Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rochester's emergency animal hospital is closing

Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Service business sign.
Max Schulte
Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Service at 825 White Spruce Blvd., across from the Monroe Community College campus.

At a time when veterinary care is already difficult to access, Rochester-area pet owners have been dealt another blow.

Thrive Pet Health Care, which owns Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services at 825 White Spruce Blvd. in Brighton, one of the area's largest emergency care practices for pets, announced Thursday night that it is closing the facility within the next couple of months.

The hospital had already curtailed its hours twice in the last year and a half. It first eliminated overnight service in January 2022, and earlier this month, it announced that overnight hospital care would not be provided. Starting Friday, the hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Dawn Eischen, Thrive's corporate communications manager, said in a statement that the decision to close the practice was based on an ongoing shortage of emergency veterinarians.

“We recognize that the closure of this hospital is a huge loss to the community and our team members, and the decision to close was one of the most difficult ones we’ve made as a company,” the statement read.

But Tara McGrain, a surgical care assistant at the hospital, blames the corporate owners for neglecting the practice.

"Unless, of course, it was to spend money, and then it took months to get an answer to replace broken equipment or hire new staff,” she said.

Thrive is owned by a private equity firm, TSG Consumer Partners.

Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart said on Friday that she sent a letter to Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Kahn, asking the FTC to investigate whether the company's 2021 acquisition of 15 Rochester-area veterinary practices that were previously owned by Monroe Veterinary Associates stifled competition.

"Typically, private equity tends to squeeze every dime out of the companies that they own and hold them for a short period of time,” Barnhart said. “So they're not making the kinds of investments that we need in staff and care that may have enabled VSES to stay open."

In June, the FTC required the private equity firm JAB Consumer Partners to divest its holdings in veterinary clinics in Texas and California as a condition of its proposed $1.1 billion acquisition of competing clinic operator SAGE Veterinary Partners LLC, saying the acquisition was likely to be to be anticompetitive in three geographic markets for various types of veterinary care in the two states.

McGrain, who along with some of her VSES colleagues voted to unionize in January 2022, called Thrive an “absentee parent” of the hospital, making changes to the practice without understanding how it operates. She said when the company took over, it raised hospital prices, but the employees did not see that reflected in their paychecks.

"They haven't done anything to actually retain the doctors that we have,” she said. “They were basically... 'Here's what we're offering, take it or leave it.' They didn't care. They don't care."

McGrain estimates there were 15 to 20 full-time veterinarians on staff when she began working at VSES in May 2016. Now, she said the hospital has one remaining vet, medical director Dr. Simon Kirk.

According to Thrive, there are currently four ER veterinarians on the hospital schedule, including Kirk, but a minimum of 11 would be required to staff all day and night shifts.

Kirk has not responded to WXXI’s request for comment.

The hospital is expected to close no later than Nov. 27. In the meantime, VSES is urging pet owners to call before bringing their pet in to ensure that there are enough employees on hand to treat them. The phone number is (585) 424-1277.

Josie Park of Geneva on an outing with her stepdaughter, Alexandria, husband Ryan, and the family's greyhounds, Riley and Clark
Josie Park of Geneva on an outing with her stepdaughter, Alexandria, husband Ryan, and the family's greyhounds, Riley and Clark.

Josie Park of Geneva, who has two greyhounds, is exploring her options now that she will no longer be able to drive her dogs to Brighton for emergency or specialized care. One of her dogs was regularly treated by an ophthalmologist at the hospital.

Park last visited VSES in November, when one of her dogs injured his back and shoulder.

“He was basically just screaming and in a lot of pain,” she said. “It was after hours for our regular vet, and we didn’t want to wait until the morning.”

Park said she trusted VSES to care for her dogs because the staff understood the breed.

“If you talk to any greyhound owner, chances are, they’re gonna say, ‘They’re not a dog, they’re a greyhound.’ We know they know greyhounds. Now what do we do?”

She said their best option may be a 45-minute trip to Cornell University Hospital for Animals, which is open 24 hours a day.

Other area pet owners have traveled to Syracuse and Buffalo to seek treatment when VSES was either understaffed or closed.

Eischen said Thrive explored multiple options to keep VSES open, including trying to recruit veterinarians from other local clinics to work on a rotating basis, but the pool of full-time candidates with emergency and surgical care experience is very limited.

Staff shortages are part of an ongoing national crisis in veterinary care.

Barnhart believes there is a role for government to provide incentives, such as loan forgiveness, to open emergency care practices where there are shortages.

She would like to see local, state and federal leaders try to come up with a solution, but she thinks this is most likely to happen on the state level.

"I don't see it coming from the county level unless it fits into an existing program,” Barnhart said.

McGrain and other VSES support staff who were hoping to negotiate a union contract with better pay and working conditions are now preparing to hammer out a severance agreement with Thrive.

"I have no idea yet what I'm going to do,” McGrain said about her career. “But I have to pay the rent and I'm not sure veterinary medicine will be able to do that."

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.