Tuesdays with Shlomo

Vets in pet stores

Dr. Shlomo Freiman

April 23, 2024

Going to the veterinary clinic is not, no matter how wonderful your veterinarian might be, something people typically look forward to. Besides the simple fact that you’re often going because something is troubling your pet, it’s a huge hassle. The car, the carrier, the drive and other concerns all add up to an ordeal. In this edition of Tuesdays with Shlomo, we discuss a different way.

What if the vet came to you, whenever possible? That is, of course, the whole idea behind Felix&Fido, but in this case we’re talking about a very specific place: the pet store. Felix&Fido co-founder Dr. Shlomo Freiman discusses how, by putting satellite clinics in the Seattle area’s favorite neighborhood pet stores—Mud Bay—he’s able to reach many more clients in a much more convenient setting.

Read on to learn about the advantages, adjustments and limitations of doing veterinary care in the back of the dog toy aisle, and how this partnership, which puts just-about-full-service pet care actually inside a pet store, came to be.

So today we’re talking about what is essentially a new style of clinic. What term are you using to describe it?

We’ve been entertaining a lot of different names, but we landed on a neighborhood clinic. That encapsulates nicely what we are trying to do, because it’s not just the concept of a pet store alongside a veterinary clinic. That already exists—Petco has it, Banfield has it. This is more of an ecosystem, the way we see it, where in addition to our main clinic with all its capabilities, we have these neighborhood clinics that are out there in, well, neighborhoods. We really want to be your vet wherever you and your pet are.

In this case, in Mud Bay, right?

Yes. For anyone not from Seattle, Mud Bay is a family and employee-owned pet retailer here in the Pacific Northwest. They are a really high quality store and were one of the pioneers of healthy pet foods and solutions. We really align with them in our philosophy about nutrition and delivery of care. One clinic is already operating at their location in Overlake, and we’ve got two more in the works. Being in Mud Bay is great for us because they are such a part of the community for pet parents. They really see their mission as providing pet parents more than just a place to grab a bag of food or chew toy. Like a good bar or restaurant, they have regulars and they get to know everyone that comes in.

There does seem to be a Mud Bay in every neighborhood in this town. Which makes sense, because Seattle is obsessed with pets, especially dogs. How has it gone so far?

You know how we usually close Tuesdays with Shlomo with a story about a pet? I’m going to switch it up on you and tell you two stories from yesterday when I was working at the neighborhood clinic. They illustrate very nicely what we’re trying to do. The first client was a woman with a corgi, an overweight corgi. This was a new patient for us; we hadn’t seen this dog before. I was just sitting on my laptop doing paperwork, and she approached me and said, “Hey, I’m here looking for solutions to this issue. Do you have any advice?” So I chatted with her a little bit, and we set up a time not too far off for her to come back and get her dog a full physical examination. The interesting part is that her dog already has a vet. However, it’s hard for her to communicate with that vet. She can’t just ask for advice about her dog’s weight, she would need to schedule an appointment and wait a week or even multiple weeks. While we still had to schedule an appointment to do a physical before I could really advise her, I was able to give her a bit of perspective on the spot about how in general her dog’s issue should be approached . As we’ve discussed before, there are lots of ways to keep a dog at a healthy weight and a lot of them don’t require any special diet or medical intervention. So we were able to be a source of reliable information and, just as importantly, immediate information.

And I suppose if you did want to get a slow feeder or a toy that gets your dog to run more, a pet store would be the place to look for that.

It would. But that’s what I mean by being there in the community. You’re putting yourself where pets and pet parents are already going and making yourself available. The other story I have is similar, but it demonstrates even better how important accessible care is. It was toward closing time and I didn’t have any appointments left. This guy came up and said, “Oh, hi, we just moved to the area and don’t have a vet yet. Our old vet is in Kent, and my dog has an ear infection. He’s so uncomfortable, is there any way you can help?” He was looking for something to treat the ear that he could buy over the counter. There wasn’t anything I could really recommend without seeing the dog and figuring out the precise ear problem, but it definitely sounded like the ear needed to be treated. Now, I didn’t have any appointments, so I was able to say, “Hang on, let me talk to my support staff and see if they’re willing to stay a little bit later and squeeze you in.” To make a long story short, we did it, we found that the dog had a yeast infection, and we were able to start treating it immediately and effectively.

