Storm, Dane County Friends of Ferals, Happy Cat Club, and the Dane County Humane Society. It’s a program, he says, that helps strengthen community ties.

“It’s not an outlined part of our mission to help stray animals – I think that’s more the shelters and the rescue groups – but it is something that is goodwill from our standpoint to those programs.”

When it comes to taking care of employees, in addition to the typical benefit packages you’d expect, the company contributes considerably to continuing education for staff and makes allowance for employees with pets, including helping pay for their own vet care and allowing them to take their animals to work.

“I think that takes a lot of weight off their shoulders,” said Wirth. “They can get stuck here for shifts that are 12 hours long and sometimes beyond, and so they don’t have to scramble to figure out a way to take their dog out. It certainly takes pressure off them.”

Filling a niche

Since being founded in June 2003, VES has grown by leaps and bounds. In its first year of operation, its revenue was less than $300,000. Between 2004 and 2011, it has averaged $2.5 million in revenue, and the company has expanded four times. Its staff has also grown from 13 employees to 84.

That growth was sustained throughout the economic downturn that began in 2008, perhaps indicating that the company was both filling an urgent need and that there’s very little ceiling on how much people are willing to spend on the well-being of their pets.

“People that pursue emergency care and specialty care, to them it isn’t really an extraneous expense,” said Wirth. “They’re going to do what they can do. We have seen a decrease in the amount of money people can spend, but the number of cases that come in continues to climb. And so I think that human-animal bond has held strong and really continues to grow.”

While the demand for its services shows no sign of flagging, if there’s any concession to the economic times, it’s in what the company is willing to charge its customers.

“We have not really increased our fees in over three years now,” said Wirth, “and so, you know, the cost of what we buy continues to climb, but we haven’t really passed that on, I think because we don’t really want to have people declining to come in and get care if we can help it. We want to do everything we can to give them the ability to do what they can for their pets. We can’t give it away for free, obviously; we have to pay our bills too. But those are the things we’ve tried to do to keep it affordable.”

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