A Vet's Bet: Abby Schutzman ’06 and her Co-op Veterinary Care
Abby Schutzman ’06 wagered that pet owners would respond to a new take on veterinary care based on a co-op model. She was right.
It was the classic prelude to a veterinary emergency: A dog. A shoe. And nobody home.
Shiloh, a Husky mixed-breed with snow-white fur and a penchant for napping on the sofa, “hadn’t chewed up anything big in years,” says owner Ellen Morfei. But one day last winter, her son’s jazz-dance oxfords proved irresistible to the 5-year- old canine. “There was leather all over the place,” she says. “Then Shiloh started throwing up.”
Two vet visits, one X-ray, and a pair of ultrasounds later, Morfei faced the kind of agonizing “love or money” decision more and more pet owners confront as the cost of vet care in the United States skyrockets. But she had an unusual advantage. Shiloh is a patient at Unity Animal Hospital in Wallingford, Pa. Co-founded in 2014 by Abby Schutzman ’06, VMD, this out-of- the-ordinary veterinary practice just west of Philadelphia has a business model unlike most, if any, of America’s 30,000 other animal clinics.
It’s a co-op.
Members like Morfei pay a monthly fee ($15 per dog, $10 per cat) for wellness care that includes an annual checkup and several vaccines. In addition, members receive a 30 percent to 50 percent discount on other pet-care services, such as teeth cleanings, blood tests, neutering and spaying, sick appointments, and treatments such as (we’re looking at you, Shiloh) emergency surgery for swallowed objects.
“That made all the difference,” says Morfei, 48, of Media, Pa. “Our options were an expensive endoscopy at a big animal hospital or a more affordable surgical procedure at Unity. It was a difficult choice, because there was a chance the endoscopy could remove the shoe pieces and clear the blockage noninvasively. But there were no guarantees. I weighed the pros and cons. I wanted Shiloh near home and with vets I knew personally and trusted. And cost was a big factor.”
She chose surgery. Schutzman and her vet-practice partner, Kathy Trow, extracted a large chunk of leather from Shiloh’s stomach. “He’s good as new,” Morfei says. “Due to the size of the piece he had swallowed, it turned out he would have needed surgery anyway. But no one knew that when I made my choice. At Unity, I never felt judged for going with the less-expensive option. They gave Shiloh great care that respected my family’s budget.”
And that, Schutzman and Trow say, is precisely the point.
“Co-op membership for veterinary care is a new idea,” says Schutzman, 31. “Companion animals stay healthiest when they get core wellness care plus the help they need when they’re
sick. But the rising costs of veterinary care plus tough economic times are keeping more and more pet owners away and requiring vets to spend less and less time with each animal. We wanted something better.” It’s a win-win, she adds. The co-op model also ensures an income stream that allows Schutzman and Trow to pay the bills and practice in a well-equipped facility, giving their patients the care they deserve.
Pickles, Winky, and Tippy
Schutzman always wanted to be a vet. “I never considered anything else,” she says. During middle school and high school she shadowed local vets and held summer jobs as a vet-office assistant. At Haverford, she majored in biology, was co-secretary of the Honor Council, and worked when she could at a local animal hospital. She kept birds and rabbits at home, too. “My dad is extremely allergic, so I couldn’t have a dog or cat till I was out on my own,” she says in her airy, second-floor office in the two-year-old hospital.
Her dog Pickles, a 2-year- old pit bull mix with a winsome black and white face, lounged in a patch of sunlight at her feet on a late-winter morning. “Pickles thinks the hospital is hers,” Schutzman laughs. “She’s a little protective with visitors at first.” The dog sidled up to a visitor to be petted, then paraded around the room with her favorite chew toy. Schutzman adopted the dog from Home at Last Dog Rescue in Montgomery County. (She and Trow now provide low-cost care for the group’s rescues.) She adopted her cat Winky, 10, as a stray before starting at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. A second cat, Tippy, an 8-year- old domestic shorthair, came from a shelter where Schutzman volunteered as a surgeon during her time at Penn.
“I always loved animals and science,” Schutzman says. “And I always wanted to work with companion animals instead of with horses or farm animals. I like the process of medical diagnosis, solving the puzzle to figure out what’s wrong. I love surgery. I wanted to be able to educate owners so they could give their pets a better life. And it’s important to me to be an advocate for homeless and rescue animals, too.”
