A Day in the Life of a Mobile Equine Vet
Your veterinarian will help create a vaccination plan to keep your horse's immune system strong. What's right for your horse depends on his age, health history, and exposure to other animals, as well as your location.
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse
Whether it's a routine call or an emergency situation, we've all waited for the veterinarian to come tend to our horses. He or she arrives, makes a diagnosis or performs an exam, and then hops back into the truck and speeds off to the next farm call. You only see your veterinarian for a brief time period, but what goes on before and after that visit--what makes up a mobile veterinarian's typical day? Sarah Link, DVM, of Link Veterinary Associates, in Union Bridge, Md., allowed me to ride along with her for a taste of her regular workday.
Meet Your Vet
Link is a petite lady. If you saw her on the street you might not think she was a large animal mobile veterinarian. She doesn't look big enough or strong enough to handle horses, cattle, and sheep day after day and year after year. But after 19 years she still spends long hours in the field--literally. She has an associate, which makes life a little easier. They trade off being on call nights, weekends, and holidays. At this point in her career Link admits she could not go back to running a solo operation. She recalls being on the road as a solo practitioner from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. many days, and that simply wasn't a schedule she could physically, mentally, or emotionally maintain. Even with an associate's help she still spends long days on the road, but she is committed to her clients and their animals.
Link received her veterinary degree from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. She always knew she wanted to concentrate on caring for large animals even though it is a physically demanding profession. Her initial job out of veterinary school was working with a large animal mobile practice north of Baltimore. After eight years there, in July 2000 she went out on her own to serve Frederick County and the surrounding areas.
The makeup of her animal clientele is about 50% equine, 25% alpaca, and 25% other livestock. She credits this diversity with helping her business stay strong through the current economic downturn, as more horse-owning clients in her area cut back on preventive care. The horses she tends to are primarily backyard pleasure animals, but she sees a smattering of everything else from rodeo horses to Standardbred racehorses, hunters, jumpers, and dressage mounts.
A "Typical" Day
Every day is different for a mobile veterinarian, and while the schedule book might be filled with appointments, that timetable "can fall apart quickly," Link says. Emergency calls come in at any hour, although with more people today owning "hobby farms," many of those calls come after 5 p.m. when the owner gets home from his/her full-time job. Most of Link's urgent calls are for lacerations that require sutures and colic cases.
Normally Link stocks her truck before heading out around 7:30 a.m., but on this particular day she hit the road a bit later. Her first stop was to check on a foal with a slightly inflamed umbilical cord stump. The owner was concerned it was infected, but after examination Link determined the foal was healthy, his umbilicus did not require treatment, and the swelling would resolve on its own--which it later did. The owner was particularly concerned about the foal's health because his dam had developed a series of post-partum problems. First she had no milk, then she got mastitis (inflammation of the mammary glands), and then she had uterine discharge. Link verified that the mare was also doing fine.
Next on the agenda was a visit to a large alpaca farm about 45 minutes away. Four animals were leaving for shows that require current health certificates for each alpaca--just as with horses and horse shows--and their identities confirmed via microchip. As she sat filling out the required forms, Link noted that without an assistant or accompanying technician, she has a lot of paperwork to complete. Also on the agenda was performing an exam on a female alpaca to determine if she had a uterine or urinary infection. The verdict was that it was a urinary infection, treatable with antibiotics.
Upon every return to her truck, Link had been checking her voice messages for any emergency calls. This time there were two new messages, but nothing urgent. The drive time between appointments allows her to make other calls (using a hands-free device, of course), which enables her to better keep up with her day.
A short 15-minute ride landed us at a small farm with one resident Quarter Horse gelding named Spud. He required routine vaccinations and sedation for teeth floating and sheath cleaning. Link remarked that she's doing more and more dental work in her practice. She has a personal interest in equine dental work and has been taking continuing education classes to improve her skills. As a result she promotes her dental services and works to educate her clients on the importance of routine dental work. Spud was a model pupil, and everything went like clockwork. In about 45 minutes Link was off to the next farm.
By this time it was about 11:30 a.m., and a 30-minute ride took us to a large Quarter Horse breeding farm. Again, Link took advantage of the time to check her messages. Still no emergency calls.
