Amid a nationwide shortage of veterinarians, animal hospitals and pet owners have at times found themselves in dire straits. Many veterinary practices are critically short-staffed, and pet owners — even in a city as large and pet-friendly as San Francisco — have found that pet care is not always accessible.
In a bid to adapt to the unrelenting vet shortage and boost access to local care, the San Francisco SPCA announced Thursday that it is selling its Pacific Heights animal hospital to a team of local vets and opening a new, low-cost community veterinary clinic in the Excelsior District. The goal, SFSPCA officials said, is to bolster the city’s pet care landscape while further aligning the nonprofit with its mission of serving the neediest pet owners and their companions.
The Pacific Heights animal hospital on Fillmore Street, which sees nearly 16,000 patients annually, is being sold to a group of Bay Area veterinarians who have partnered with Curo Pet Care, a veterinary services company based in San Francisco. With revenue from that sale, SFSPCA will establish a community clinic that will primarily serve the Excelsior, Bayview and Hunters Point neighborhoods — an area of the city that is considered a “vet desert” for its relative lack of care providers, said Jennifer Scarlett, president of SFSPCA.
“It feels like we’re sort of coming home to what is our true calling, and that is thinking about those animals that are not going to get care unless we come up with creative ways to do it, and do it where it’s in the greatest need,” Scarlett told The Chronicle. Selling the Pacific Heights hospital is bittersweet, she said, “but I am absolutely 100% sure it is the right thing to do, for Pac Heights as well as the area that we’re trying to serve.”
The idea is that by selling the Pacific Heights location to a veterinary group, neighborhood residents will not lose the access to pet care that they already have, and that SFSPCA will be able to divert some of its resources to support communities that are currently lacking vet services.
“We didn’t want to leave the Pac Heights neighborhood in a lurch,” Scarlett said. “Our overall mission is to expand access to care, and that’s for everyone.”
Scarlett stressed that the decision to sell the hospital is entirely “mission-driven” and not about saving money. The SFSPCA Mission District campus will continue its current operations.
The need for a community clinic in the Excelsior became apparent a couple of years ago, Scarlett said, when the SFSPCA began taking a closer look at which parts of the city its patients were coming from. A large share of animals that were arriving at the animal hospital or shelter with parvovirus infections, which can be prevented with a vaccine, were coming from San Francisco’s southeastern corner. The SFSPCA set up vaccine clinics in the area and heard from residents that limited transportation and high costs for care were deterrents to seeking out veterinary services.
“San Franciscans love their animals but unfortunately, veterinary care is often available only to those who can pay substantial fees,” Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who represents the Excelsior, said in a statement to The Chronicle. “The SPCA’s investment in the Excelsior will provide essential low-cost veterinary services. I look forward to working with the SPCA and stakeholders to expand low-cost veterinary services across San Francisco.”
The clinic is expected to be open by the end of the summer and will be modeled after a walk-in clinic that SFSPCA has been piloting for two years on its Mission District campus. The clinic will not be a full-service care center, Scarlett said, but it will provide some low-cost basic vet services that the city’s southeastern corner has been largely missing, such as general wellness check-ups, vaccinations, anti-parasitic medications and treatments for skin and ear issues.
“The whole idea is to keep the overhead low so that we can keep the costs low,” Scarlett said. “We know it’s not a complete answer, but we’re marching along this path of trying to figure this out in real time because there is such a shortage and need.”
The new Pacific Heights hospital — to be named San Francisco Animal Medical Center, or SF AMC — will expand on the services that the SFSPCA hospital there already offers. It will open on Monday for general practice and in the coming months will add specialty care such as oncology and cardiology, as well as 24-hour emergency services — something that SFSPCA officials were forced to end last summer because of the vet shortage.
The incoming veterinary group has said it will honor all existing appointments at the Pacific Heights location, and Curo Pet Care is planning to offer jobs to every SFSPCA employee at the hospital, allowing them to stay at the practice.
“San Francisco can count on us to provide them with the same great, quality care that the SF SPCA has always provided, and Pets Unlimited for generations before,” Margo Mehl, one of the incoming veterinarians, said in a statement. “We’re honored that the SFSPCA has chosen us to take over this renowned facility, carry on its legacy of excellence, and build an unrivaled center for veterinary care.”
Andy Picon (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @andpicon