Bradenton-based service part of a growing trend of specialized pet-focused businesses.
By Maggie Clark
Pets are valued members of families, and their owners are increasingly seeking specialized medical care to make sure they live better and longer lives.
In this trend, Cheryl Brady saw a business opportunity.
Brady, who had a long career in corporate work, turned a passion for helping animals into a business in 2010 when she opened Vet Care Express Animal Ambulance, a pet ambulance service based in Bradenton.
Six years and 6,500 patients later, she and her team of trained caregivers are expanding their services into Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Animals’ lives on the line
Brady’s business is part of a growing industry catering to pet owners who expect the same level of advanced care for their pets as they do from their own doctors and the health care system.
“We’re seeing that people expect on the veterinary side what they’re getting for themselves on the human side, such as MRIs, cancer treatment, surgeries, specialist appointments, acupuncture and treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Michael San Filippo, a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“There is an expectation that this level of care is available and there’s more of a willingness among pet owners to seek these treatments out,” San Filippo said. “Fifty years ago, the idea of a pet ambulance service might have seemed ridiculous, but now, with the increased bonds forged between people and their pets, we’re seeing that this increases an owner’s willingness to seek out advanced treatment.”
Pet first aid
Brady’s business started small, with just a van and a mission to help pet owners in an emergency. Within two years, she’d purchased a former Sarasota County ambulance and fitted it with large cages, dog gurneys and special oxygen masks.
The ambulance helped people understand her business, Brady said.
“It’s visible, it’s bright red and people immediately understand that we’re helping an animal in an emergency,” Brady said.
Unlike an ambulance for humans, however, pet ambulances are not allowed to use sirens, manipulate traffic signals or speed to reach a hospital.
Brady and her team of four are certified in pet first aid and CPR through the American Red Cross (which stopped issuing certifications last year) and, just like an ambulance for humans, they give whatever help they’re called for.
Often, the issues aren’t life or death, but just pet owners needing help and not knowing who else to call.
“We handle a lot of calls about cats and help elderly people who can’t capture their cat or can’t carry a cat,” Brady said. “If it’s something where the owner needs help getting the cat, we can help raise their comfort level.”
The ambulance service also serves as a transportation option from animal hospitals and emergency centers to traditional veterinary offices. Nearly every morning starts with transporting animals from a hospital back to their vet’s office, Brady said. That has filled a critical need.
“Before us, the owners had to transport the animals, so you had to have an owner arrive at the emergency vet at 7:30 a.m. but the regular vet doesn’t open until 8 a.m. and the owner had to handle their very sick pet. Now, pet owners know they can call us anytime so they don’t have to handle their seizing pet or post-operative pet. We’re providing peace of mind for pet owners.”
That peace of mind comes at a surprisingly low cost, considering the high-priced world of specialized veterinary care. For non-emergency transportation, Vet Care Express Animal Ambulance changes $65 for up to an hour; critical emergency pickups start at $125.
“We’ve probably lost business because people think this is in the several-hundred-dollar price range, but we keep it affordable because our mission is to get pets help and to help the owners through a difficult time,” Brady said.
The ambulance service also accepts pet insurance, an increasingly popular option for pet owners who want to keep a handle on their pet medical spending. Unlike human insurance, pet insurance requires owners to pay their pet’s medical expenses up front, then submit the bill for reimbursement later. This means the ambulance company still collects the full payment from the owner, which is different from human health insurance where an insurance company pays the provider a negotiated rate that is often much lower than the rate for a cash-paying patient.
Only about 1 percent of pet owners have pet insurance but the industry is expected to grow quickly in the next few years as more people become pet owners, according to a February 2016 report on pet insurance from market research firm IBISWorld.
Emergency services growing
Veterinary colleges are also predicting a surge of growth in the emergency veterinary care industry in the coming years, with more students specializing in emergency veterinary medicine.
“Students are interested in the emergency side and I see it as a big growth area,” said Dr. Gareth Buckley, chief of emergency and critical care and medical director of the small animal hospital at the University of Florida.
“Part of this is driven by the fact that people don’t want to wait until the next day if their pet is sick, and that’s created a market for emergency practices to be open 24 hours.” Buckley said.
“It also means that the daytime vets can direct some of their nighttime calls to the emergency practice, rather than having someone who has worked all day get up in the middle of the night to care for a sick animal.”
Brady says she and her team receive about eight calls per day and expect demand for their services to increase from owners of every age group.
“The assumption is that elderly pet owners would call us more often, but that’s simply not the case,” Brady said.
“We recently helped a woman in her early 20s who was walking her Shih Tzu when it screamed out in pain. It had tweaked its neck, and if you went anywhere near the dog, it would scream in pain.
“There was no way the owner could have gotten the dog to the vet. She’s 20 years old, she doesn’t have a clue what’s going on and the dog wouldn’t let her handle it. We were able to calm the dog and get it to the vet as quickly as possible. It’s not an elderly service at all; it’s for pet owners all across the age spectrum.”
While there’s no national count of pet ambulance services, veterinary industry groups say they’re growing in popularity, especially in and around larger U.S. cities. In Florida, there’s a pet ambulance company serving Miami-Dade County and another one based in Fort Myers that serves the area between Sarasota and Fort Myers.
With Brady’s expansion, she’ll begin serving St. Petersburg and Tampa, along with continuing service in Sarasota and Manatee Counties.
“People just want the best care for their pet and our business helps them get it.”