Around noon we pulled into an expansive farm full of mostly buckskin Quarter Horses. Link palpated and performed ultrasounds on six mares, and all were declared in foal. Thirteen horses, ranging from 2-year-olds to adults needed blood drawn for Coggins tests because the owners planned on either selling or showing these animals in the coming year. All of them were quite well-behaved (much appreciated by mobile vets), and the procedures proceeded smoothly. Within an hour everything was done and Link headed back out on the road. A lunch break was not on the itinerary, as Link typically packs food with her to eat on the go or graze on throughout the day.
Just after 1:00 p.m. Link admitted it was unusual not to have an emergency or sick call by now. On average, Link and her associate deal with three to eight unscheduled appointments throughout the day (usually in the morning) and 13 to 14 after-hour emergencies a month. This past March was particularly heavy, for example, with 23 after-hour emergency calls in only 2 ½ weeks.
Link does refer particularly severe lameness issues, orthopedic injuries, colics requiring surgery, or horses that need round-the-clock fluid therapy to either Virginia Tech's Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center or the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center--both of which are within two hours away.
Link's next stop was to perform yearly exams, administer routine vaccinations, and draw blood for Coggins on six horses. The majority of her horse visits are for such annual or biannual maintenance and preventive care, which she always takes the time to educate her clients about.
"One of the big things this year has been emphasizing strategic deworming and trying to get owners to do more fecal exams to see if their horses even need to be dewormed," Link explains. By pinpointing high parasite/egg shedders and treating them accordingly, owners might be able to help curb problems with drug-resistant parasites.
From there it was off to check in on a 9-month-old Miniature Horse due for castration. When Link last saw him, his testicles had not descended completely. But on this visit they had, so it was time to geld him. Link performed this procedure out in the field. She picked a relatively clean, grassy area and gave the colt a short-acting anesthetic, which put him to sleep completely. He lay down easily, and a few cuts and snips later the deed was done without incident (video on castrating male horses). Soon, the newly turned gelding awoke and got back on his feet groggily. Link left explicit instructions on aftercare, telling the owner to watch for excessive bleeding for the first 12-24 hours after castration, which would prompt a return farm visit. She also told the owner the horse might have soreness and swelling for the first two to four days, the latter of which can be reduced/prevented by hand-walking for 30 minutes a few times a day for a week. And lastly, she advised the owner to watch for signs of infection such as decreased appetite, lethargy, and a fever greater than 101°F. Unless a problem surfaces, Link typically does not administer antibiotics or anti-inflammatories and does not revisit a gelding, though she does follow up with a phone call a week later.
Link returned to her truck around 4:30 p.m. to find she had received an emergency call about a 27-year-old gelding with an esophageal obstruction (choke; see page 54 for a related illustration). According to the owner, the horse was very lethargic, had nasal discharge, and was making gulping noises; Link believed he'd been blocked all day.
Upon arriving at the farm, she immediately tried to clear the obstruction via warm water lavage by passing a nasogastric tube into his esophagus. After an hour and a half (the process typically takes 45 minutes) of repeated lavage, the water finally flowed freely through the tube, ¬indicating she had cleared the obstruction. Her advice to the owner going foward was to add water to his pelleted senior feed to make it a gruel. His inability to chew properly due to missing teeth and compromised dental occlusion likely led to the obstruction.
The Day's End
One of the aspects Link says she enjoys about being a mobile vet is seeing the beautiful countryside. But after traveling 150 to 200 miles a day, Link tries to return home to her and her husband's 120-acre cattle farm by 6 p.m. Of course, the day doesn't end then--only the traveling part.
There on the farm she's converted an old dairy milk house into an office and lab for running blood work and reading fecal exams. "There's always plenty to do at the office," she said. Paperwork, running blood work, and making phone calls are just the start. Although she has two part-time office employees, she admits it's a lot to keep up with.
Still, when I asked her if she planned on continuing mobile practice the way she has, without hesitation she says she wouldn't change a thing. She noted that it's been a quick 19 years, and for as long as she can she plans to continue traveling the rural Maryland countryside.
About the Author
Stephanie J. Ruff is the publisher and editor of Arabian Finish Line and managing editor of Arabian Horse Life. She has written for a wide variety of horse publications and is the author of the illustrated children's books Goats With Coats and Antics in the Attic. A lifelong horsewoman, Ruff lives in Florida and enjoys competing in dressage with her Arabian/Dutch Warmblood mare.
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