How to start up an exotic animal department in your private clinic

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Dr Ama Groza Mrcvs

If you have already realised that providing high quality veterinary medicine services to exotic pets can increase your turnover and enhance clientele then let me congratulate you! This article will give you an easy step-by-step guide to follow in order to make the best of your new venture.

Have you wondered why so few vets are seeing exotics? Some frequent explanations include:

  • Most vets get little training in caring for exotic pets and as a consequence they get stressed when having to see an exotic pet. Many clinicians will refuse to see them unless it’s a first aid situation and the ones that do, probably won’t generate sufficient income to cover their time.
  • If surgical intervention is required, the price for the time spent with an exotic animal, a rabbit for example, is almost half that compared with the same time spent caring for a dog or a cat.

It is no surprise that exotic animal medicine is not high on the preference list of any sensible practice owner. But this is because you’ve been doing it all wrong!

These steps will guide you in starting up a successful exotic animal department in your clinic.

 

  1. Don’t cut corners, practice good quality medicine

The slogan “Gold standard practice” is unfortunately overused these days. Many practices advertise gold standard protocols, however these apply to dog and cat patients only. When it comes to seeing an exotic pet, basic investigations like a simple blood sample or a faecal test are often not even offered to owners and this is where the clinic is losing money and clients.

Through having your staff trained and consequently confident in carrying out specific procedures on exotic pets this will not be the case.

Protocols for different alignments should be in place for exotic animals as well as for small mammals to secure the best care for all pets. Having protocols in place will facilitate a fast treatment set-up at the best standard, easily followed even by inexperienced vets when there’s no support around.

There are a wealth of specialised procedures to be carried out on exotics and trained veterinarians and/or nurses will be able to offer all this to customers, generating more income for the practice.

Encouraging best care practice will stimulate your staff to keep up to date with their training; practice high standard procedures and good outcomes will not stay unnoticed for long. As a consequence more owners will register with your practice. Your staff will be delighted to be at the top of their job taking pride in what they do.

 

  1. Train your staff

Having your staff trained into caring for exotic animals their procedures can be fast, successful and stress free. Because major differences exist between exotic and small mammals, one must have specialised training in order to be able to look after exotics.

Knowledge and confidence is what you need in your team. Offering a generous list of fairly priced specialised procedures will generate more work for the practice and can only be an asset comparing with your competitors (I will return to this later in this article).

Naturally, trained staff will exude confidence and gain owners trust. Consequently, owners will be more likely to agree to more high risk or specialised procedures which they might otherwise hesitate upon; again, thus increasing your revenue.

Practices with trained staff to care for exotics are scarce, so letting your customers know what your team can do and what their level of training is, will not only serve to retain existing clients but will also attract new customers to the practice, and these new customers will often have more than one pet. And who doesn’t like a growing client base?!

 

  1. Charge a fair price for your services

Establishing a fair price is the key factor in setting up your business for failure or success.

Firstly, it is important to understand that there is no relation between the purchase price of a pet and the costs for its medical treatment.

Some people will adopt stray dogs and request for expensive laparoscopic rather than traditional neutering. No surgeon would hesitate to give them an accurate estimate. However when contemplating performing a tortoise spay, most surgeons will doubt the owners’ willingness to accept the surgery as a first option because of the costs involved. However, this is only our assumption!

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I always try and explain before an estimate that the medicines and consumables we use are the same price for all pets. My practice overheads are the same regardless of whether I work with dogs or parrots so why should my work time be priced up differently?

Set your pricing to charge fairly for your time, your assistants’ time, the materials used and not least for your skill.

Pricing all  materials used (like catheters, swabs, gloves etc.) separately will show owners how much the consumables cost, otherwise owners have no idea how much an urinary catheter is and not giving them a detailed bill can lead to confusion. Pricing of the consultation fee should cover time spent with the client and overhead costs such as rent, electricity, water etc. Pricing for the individual procedures carried out (like “placing an IV catheter” or” blood collection”) must cover your salary costs and the cost of ongoing training. The message here is that all costs should be factored in rather than just absorbed.

To your advantage is the fact that few veterinary surgeries offer good quality medicine for unusual pets. If you are clearly the best at it, you have little competition. There is nothing inherently wrong with being expensive but you should not forget that this approach requires continuous training and investment in equipment.

My experience has shown that owners shopping around for price rarely become good, loyal clients. They will always be difficult to convince to agree to investigations and will be likely to complain more if things don’t work out immediately (this is natural, because they can’t afford to spend more money for further tests if needed). The question is not whether you need these clients, but whether you can afford them. Charitable care organisations might be more appropriate for financially challenged clients.

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This is a baby Russian tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii ), has a lifespan of 75 years

Customers shopping for quality and excellence in veterinary care will be yours for life and will pay fairly for your services because they understand and appreciate your approach. Make this group your target clientele and your efforts will pay off.

 

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This is a replica cake of a Russian tortoise (Agrionemys horsfieldii ), it survived for 1 day”

  1. Facilities

Working with exotic pets requires that some adjustments to the hospital facilities and dispensary are made. Exotic pets are escape artists, easily stressed and some of them are poikilothermic, will need special hospitalisation facilities like a vivarium or even an incubator. With a modest budget you’ll be able to adjust your clinic to their needs (to keep costs down you can consider buying vivariums, loupes or surgical instruments second hand).

Most medication used is similar to that for small mammals, however, be aware that dosage is not, so be careful and make sure to consult your exotic medicine library.

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My favourite books which I have always at hand

ARAV.ORG, AAV.ORG  , AEMV.ORG are prestigious, reliable sources of information, so do invest in membership to this organisations. This will give you access to updated care sheets, up to date research data, specific event information and most important, a lot of colleagues to get in touch with in case you need advice on your cases.

 

  1. Advertise

There’s not much gain, except of course personal gain, in being very good at your job if nobody knows about it. In order to keep the business going one should make sure existing and prospective clients know about the range of services the clinic is offering.

You could periodically inform clients about any new equipment purchased and about what training your staff has undertaken. This will not only act as a “refresher” on what your service offering is but will also spread by word of mouth. You may be surprised to find how much impact the users of specialised forums have when a new exotic pet owner is looking for a knowledgeable vet. Make sure your name appears there, next to a good review of course.

Always remember to keep your colleagues informed about your services. Referral cases are a good source of income and a great way of practicing your specialist skills. Organizing open days and continual professional development courses will keep you on the radar of colleagues and clients alike, they should know that you exist and are doing well.

An unusual pet can easily become a news subject and this can get you free advertising. Don’t be shy, let the world know about your successful cases, consider local newspapers, TV and radio as well as social media.

  1. Stay at the top

Don’t ever stop learning.

Exotic animal medicine is developing fast, trends are changing and new protocols are being elaborated at an incredible speed. Refresh your library (very important: change your Carpenter’s Exotic Formulary with any new edition) periodically.

Re-evaluate your protocols every year, attend refresher courses, learn new surgical procedures, and stay updated. When you are the best you can be, you have no competition other than yourself.

Enjoy your success!

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Next event of Dr Ama Groza, soon in Bucharest, Romania!