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At-home care (and less stress) for your pet with Vet At Your Door

One morning two years ago, Faith York’s dachshund Bailey was whimpering with so much pain from ruptured discs that she decided to end months of hurting and have him put down.

When she called to make an appointment, she was further upset to learn that her veterinarian was out of town. She called another vet, who also was away, but that vet recommended Abby Messina, who practices veterinary medicine exclusively via house calls.

Messina agreed to immediately head to Peaks Island to euthanize York’s dog, but when she arrived and examined Bailey, she had another plan altogether.

Veterinarians Tina King, left, and Abigail Messina of Vet at Your Door, an at-home veterinary services company, visit with Henry at a home in Cape Elizabeth. At-home vet visits are less stressful for pets and pet owners alike. “We have the ability to do everything that’s done in a clinic except X-rays and surgery,” says Messina. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

“It was about to happen. She had come on the boat and was prepared to put him down, literally right then,” says York, 58. “But then she said, ‘I happen to have a new drug with me that will take him out of his pain today if you want to try it,’ and she also thought he was a great candidate for acupuncture. I didn’t think it was possible, but within an hour he was out of pain, and two years later, he’s 16, pain free, running around, happy, and has had two fabulous-quality-of-life-years because of them.”

The “them” is Messina and her longtime Vet At Your Door assistant Tina King, who head out in a specially equipped minivan each morning to make the rounds to the comfort of patients’ (pets) and clients’ (owners) homes.

“We have the ability to do everything that’s done in a clinic except X-rays and surgery,” says Messina, who moved to Maine from Massachusetts in 2016 with her husband Scott, twin sons Finnegan and Oliver (now 4-and-a-half), shepherd mix Brewster and Maine coon cat mix Kingston.

“We always wanted to live in Maine for the quality of life,” she says. “I’d been working 12- to 14-hour days at a brick-and-mortar clinic, seeing patients every 15 minutes, for a while, often not getting home to see my kids at night, and I felt like I needed a change.”

Messina, 35, saw an ad for a job with Vet At Your Door—“where modern veterinary medicine meets old-fashioned house call care”—met and hit it off with owner Deirdre Frey, who now works out of Carrabassett, and knew quickly she had found her niche with someone who shared her philosophy about caring for animals.

“Deirdre and I have an old-fashioned view on what it should be like,” she says. “It was perfect for me, and here we are.”

Messina lives in Woolwich and meets up daily at a park-and-ride lot with King, who lives in Freeport. They drive from home to home together as a team from 8 a.m. to about 5 p.m. weekdays, in a territory that roughly runs from Cape Elizabeth to Bath to Windham to Lewiston. Clients are “super understanding” and accommodating about shifting appointments because of winter storms, sick children and other life matters that come up, and Messina greatly appreciates that flexibility she didn’t have in a clinic setting.

Tina King, left, and Abigail Messina of Vet at Your Door, work together and drive to at-home appointments around the state. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

“It’s so much nicer for me and my family,” she says. “I love that the owners know me, and as I’m examining their pets, we’re talking about life in general. We bond on a personal level, so I’m not just a white coat—it’s definitely a closer bond because I know a lot about what’s going on in owners’ lives. It helps to build trust in someone’s home, where the animals and people feel comfortable. This is especially important, I think, when it comes to end-of-life.”

Many animals are “completely stressed” in traditional vet offices, she says, sometimes even requiring sedation or muzzling to be examined.

“In their homes, it’s a different situation. That stress is eliminated. After many visits, they can catch on to what I’m there for, but it’s still far less stressful.”

Stress reduction was appealing to Donna Parkinson of Freeport, especially because trips to the vet hospital were “very traumatic” for her elder cat Ginger, who now is “pretty much in palliative care.”

“They gently keep an eye on her here,” says Parkinson, who also has a 2 1/2-year-old cat named Loki and a 1 1/2-year-old Tibetan terrier named Theo that Messina and King care for. “Both women are wonderful. It’s like having a friend here, taking care of the animals. The trust level is very high. Dr. Abby is very smart, quickly gets to things and is understanding and warm.”

In-home appointments last at least a half-hour, with “lots of time spent on the floor” getting the animals to fully relax while Messina chats with owners about their concerns and issues.

There’s a common misconception that the extra time spent equates to greater expense for clients, but Messina said that’s not the case.

“We do charge a trip fee, so that depends on where you live and you have to take that into account, but we try to keep our exam costs reasonable (currently $58) so, all in all, it’s not more expensive than taking your pet to a clinic,” Messina says.

When X-rays and surgery are needed, she refers clients to three vet clinics—in Topsham, Freeport and Portland—where she has cooperative arrangements that allow her to retain control of analysis and care.

“It’s a fantastic setup,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to a clinic now that I’ve seen the light. I love it!”

Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

Are there downsides to this way of practicing?

“For me, the hardest thing is consciously trying not to respond to things when I’m off. I don’t want to be ‘not available,’ but we all need time off. It’s so easy with email on your phone to say, oh, I’ll just take a minute, but I have to step away.”

York, who is enjoying unexpected time with Bailey on Peaks Island, “can’t say enough good things about” her experience with in-home vet care.

“They really care, they’re efficient, and they’ve helped a lot of animals,” she says. “They’re wonderful.”

Patricia McCarthy is a long-time writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).

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