That’s very kind of you all!

Well, yes, it is very kind, but it’s also just a core part of our business model to meet pet parents and their pets where they are. By the way, there is actually a mind-blowing component to this story! It turns out this dog is actually a clone.

A what!? Like, he cloned a previous dog of his?

Yes! The guy keeps saying, “Well, the original dog also had a lot of ear problems.” And he kept using the phrase “original dog.” I’m thinking, “Did you have another dog before that you refer to as the ‘original?’” Finally, he saw the confused look on my face and explained that this dog was cloned. He went to Texas A&M, which is the only place that can do it. Super nice dog and a nice client. But yeah, this little poodle-y dog was a clone of an older dog they loved and had before.

Okay, that’s wild. I guess that’s a nice perk of working at the neighborhood clinic though: it’s got to be pretty interesting for you as a veterinarian.

I really like people, so yes it’s great.

Can you do everything you’d do at the main clinic in a neighborhood clinic?

When the neighborhood clinics are fully up and running, we expect they will have about 75 percent of the capability of our main clinic. This means that there are going to be certain procedures that we won’t be able to do, but we will be able to do most things. For that other 25 percent of cases, we can evaluate what the pet needs at the neighborhood clinic and then perform the actual surgery or treatment or whatever it is at our main clinic, which is just 15 minutes away from the Bellevue Mud Bay.

Wow. I assume you won’t be able to do stuff like surgery there, but you can do pretty much everything else?

Not serious surgeries, no, but for something like a small laceration that only requires a couple of stitches and maybe a quick sedative, absolutely. I was concerned at first that people would not be interested in the idea of a smaller clinic that maybe doesn’t offer everything their pet might need, but so far people have been very receptive. I think people understand it because they’re already familiar and comfortable with ZoomCare and urgent care clinics on the human side.

Yeah, like you would never go to the emergency room to get antibiotics for a sinus infection, so why should you take your pet to the equivalent place for every little ailment?

Yes, exactly. And again, when I talk to people, a lot of them just need care now. I had somebody tell me on Tuesday that they couldn’t get into their vet for over ten days. Their dog didn’t have a life-threatening condition, it was a simple skin issue. The dog is not going to die, but it is going to be very uncomfortable until it gets some care. Now, the owner doesn’t hate her vet or anything like that, but she did want a timely solution. By diversifying the way that we can deliver care and being flexible—which we can do by using technology effectively—we can be that solution.

So, you mentioned technology. Something we’ve talked about before is the idea of the nurse-led appointment, or NLA, where a nurse is able to provide care under the remote supervision of a veterinarian. Do you see the neighborhood clinic as a good place for that kind of appointment?

Absolutely. One vet working remotely can provide supervision to quite a few of those neighborhood clinics. That ear infection case I was telling you about is a good example. That’s something that nurses in our ecosystem could definitely handle on their own, just as long as they had a vet handy to remotely sign off on the diagnosis and medication.

You mentioned other places that have some form of partnered care, like Petco and Banfield. What are the differences between the Felix&Fido approach and those already existing clinics?

The difference is, as I said, that our presence in the store is part of an ecosystem. We can be your vet in this store, in your neighborhood, but we can also be your vet in the main hub. We can be your vet in your living room via the telemedicine approach. Really anywhere you might need vet care, we can make it happen. In the other models that I mentioned—let’s take Banfield, for example—it’s a traditional veterinary clinic in a storefront adjacent to the pet store. This made sense for them, as Banfield Corporation and Petsmart were at some point under the same ownership. They just put the veterinary businesses next door. But it’s not part of a diversified ecosystem of how vet care is delivered. The store location was the only location where the Banfield clinics existed for the most part and there was no concept of an ecosystem. As far as Petco, they offer very limited care. They mostly do vaccines. It’s a little bit driven, in my opinion, by financial reasons. Like they are just trying to tap into the foot traffic in the store by providing minimal care, but have no real capability to deal with anything slightly more complex. Essentially it is like a bookstore selling only bestselling books—there’s a lot missing.

What are some of the advantages of being physically on the sales floor? Is it just having all the products around? Having people walking by? Or is there more to it?

