Minnesota's first nonprofit pet clinic draws visitors across the Midwest

Technician Kelsie cuddles a patient after its dental procedure.

Technician Kelsie cuddles a patient after its dental procedure.

Working as a vet at a for-profit clinic in northeast Minneapolis, Dr. Susan Miller vividly remembers one dog that came in with a wretched skin infection. It scratched constantly, its coat a patchwork of bloody fur.

A long-term care program with antibiotics, special food, medical shampoo, and regular checkups over several months was the only thing that would bring the dog relief. The bill would be $500. The owner couldn’t afford to even start treatment with the clinic, and Miller could give her no other references for a cheaper option.

“I knew I was turning away a pet that was miserable and an owner that was completely frustrated with not being able to give the dog care even though she wanted to,” Miller says. “For a case like that, it’s not just the money. It’s the follow up and the ability to get back to the clinic, and that in itself can be a hardship.”

Miller started looking for work at animal clinics with a special focus on treating low-income families’ pets. She found Mission Animal Hospital in Hopkins. Mission already offered a lower pay scale than most for-profit hospitals, as well as a plan that allowed clients to gradually pay off an invoice over time. But when the owner put the business up for sale, Miller saw a chance to make it a nonprofit.

Since Miller took over as medical director 10 months ago, Mission continues to set prices at about one-third of the rates of for-profits. Any revenue left over after the clinic’s six doctors and 12 staff are paid gets dumped back into an assistance fund.

For animal rescue groups such as nearby Secondhand Hounds, Mission’s new look seems to be specifically set up to serve their needs, says foster owner Melissa Kinnard.

Minnesota’s 350-some active animal rescue groups routinely pull animals out of high-kill shelters and overcrowded pounds for temporary placement in volunteers’ homes. The rescue groups fundraise year-round to pay for the pets, their transportation, and their medical care.

“The challenge with rescuing dogs and getting them placed is to get them properly vetted, and to find a vet that isn’t so horrendously expensive,” Kinnard says. “Mission will give you little breaks sometimes too if they think you’re spending too much. They’re just very conscious of how the costs add up.”

More affordable care doesn’t mean poorer quality care, she adds. When one of Kinnard’s recently adopted dogs was diagnosed with arthritis, Mission doctors enrolled it in a University of Minnesota stem cell study. “They do stuff like that. They go above and beyond.”

Mission anticipates about 8,000 pet visits this year from families scattered throughout the five-state area. It’s building out to support a steadily growing client base with plans to launch an Indiegogo campaign in the next few weeks.

“We’re getting a really great, enthusiastic response,” Miller says. “I think it’s because there are so many with pets these days and the people who do have money can empathize with being in a situation where they’re at the emergency clinic late at night, and if they didn’t have $1,000, what would they do? We’re also very busy and we actually do really well financially just because of our volume.”