BY Phyllis Day
PORT RICHEY — She was only a few months old when Annie's rescuers found her alone in the woods off the bike trail in a west Pasco park.
She was starving and sick, with red bumps and scabs all over her body. If they hadn't found her when they did, Annie could have died. After bringing Annie to their veterinary hospital for treatment, they discovered she was suffering from a common skin disease that could have been treated easily had she seen a veterinarian for routine puppy care.
Instead, they believe Annie's owner abandoned her because they felt they couldn't afford the treatment.
It was a lucky day, not only for Annie, but for her rescuers as well — veterinarian Douglas Spiker and his wife, Christine Battista, who were bicycling in Starkey Wilderness Preserve when they happened upon the sick pup.
"It occurred to us that for some pet-owning families, there may be a crisis, a lack of high quality, affordable preventative care," Spiker said.
That realization set in motion a plan to open a clinic that would provide an affordable option for those who typically cannot pay the cost of veterinary care.
After several years of planning, Spiker and Battista founded Essentials PetCare LLC, which opened in September at the Walmart Supercenter on U.S. 19 in Port Richey.
The clinic is the first of its kind — one that offers basic health care for dogs and cats that is affordable and convenient. Open daily and into the evenings on weekdays, it does not require appointments.
Spiker and Battista began working on opening the clinic at the end of 2012. It took a while to formulate a business plan and to get the backing from corporate Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
"Pitching it to Walmart was an enormous undertaking in itself," Spiker said.
Spiker continues to run a veterinary hospital that he co-owns in Pinellas County, but from the onset, he and Battista wanted to open the new clinic in Port Richey where they have strong ties. They both grew up in Port Richey and met in kindergarten. They grew up together and remained close even when he went to Gulf High School and she to River Ridge High School. They both graduated in 1997.
"This is our hometown," Battista said. "We know this area, and we know how hard it was hit economically during the housing downturn. … Our goal is to provide an affordable option so all families (in west Pasco) can have access to basic veterinary care."
The clinic is at the west end of the Walmart building, with an exterior entrance on the side. It occupies a nearly 2,100-square-foot area that once housed a Blimpie sandwich shop. There are several exam rooms, a meeting room, and a holding room where pet owners can leave their pets for up to 30 minutes while they shop. The clinic staff includes four veterinarians who work on a rotating schedule, along with five other staff members.
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When pet owners walk into the clinic, prices for all services can be seen at the front counter, and are also available on the website. Prices are all-inclusive, with no added-on fees, and include the doctor's exam.
"We want to be transparent," Battista said. "We want pet owners to understand up front what the cost is so there is no sticker shock."
Essentials PetCare is not a replacement to veterinarians and animal hospitals. It offers vaccinations and basic illness care only. There are no x-ray, surgical or lab equipment, and folks who are in need of emergency care for their pets are immediately referred to an animal hospital or full-service veterinary office. There is no in-house pharmacy. Instead, prescriptions are provided, to be filled at local pharmacies. In fact, the Walmart pharmacy there keeps a stock of many canine and feline medications.
"We really see ourselves as a supplement to veterinary practices," Spiker said. "We offer a new model for new clientele. We're really proud to add a new type of service for yet another way for pets to receive care."
The majority of the clientele are, in fact, those with pets that haven't been to a vet in years — or ever.
"We're reaching out to those with the most dire need," Spiker said. "It feels great."
Although the clinic is new, expansion is already part of the plan. Battista and Spiker hope to have the Port Richey clinic serve as a model for future clinics in the Tampa Bay area, with the possibility of franchising.
"We actually had a number of franchise requests before we even opened," Spiker said. "Others see what we see, a supplement to the practice they already have."