Moving to the country to start a mobile vet service

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moving to the country to start a mobile vet service
Setting up a bricks-and-mortar practice was never on the cards for Dr Michelle Noga. Photography: Marie Raccanello

Sydney vet Dr Michelle Noga moved to the rural town of Griffith to start her own mobile vet business. It was the best decision she ever made. By Frank Leggett

Australia is experiencing a shortage of vets and this lack is particularly acute in rural settings. Last July, the AVA made a submission to the NSW Government Inquiry into the Veterinary Workforce Shortage in NSW. There are many reasons for the current state of affairs but some vets are bucking the trend, moving to the country and establishing successful practices.

One such vet is Dr Michelle Noga. While she grew up in the charming Sydney suburb of Hunters Hill, she was keen to explore the country lifestyle soon after completing her degree.

“I always planned to leave Sydney,” she recalls. “I thought I would do an equine internship in Bendigo. Or maybe go towards Newcastle. I never expected to end up as far inland as Griffith [a regional city in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area of NSW] but that’s how things worked out.”

After finishing a four-year animal science degree at the University of Sydney, Dr Noga undertook a year of vet school in Wagga Wagga. She then transferred back to the University of Sydney as a postgraduate vet student and graduated in 2019. 

“During my last year of study, I met my husband, James,” says Dr Noga. “He’s a farmer in Griffith so there was no chance of moving him. I worked at a wonderful little mixed practice in Griffith, Yoogali Veterinary Centre. I had lots of support during my first year and the clinic had great equipment and a wonderful nursing team. I worked there for almost three years.”

Getting mobile

Dr Noga always intended to start her own mobile veterinary practice. She liked the personalised style of work and wanted to avoid the difficulty of finding premises, buying equipment, employing staff and all the associated paperwork and certifications.

“Setting up a bricks-and-mortar practice was just too expensive,” she says. “I figured I’d see how I’d go as a mobile vet and if it didn’t work out, I could just sell the equipment and try something else.”

Dr Noga added a canopy to her ute and fitted some drawers, converting it into her mobile veterinary vehicle. In 2022, she hit the road as the Riverina Mobile Vet & Equine Dentistry. There was a non-compete contract in place with Yoogali Veterinary Centre which Dr Noga respected. She also found she didn’t need to advertise her service at all.

I always planned to leave Sydney. I thought I would do an equine internship in Bendigo. Or maybe go towards Newcastle. I never expected to end up as far inland as Griffith [a regional city in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area of NSW] but that’s how things worked out.

Dr Michelle Noga, owner, Riverina Mobile Vet & Equine Dentistry

“Griffith is a pretty small town and word got around fairly quickly,” she says. “I quickly built up a client base and I found that I enjoyed working on my own.”

Most of the time, Dr Noga is seeing animals in their home environment. She finds she rarely needs to use restraint as the animals are calmer at home. This also means she doesn’t need the assistance of a nurse.

“I have one patient who I’d consider a fear aggressive, 80-kilogram dog,” says Dr Noga. “He can’t be seen by any vet clinics in town. I walk in and he’s on his back, waiting for a belly rub. This dog had previously attacked two vets in town but I’ve taken blood and fine needle aspirates from him, and I’ve given him vaccinations. He’s been totally fine with all of it.”

Both sides

There are many advantages to running a mobile vet service. The start-up cost is less and the overheads are lower. Your vehicle becomes your advertising and word of mouth is strong among like-minded clients. Patients are much less stressed and it’s easier to build positive personal relationships with clients.

There are negatives, too. “There are piles of bookwork and I have to act as my own receptionist,” says Dr Noga. “Writing up notes, invoicing and scheduling takes up most evenings and often spills over into weekends on top of the out-of-hours calls. It’s almost impossible to delegate those jobs as you need an intimate knowledge of the clients, treatments and services provided. I am planning to employ a bookkeeper, though, because I dread the accounting side of the business.”

Far and wide

There’s no typical day for a rural mobile vet. The work is varied with bookings and emergency calls coming in at any time. On a recent Wednesday, Dr Noga started the day with two jobs booked. She ended up stitching a cut horse, attending to a vomiting dog, treating a kitten with diarrhoea, treating another kitten with ringworm, sedating a Tasmanian devil at a local zoo, then checking on a stallion followed by a couple of horse dentals.

“I drove about 250 kilometres on that day,” says Dr Noga. “When I’m visiting nearby towns, I do a lot more kilometres.”

Dr Noga has a real passion and interest in equine dentistry. She has completed courses at Grafton’s Equine Veterinary and Dental Services under the guidance of Dr Oliver Liyou.

moving to the country to start a mobile vet service

“He’s brilliant and does a wonderful job in terms of mental health for vets and for equine dentistry around Australia,” says Dr Noga. “I enjoy it so much, I’m planning to push the business towards more equine care. I also do a lot of palliative care which can be emotionally taxing but rewarding. I probably do five or six euthanasias a week. It’s always tough on owners but having their pet die at home does offer some small comfort.”

Skilling up

Rural areas are crying out for veterinarians but there is resistance from many city professionals to make the move. Dr Noga believes a couple of years in the country can be a positive and enjoyable experience, particularly for new graduates.

“Any new graduate undertaking a couple of years in the country will improve their skills quickly,” she says. “So many areas need vets; I know Griffith and Bathurst are desperate. Once you start working, there’s lots of support and most of the clinics are fully equipped with the latest gear. You won’t get thrown in the deep end—I didn’t start after-hours’ work until I was comfortable—but you’ll learn and experience things that are uncommon in cities.”

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage working at a rural veterinary practice is not being able to refer easily. There’s no specialist clinic 20 minutes down the road. The pressure is on the vet to solve the problem.

“I believe it makes you a better vet because you have to think on your feet and do your best to help the animal,” says Dr Noga. “When I first moved out here, my boss told me that in emergency situations, always inform the client of the risks in not referring. Most owners are practical about our limitations. Once they understand the situation, they’re happy for you to give everything a crack. In a city, you have the option to refer for specialised care. If you don’t push for the referral, you could end up in hot water.”

Country life

Country practice owners understand that people often move jobs and locations every couple of years. They’re happy to have a vet on staff for two years to immerse themselves in all aspects of a rural practice.

“One of the things I love about working in the country is the people I meet and work with,” says Dr Noga. “Country people are welcoming, down to earth and positive. I’ve certainly made many close friends in Griffith.”

Dr Noga is running flat chat with her mobile business. She finds the job engrossing, enjoyable and rewarding. Her business recently won the Griffith Business Chamber award in the Outstanding Start-up category. 

“The only thing I miss is the beach,” she says. “But I fly or drive back to Sydney pretty regularly for a swim and to visit the family. I’m happy with how my business is running and Griffith is a fantastic place to live. The only thing I need to do, like every other vet, is work on a healthy work-life balance.” 

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