Early in his career, Dr. Siva Nalabotu the need for a place where pets can receive veterinary care for sudden illnesses or injuries without having to go to an emergency hospital.
Finally, pet owners can’t predict when their furry companions will need medical attention, but traditional veterinary offices can’t always see animals without an appointment.
Now Nalabotu is working to bridge the gap with VetCheck Pet Urgent Care Centers – a local practice with huge ambitions.
Nalabotu opened its first VetCheck clinic in Fishers in 2018 and its second in Carmel in 2021. The company is now using a franchise model to gain a foothold nationwide.
In 2023, VetCheck franchisees plan to open individual locations in Bloomington; suburb of Dallas; and York, Pennsylvania. Several locations are slated to open in the Atlanta, Nashville, and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas this year.
Another 30 VetCheck franchises are in the early stages of development. And the company is working to raise $100 million from investors to fund the opening of what it expects to be 250 emergency care centers across the country within five years. VetCheck has already raised $50 million.
Business leaders hope to eventually have one VetCheck center for every 30 traditional veterinary offices in a given area.
“I’ve been thinking about what we can do to expand this type of care across the country?” Nalabotu told IBJ. “Then I thought of franchising, where investors who have investment opportunities can open their own hospital.”
Unlike traditional veterinary practices that operate by appointment during business hours, VetCheck is open most days from 9am to 11pm in Fishers and 4pm to 11pm in Carmel, with extended hours on the weekends. The care centers allow owners to take their pets for screenings, vaccinations, and treatment for more serious illnesses.
VetCheck also has relationships with GPs and 24-hour emergency hospitals who can refer pet owners to the emergency center when an appointment isn’t available or wait times are too long.
While VetCheck officials declined to provide details on pricing, they said the cost of care generally falls between that of a general practitioner and an emergency vet.
“If you have a dog that needs a last minute vaccination, you can walk in the door and take care of the vaccinations and we’ll send the records to their regular vet,” Nalabotu said. “That way there is a continuity of care.”
VetCheck chief operations officer Lawrence Bowlin said people from two or three counties are traveling to the Fishers office. This has shown that more offices are needed both in Indiana and across the country.
“We do not intend to take the patient away from traditional practices,” Nalabotu said. “Our aim is to complement other hospital teams or other veterinary teams by providing care when it is needed most. It will reduce the stress for the pet parents and shorten the waiting time for the pet.”
Nalabotu’s journey to founding VetCheck began while growing up in rural India, where he developed a love for animals.
In the fourth grade he decided to study medicine. Later he was given the opportunity to study medicine at a private college. His possible paths included veterinary and dental school.
“I thought since I was around animals growing up, I wanted to go to vet school so I could help people with pets and livestock,” he said.
Nalabotu, 38, moved to the United States in 2008 and earned a master’s degree in biological sciences and a doctorate in toxicology from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.
He obtained a veterinary license and practiced at Banfield Pet Hospital in Fort Wayne from 2012 to 2015.
In doing so, he spotted a gap in pet care options and began planning VetCheck in 2016.
“There’s an emergency hospital, which is like a normal hospital, but there’s no care in the middle where they can go through the door and do little things,” he said. “You either had to wait for your vet to open or you had to go to the regular emergency room for hours, which isn’t convenient for the pet parents.”
While emergency care centers for humans have existed since the 1970s, VetCheck is among the few companies now pushing the concept for animals.
“This is an interesting new area,” said Jim Weisman, associate dean of clinical education at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “I think they’re going to fill a pretty important need across the industry.”
In late 2021, Bond Vet — another company looking to serve the emergency care pet market — secured a $170 million investment from Warburg Pincus, after raising $17 million the previous year.
Bond Vet opened its first clinic in Brooklyn, New York in 2019 and now has 34 locations on the East Coast with more on the way.
Additionally, pet giants Chewy, Petco and PetSmart are exploring new models of veterinary care.
But the novelty of the emergency care concept means education will be key, Weisman said. Pet owners need to learn whether to see a family doctor, an emergency center, or an emergency vet. They will be the “first judge” of what level of care their pet needs, and emergency centers need to have well-trained staff who can help over the phone determine where the pet should go, Weisman said.
“I’m sure there will be places where [owners will] emerge and [the center will] say, “No, this is more of an emergency room situation. We need to get you to an emergency room quickly and there will be mechanisms for that too,” he said.
According to Nalabotu, VetCheck works with veterinary schools in Purdue, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia and Kansas State University to nurture students who are interested in veterinary practice and have the entrepreneurial skills to run their own emergency care centers .
Approximately 50 employees each work different shifts at the Carmel and Fishers VetCheck locations. Each center has four to five technicians per vet per shift, according to Nalabotu, while some hospitals only have one or two.
Nalabotu said the nationwide veterinary staffing shortage is the company’s biggest challenge, but he said employees appreciate the VetCheck model, in part because they don’t work 12- to 15-hour shifts like at an emergency veterinary center work.
“I have a strong belief that if you treat your employees well, you will have good retention and long-term employees,” he said.
VetCheck’s initial expansion targets are primarily in the Midwest and Southeast, as well as Colorado and Texas. Next are the South, Southwest, and Northwest.
“Community support is the driving force for us to consider expansion,” said Nalabotu.
Once VetCheck reaches its goal of 250 offices across the United States, it plans to begin looking for expansion in Canada and Europe. According to Bowlin, the company’s chief operating officer, the company’s leadership has begun to take a more aggressive approach to public relations.
Starting costs for a clinic depend on location, but Bowlin said they should be $700,000 to $800,000 for those outside of California or New York. Franchisees get full business operations and development marketing teams to get the clinics off the ground, he added.
“We’ve started to see an increase in traffic from people interested in franchising,” Bowlin said. “That, combined with our development fund, has really resulted in a much more robust response to what we’re trying to do.”
In 2020, as pet ownership exploded across the country in the early days of the pandemic, pet owners spent nearly $100 billion on their animals, including $30 billion on medical expenses, according to a report by the American Veterinary Medical Association Care.
Bowlin projects the industry will reach $200 billion in annual spending by 2030. That means an optimistic future for VetCheck, whose Hamilton County sites have margins of 35% to 40%, he said.
According to Today’s Veterinary Business, small animal clinics typically make a 10% to 15% profit margin, while emergency surgeries make 15% to 25%.
“The urgency model is what’s really driving it, and that’s what people are looking at because the expected rate of growth in veterinary medicine over the next eight to 10 years is going to be tremendous,” Bowlin said.
Experts are predicting an economic downturn in 2023, but Nalabotu said that while veterinary care isn’t recession-proof, he believes his company is prepared for whatever happens.
“Caring for pets is always necessary, but there will be some challenges that we must face, and we are prepared to face those challenges as well,” he said. “We are preparing for this impact.”