But running her own practice? That was never the plan.
“It’s so expensive for young vets with student loans to buy an established practice from a retiring vet,” she says. “And I didn’t want to be the one who got the call when the clinic washing machine broke at 3 a.m.”
But reservations about the financial realities of vet care led her to reconsider. Too often, she says, rising prices “got in the way of good health.” The American Pet Products Association reports that vet costs increased 47% for dogs and 73% for cats between 2001 and 2011, rising to an average of $1,649 a year for a dog, $1,271 for a cat by 2014.
For too many pet owners, it’s all too much. “Annual checkups get skipped. Or people pay hundreds of dollars for them, then don’t have anything left for when their animal has a problem,” Schutzman says. “They may get care where they can, taking advantage of low-cost vaccines at pet stores, for example, but no vet is watching over their animal’s total health. People want the best for their pets, but often there were no good options if you’re on a budget.”
As a result, common dog and cat illnesses like diabetes, arthritis, and thyroid and kidney problems “aren’t caught early, when they’re more treatable,” Schutzman says. “Animals end up very sick and in a lot more pain.” In one 2013 survey of 1,100 pet owners by the online pet-medicine company PetCareRx, 35% said they’d had to save money by cutting back on vet visits, 16% skipped vaccinations, and 12% delayed or never bought a needed prescription.
Another trend frustrated her, too. “In most clinics, you don’t have a lot of time to spend with every owner and animal,” she says. “You’re on the clock, working quickly. More and more veterinary hospitals are owned by corporations, some with no veterinary background. They’re businesses crunching numbers. There isn’t always enough time for education and discussion. And if you can’t pay their prices, your animal doesn’t get care.” According to a 2014 review in the Canadian Veterinary Journal, corporations now own more than 1,500 vet hospitals, clinics, and practices in the U.S. and Canada.
A Little Like a Food Co-op
Trow shared Schutzman’s frustration. “We started talking, and the plan just grew organically,” she says. “It was scary, thinking about striking out on our own. But it was exciting, too.”
The two had worked together for years, first when Trow was a vet at a local animal hospital and Schutzman was the summer help, later when Schutzman did her first surgery under Trow’s watchful eye. They share a deep, mutual regard. After Schutzman graduated from Penn, she became a staff vet at the Ardmore (Pa.) Animal Hospital, where Trow also worked. “We work really well together,” says Trow. “Abby gets along with everybody—animals and people. The irony is, I did her first surgery with her. But after doing so many surgeries at shelters during vet school, she was showing me things. There’s a technique she uses to close the top two layers of tissue after abdominal surgery that’s really cool.”
Originally, a larger group of vets mulled the idea of banding together to offer more-affordable care. Schutzman says they considered several options. “Originally, we were interested in being a true co-op [in which members are co-owners], but it quickly became clear that that wouldn’t be logistically feasible for our type of business,” she says. “For example, we would have to ask clients to vote on every tiny aspect of day-to- day business—it just wasn’t practical. Once we realized we couldn’t be a co-op, we spent a lot of time trying to organize as a nonprofit. After a lot of research, we came the conclusion that it just wasn’t legally feasible. So, we settled on operating in the spirit of a co-op.”
A hopeful piece of research inspired Schutzman and Trow to think creatively. In 2011, an extensive survey in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association looked at why cat and dog visits to vets were dropping even as pet ownership in the U.S. was on the rise. Most of the findings were unsurprising: The recession, unemployment, high vet bills, and the growing use of the Internet for pet-health information were factors.
But pet owners also talked about what would bring them back: Care that prevents expensive health problems and helps pets live longer. Appointments that cost less and are less stressful for people and their animals. A convenient locale. And a pleasant experience. It was exactly what Schutzman and Trow wanted to provide.
Ultimately, Schutzman and Trow proceeded on their own. They devised a plan. “In this area, people know what a food co-op is,” Schutzman says. “We knew that could work. And we chose a location that was convenient for people from a variety of economic backgrounds. In a way, it’s a very Haverford idea. We want animal care to be fair for everyone.”
While it’s difficult to know for sure, Schutzman thinks Unity’s business model may be unique among American vet hospitals. “Some offer special rates for preventive-care packages, but we aren’t aware of any that take a co-op approach like ours,” she says.
