Dr. Dennis Spence: vet on wheels
There is no shortage of qualified veterinarians in the foothills. Most work out of clinics and hospitals set up in cities and more populated areas of our counties. But what about pet owners on the Ridge, or up in Camptonville or those unable to bring their animals into a clinic or hospital setting? That’s where Dr. Dennis Spence comes in.
Dr. Spence has been practicing veterinary medicine in Nevada County for 30 years, first in a local veterinary hospital, then in private practice. He calls his business Sierra Area Veterinary Express and has been serving a unique clientele since 1981. Spence says his hospital clients encouraged him to become a mobile vet.
“At the time there were mainly just large animal vets that did mobile calls. My advantage was that I could do both; I could do small and large (animals) too, which I still do,” Spence said. “In my situation, being in practice for 30 years, one has to learn to follow a niche. To try and do everything is just impossible.” Dr. Spence has found and followed his niche.
Many of Dr. Spence’s clients are elderly, disabled or lack transportation for their animals that need veterinary attention. Some just prefer having their animals treated at home, rather than in an office. Sometimes a pet is just too large to transport to a clinic in town.
Although a third of his practice involves livestock Ð horses, goats, sheep and some cattle Ð most of his clients own dogs and cats. Spence really likes visiting small farms with a variety of animals. “I particularly enjoy going out on those farm calls that have dogs and cats and horses, where we can do all the routine stuff Ð vaccinations, worming – and get that all done just for one house call,” Spence said.
Most of his practice is maintenance work, such as those vaccinations and wormings, but Dr. Spence also goes out on sick animal calls. He performs blood tests in the field and has a portable x-ray unit, but prefers to refer animals to a hospital setting if they need x-rays. “I’m more inclined to refer something to have x-rays than to go out and try to do it myself,” the doctor said. Spence says he has a good rapport with a lot of the various hospitals in the foothills, so referrals are not a problem. That good relationship allows Spence’s referrals to get in to see other veterinarians as soon as possible.
Spence used to drive a mobile hospital van, equipped to perform surgeries such as spays and neutering, but operating that vehicle proved to be too costly and the van proved to be impractical in mountainous areas. Now he drives a Chevy Tahoe, equipped with four-wheel drive and fully stocked with veterinary supplies. That vehicle makes his visits to North San Juan (NSJ), Camptonville and Downieville a much easier, and more profitable, drive.
But taking care of clients out of the back of an SUV has its limitations, according to Dr. Spence. Any animal that requires hospitalization and monitoring must be referred to a hospital or clinic and animals that require 24/7 care are referred to Loomis Basin Veterinary Clinic, the closest round-the-clock care facility. Spence does do surgeries in the field that involve short-term anesthesia, such as large animal castrations, and he can stabilize a pet for transport to a hospital facility on site. “If I see an animal that requires major surgery, I will help those people get into a hospital right away,” Dr. Spence said. “If it’s a matter of them going somewhere else, they know where to go, there’s no problem making an appointment, I can get them in and get things done.”
Spence is also frustrated by the same conditions that concern other veterinarians; the lack of maintenance care of animals. That includes spaying and neutering pets, vaccinations, dental care and heartworm preventatives. Some people, particularly in rural areas, believe that heartworm meds need only be given during the mosquito season and stop treating their pets during the winter, assuming that treatment can be resumed in the spring. But those animals with a gap in treatment must be re-tested for the disease and many turn up positive, according to Spence. “If they would just do a little extra, a lot of these people would save themselves a lot of heartache and expense, because heartworm treatment is expensive and it’s kind of risky at times too,” he said.
Parvovirus is another preventable disease that Spence encounters on his rounds. It can be transported from infected areas on shoes and car tires, so treating a dog for the virus also involves disinfecting its environment, as well. And cats are prone to respiratory diseases, which are also preventable with a simple vaccination. Untreated pets can infect other animals and may have to be euthanized, which is the part of his practice that Spence doesn’t like.
Dr. Spence works locally on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and half-days on Saturdays. On Tuesdays he travels to Downieville and on Thursdays he visits NSJ and Camptonville, seeing clients on his way to and from those locations; he is the only veterinarian that services those areas.
Sierra Area Veterinary Express can be reached at 273-5331. Spence is available most evenings and sometimes in the morning, before he goes out on calls. He does have an answering service on call that can reach him by cell phone in an emergency.
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