Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Vet nurse Louise Cook owns and manages a community veterinary practice that puts animal health over profit. By Frank Leggett
To own and run a community veterinary practice is to take on a constant financial juggling act just to keep the clinic afloat. These practices offer subsidised or lower-cost veterinary services for people and animals in need. Usually located in lower socio-economic areas, it’s an essential and much-needed service. The big problem is how to charge as little as possible while being able to pay staff, suppliers and running costs.
“If an animal needs an expensive procedure but the owner is unable to pay, we often turn to Pet Medical Crisis, a charity that raises funds to help the financially disadvantaged with their pet bills,” says Louise Cook VN, owner of Meow & Friends, a community vet clinic in the Melbourne suburb of Cranbourne West. “Depending on the circumstances, they will contribute an interest-free loan of up to $1000. We then try to cap the care at $1000 so the client doesn’t have any out-of-pocket expenses.”
Meow & Friends has a policy that no animal will be euthanased unless it’s in the best interest of that animal. When someone wants to surrender a pet due to financial constraints, Cook and her team will try to find a way to keep the pet with the owner. If that’s impossible, they engage with a number of rescue groups. They treat the animal and monitor it through the adoption and rehoming process.
“No matter what the reason, no animal dies at our practice just because someone can’t afford to look after it,” says Cook.
Louise Cook has worked in various roles in the veterinary industry for more than 30 years. She started as vet nurse, managed practices and worked with corporate groups and drug companies.
“I used to have the attitude that if you can’t afford a pet, don’t have one,” she says. “Then I started to work with people in low socio-economic areas and soon realised their pet is often the only thing that gives them unconditional love. Sometimes their pet is the only thing that gets them out of bed and keeps them staying alive. Despite this, many animals are surrendered or euthanased because people can’t afford treatment for their pet’s medical condition.”
Cook could see that rescue organisations and shelters were already overstrained. She also knew that once a pet was surrendered, the owner would be so distraught, they would often get another pet and the cycle would repeat.
She opened Meow & Friends—just before COVID-19 hit and with the help of a small inheritance—with a specific business plan in mind. Many community vets are not for profit, meaning they have charity status, accept donations and are overseen by a board. Meow & Friends is no profit, meaning they can’t accept donations and all profit is put back into the cost of the business. It also means that Louise Cook answers to no-one but herself.
“My business was always going to be a low-cost, community vet practice,” says Cook. “I had no interest in going down the private path. I set it up from scratch and initially, the clinic was just a couple of vet friends and nurses doing some low-cost desexing. Within two years of opening, we had two full-time vets and today we have outgrown our premises. I could easily use the equivalent of three full-time vets.”
Like most community clinics, the main focus of Meow & Friends is its desexing program. As the business expanded, it allowed the team to offer more complex procedures to the point where they are comparable to a private practice.
“When we opened, a lot of private practices in our area were worried we were going to take business from them,” says Cook. “That was never my intention. I’m a big believer that if you can afford it, go and support your private practice. But if you can’t afford it, your pet doesn’t have to suffer.”
As the good reputation of Meow & Friends spread, nearby practices soon saw the benefit of a local community vet. Cook now get regular referrals from those practices when a client can’t afford a procedure. This has the added benefit that the other practices are performing less euthanasia.
“Mental health is a huge problem, particularly in our industry,” says Cook. “When clients and referring vets utilise our services, they know it will not result in the death of the animal. There’s no doubt that’s a huge positive in regard to mental health.”
Without a doubt, the biggest issue facing Cook is covering costs and keeping her business financially viable. The onus falls completely on her to generate the income needed to keep everything running.
“It’s a challenge,” she says. “We’re in hard times at the moment. As costs and the cost of living rises, our services are needed more than ever. Despite the fact that I’ve never advertised, we just grow day by day.”
As tough as it is to run a community vet, there are also many things Cook loves about the job.
“I’m filling a huge void in the industry and our clients are so grateful for what we do,” she says. “Euthanasing animals is an aspect of veterinary medicine that no-one enjoys and I’m sure we have better mental health in our clinic because we avoid it. Most people get into the industry for their love of animals. Working at our practice allows that love to be creatively channeled into purely treating sick animals. While the financial side of things is always going to be a struggle, running Meow & Friends brings me immense joy and satisfaction.”