Backyard Chickens, Rescue Dogs, and Ralph the Bearded Dragon
Unity Animal Hospital opened for business in February 2014 in a cheerfully rehabbed pair of 19th-century houses joined by a brand-new reception room. The air smells clean and fresh. Animal art decorates the walls—including black-and- white photos by Schutzman’s husband, John Sangston, and pet portraits by Swarthmore painter Martha Perkins. A local mosaic artist, Claire Brill, designed the swirling tile mural behind the front desk that looks like intertwined animal tails. Each tile in the mural bears a pet’s paw-, claw-, or footprint—with prints from several rabbits, Ralph the bearded dragon, and Fluff the backyard chicken along with plenty of dogs and cats. Pet owners pay for their animal’s print; proceeds benefit the hospital’s rescue and pet-retention funds.
“The Pet Retention Fund is for our clients whose pets incur an unexpected veterinary expense that they can’t afford,” Schutzman says. “Our goal is to use the money to help these clients with the unexpected expense so that their pets get the care they need and won’t get surrendered to a rescue or SPCA because the owners couldn’t afford the care.”
It’s a family affair. Trow’s mother designed the hospital’s logo. Schutzman’s husband built the reception desk, where the office fish, a golden beta named Clifford, cavorts in a tank. (Alas, the office guinea pig, Mr. Funky Pants, died recently.)
In its first year of operation, Unity’s clientele grew to 750 families. More than 95% chose the co-op membership option. By January of 2015, the vets were treating more than 2,100 companion animals from more than 1,100 owners. In addition, Unity provides reduced-cost spaying and neutering for several rescue organizations.
They’re seeing early signs that the co-op approach does mean better health care. “Dogs and cats need at-home dental care, which can help slow down dental disease, but most people don’t do it, and even fewer people take their pets in to a vet’s office for a full dental cleaning,” Schutzman says. “Here, about 90 percent of the pets we recommend office dental cleanings for get them. That can prevent painful problems like abscesses later on.”
Liz (Willis) Antzis ’13, a third-year Penn vet student who recently completed a two-week rotation at Unity, agrees. “Members are getting their animals evaluated more frequently, and you’re able to pick things up earlier,” she notes. “I think it’s a great way to get people to understand how important it is to bring your pet in regularly. I think most people bring them in every couple of years. But, especially if you have an old dog or cat, things can develop slowly. Animals are stoic, and you might not know something is wrong until it’s pretty far along.”
Antzis is one of more than 35 Haverford grads from classes in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s to choose a career in veterinary medicine. Another Haverford alumna, Alexandra John ’13, is in her class at Penn, and two others, she says, are in the year behind them. Schutzman actively encourages the trend. For the past three years she’s served as an adviser to Haverford’s Pre-Vet Society. “I try to give the students information to make sure they’re prepared to apply to vet school: What prerequisite courses to take, how to get relevant extracurricular veterinary experience, preparing for GREs, and what to expect from vet school,” she says.
Up on the Exam Table or a Windowsill
Appointments at Unity move at a slower pace. There’s more time to talk and get to know animals and their owners. “To be a good vet it’s important to be time-efficient, but you also have to be able to take the time to let an animal warm up to you,” Trow says. “If you jump into an exam that might be scary or painful, you won’t have the animal’s trust. We might sit on the floor petting the dog while getting the health history from a client. If a cat or dog is afraid of the exam table, we might check them out on a chair or on the floor or even on a windowsill.”
Brendan Moran found Unity after Ellie, his family’s 7-year- old Swiss mountain dog, was diagnosed with a softball-sized tumor in her spleen. A surgical specialty hospital could operate for $5,000—a price that was a stretch for the family. “We were very transparent and open about the alternatives for Ellie,” Schutzman says. “The risk was that if nothing was done, her spleen could rupture at any time. That would have been fatal. We made sure Ellie’s owners knew that the most advanced option would have been going to a board-certified veterinary surgeon in a facility with a blood bank. When the family said that was beyond their budget, Kathy and I discussed it. We would have refused if we didn’t think we could do the procedure well. But we felt comfortable performing the surgery as a team here at Unity, and the family was fully informed about the risks, our skills, and our hospital’s capabilities.” Their price: Less than half of that of the surgical specialty hospital.
“They’re compassionate, capable, and well-equipped,” Moran says. Schutzman said the procedure “went wonderfully.”
Today, Moran’s 100-pound dog with the goofy personality is thriving. “She’s got more energy than she’s had in years,” he says.