Front and Center: Veterinarian Brian Hunter knows value of customers’ pets
Early in Brian Hunter’s career, a fellow veterinarian encouraged him to grow a beard.
“You’ll look older,” the friend reasoned, “and people will trust you.”
Hunter shaved the beard a few years ago, “but my kids didn’t know who I was, so I grew it back.”
During the past three and a half decades, Hunter has distinguished himself, hosting a TV call-in show while earning professional accolades and winning “favorite vet” popularity contests.
It’s hard to say how much credit the whiskers deserve for his success, but one thing is certain, Hunter said: “I look older now, whether I have a beard or not.”
So recently he returned to the clean-shaven look of his youth, and so far his clinic at 933 N. Washington St. hasn’t suffered, “although some regular clients don’t recognize me, and I feel breezes I never knew existed.”
On this, the eve of the 138th Westminster Dog Show, Hunter shares his views on puppy mills, pit-bull ordinances and the future of veterinary medicine.
S-R: When did you start Hunter Veterinary Clinic?
Hunter: Actually, my father started it in 1953. After I graduated from WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, I worked for a year in Santa Cruz (Calif.) as an intern because I didn’t want to come in here and be known as “little” Dr. Hunter. I joined my dad in 1980, and we worked together until 1998, when I bought him out.
S-R: What’s your earliest recollection of the clinic?
Hunter: I grew up here. Back then, my mom was the receptionist, and I had a little cage and put my toys in there with me. When I was a teenager, my dad said, “Don’t look for a job. You’ll be working at the clinic.”
S-R: What were your early responsibilities?
Hunter: Cleaning kennels, sweeping, mopping, feeding animals. In the summer when an assistant or receptionist would go on vacation, I’d fill in.
S-R: Did you ever consider another career?
Hunter: No, this is all I wanted to do. My dad bent over backward to make sure of that.
S-R: What lessons did he teach you?
Hunter: The first was to constantly look for ways to get better. The second was to always treat clients like friends.
S-R: How has the clinic evolved since you joined the practice?
Hunter: Technology has been the biggest change – everything from digital X-rays and social media.
S-R: Anything else?
Hunter: When I was a young veterinarian, people had mutts named Blackie and Coco that they got for five bucks. Now they have designer dogs named Bella and Sophie that are worth a significant amount of money – which is a good thing, because they get better care and better socialization.
S-R: With the increase in two-income households, do pets get enough exercise?
Hunter: Pet obesity is increasingly a problem, and diabetes goes along with that.
S-R: What impact did the recession have on clinic visits?
Hunter: It was major. We rely on discretionary income, so our dental business plummeted because people put off dealing with their pets’ teeth. And the pets we saw were two or three days sicker, on average, because their owners waited to bring them in, hoping the problem will get better by itself.
S-R: Is your business seasonal?
Hunter: Somewhat. This time of year, cats sticks their nose out the door and say, “It’s cold out there. I think I’ll stay inside.” Then a nice spring day comes along, and they say, “I’m going to prove I’m the toughest cat in the neighborhood.” Also, better weather means more dogs out and about spreading disease.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Hunter: The variety, and working with young veterinarians. There’s also a lot of instant gratification – knowing I did something that made a difference. Not many jobs let you help animals and people at the same time.
S-R: What do you like least?
Hunter: Not being allowed to make something better because of economic considerations.
S-R: Are your customers starting to buy pet insurance?
Hunter: Some, but it’s more common in California and back East, where prices for veterinary care are way higher than they are here.
S-R: How hazardous is your job?
Hunter: Not all animals want you working with them, so I’ve been bitten and scratched. I tell people they know when I’ve been on vacation, because I’ve healed.
S-R: Is veterinary medicine a competitive business?
Hunter: Absolutely. We’re competing against Dr. Google and the Humane Society and SpokAnimal. There are a lot of clinics in Spokane.
S-R: What’s your niche?
Hunter: We offer a walk-in clinic on weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Also, we treat species other than dogs and cats. We do birds, fish, rabbits and reptiles.
S-R: What’s your typical schedule?
Hunter: I get here at 8 and see clients or do surgery until 11:30 or noon. I take a midday break for lunch and exercise – I like to play raquetball – then I work until 7 or 7:30.
S-R: What are the most common problems you treat?
Hunter: Ear problems and allergies – both food and environmental. We also see lots of dogs that ate something they shouldn’t, or caught a disease because they hadn’t had their vaccines.
S-R: What advice do you offer people considering dog ownership?
Hunter: First, I ask what they’re looking for – a family dog, a big dog, a small dog. Do they mind grooming? Are they going to be home a reasonable amount of time or gone all day? Lifestyle is very important when choosing a dog.
S-R: Do you have a favorite breed?
Hunter: I love Labrador retrievers – they’re fabulous.
S-R: How many pets do you own?
Hunter: I currently have four cats at home, and three cats and a dog here at the clinic. At one point I had two dogs and six cats at home, which is a lot of pet hair.
S-R: What are your pets’ names?
Hunter: Kylie, Bentley, Sirius Black, Vinny – short for Vanessa van Gogh, who lost part of an ear to frostbite before we got her – Curly, Chip, Storm and Rachel.
S-R: Are puppy mills a recent phenomenon?
Hunter: They’ve always been around, and they’re not a good thing. People used to say that whatever breed won the Westminster Dog Show would be destroyed in seven years, because puppy mills would start breeding those dogs with little concern for quality.
S-R: Some cities have banned pit bulls. Is that good legislation?
Hunter: No, it’s not. Breeds aren’t inherently bad. But within any breed will be a subset of dogs that don’t have good genetics, good socialization. Some don’t get enough interaction with people as puppies.
S-R: Have you been bitten by a variety of breeds?
Hunter: I’ve been snapped at by various breeds. I tend to be faster than they are. Cats are the ones that usually get me.
S-R: Are there any common misconceptions about veterinary clinics?
Hunter: Some people think we’re like human hospitals – that we’re obligated to treat an animal. We provide the best medicine you can afford. Just tell us what your budget is.
S-R: What typical mistakes do pet owners make?
Hunter: With young animals, they either start vaccines too late or end them too early.
S-R: What’s the career outlook for veterinary medicine?
Hunter: It’s challenging. There are a lot of young vets coming into the market, and a number of universities looking at opening programs. Yet nationally the number of pets and pet visits is declining.
S-R: What would it cost to open a veterinary clinic today?
Hunter: You’re looking at $500,000.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Hunter: Volunteer in a clinic to make sure it’s what you want before you devote years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to getting a degree.
S-R: One more thing. Your website notes that you’ve been president of the Inland Empire Veterinary Medical Association for 25 years. How many members are there?
Hunter: About 150.
S-R: And no one else wants to be president?
Hunter: Nope. In fact, they’ve said that when I die, they’ll hold séances and let me keep doing it that way.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at email@example.com.