That’s all part of it, but it’s also about something of a symbiosis with the store. Because not every treatment option needs to be a prescription, and not every situation requires a veterinarian, we refer people to the very knowledgeable team members in Mud Bay whenever it’s appropriate and possible. One of the reasons we created the partnership with Mud Bay specifically is because they invest a lot in their team members. They spend a large amount of time and effort educating their staff so they can educate their clients.

So they serve as a force multiplier to your staff, in a way?

Oh, for sure. I spend a lot of time talking to clients about their new puppies and new kittens, for example, especially about appropriate diets. But when it comes to nutrition I talk in general terms, not necessarily about a specific brand. Say I’m in the neighborhood clinic. Now I can do a handoff when we finish our appointment and say, “Okay, why don’t you talk to Susie here? She can walk you through the specific brands and products that can help your pet based off of our conversation.” The Mud Bay staff are unusual in their approach to providing a truly excellent client experience. That’s our focus at Felix&Fido as well, so it’s a perfect partnership. It helps us do what we set out to do, which is deliver the best veterinary care possible, while also being more available and accessible to clients.

That’s got to be very nice for the pet parent, being able to walk out of the appointment and find the right food or the right dental toy and know it’s right because there’s an expert on hand.

Oh yeah. This is especially important when it comes to retail, you can go online and run that race to the bottom and get the cheapest thing with the fastest shipping. But where do you get good advice? Okay, another story. Everybody who knows me knows that I am a big mountain biker and I love to make everything a mountain biking analogy. But this one really fits: every part you want you can get online these days, and it’s a little faster than going to your local store. But there is a bike store in Issaquah that I go to for everything. I mean, my bike is not a live animal, obviously, but it’s something that’s hugely important to me and that I depend on to be tuned right, to be safe, to be ready to ride. I’m willing to make time to buy something from the bike store because it’s about more than whatever part I’m getting. I’m also getting all their expertise when I go. That’s a lot of why we love being in-store with Mud Bay.

It’s interesting to hear you kind of articulate this argument for in-person shopping because sometimes I do think of Felix&Fido along the lines of, “Oh, it’s disrupting the veterinary industry. It’s going to shift everything to telemedicine and you’ll never talk to a vet again and a bunch of people will go out of business or lose their jobs or whatever.” Well, maybe not lose their jobs, given that there’s already a shortage of veterinary staff, but you get the gist. But I think this gives me a much better understanding of your vision. It isn’t to make everybody have their appointments on an iPad, it’s to just make it more accessible to people. Have smaller clinics, be in the community, be more reachable in general. Is that an accurate assessment?

Absolutely. Because I think when people hear how passionate I am about telemedicine they may misunderstand me and think that I’m against brick and mortar clinics and that I want to move everything online. In reality, I’m looking at the huge and growing need for veterinary care and I’m trying to meet that need. A metaphor I use is that it’s like a pipe. If everything is coming through one pipe, it’s inefficient. That’s how we’ve arrived at stuff like, “Hey, sorry it’ll be 14 days until I can see your pet.” But if we can divert some of that need for care when it’s appropriate, medically and otherwise, to other pipes—to telehealth, to NLAs—then I can do the in-person, personal care when it’s needed the most. I only have X number of minutes in a day and X number of veterinarians and they’re an increasingly rare commodity. I want to make sure I’m using them for the more complex, important cases they’re best at. The solution I came up with—my big, holistic vision of pet care—is to create an ecosystem that, once the pet parent and pet step into it, allows me to help in a variety of ways. But it’s always going to be about that fundamental triangle of care between the vet, the pet parent, and the pet. At the end of the day, that’s why I became a vet. I feel great when I can help a pet and the pet parents and make everyone happy and healthy. I don’t know, it just makes me feel good. Like I’ve fulfilled my mission in life.

Well, it sounds like the neighborhood clinics are the perfect thing for you, now that you’re semi-retired! You can just pop in to the nearest Mud Bay and hop behind the desk when you’re in need of some of that fulfillment.

Yeah, I like it. The neighborhood clinics are just getting started but I’m really excited to expand on the idea and have these physical spaces. It does remind me why I started my whole professional journey in the first place.

Well, I think that’s a perfect note to end on. You never know which Mud Bay you might find Shlomo at.


You could have a real life Tuesdays with Shlomo talk. Just go to Mud Bay!

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