"Cats have a habit of disappearing,” says veterinarian Lisa McIntyre as we pull up to a house in Aurora for her first appointment of the day, with a one-eyed, formerly feral feline named Gabriel. “They go boneless and can squeeze into really small spaces. That’s why I tell clients to have them somewhere they can’t hide.”
McIntyre, who runs the mobile veterinary practice the Welcome Waggin’, believes that treating pets in the comfort of their own homes fosters trust—much more than when an animal is shoved in a cage for a traumatic trip to the clinic. (“Curiosity doesn’t kill cats,” she tells me. “Stress does.”) But Gabriel isn’t the trusting type. The second we walk through the door, he scampers under a recliner. Nice try, Gabe. McIntyre is unfazed. Over the years, she’s tracked down patients hiding behind dryers, in bathtubs, even inside a bed’s box spring.
“Come on out, handsome,” says his owner, Lynne Roberts, whose home features more framed photos of critters than of humans: kittens, dogs, even some snapshots of bears. Within a few minutes, Gabriel darts up to the bedroom he shares with Shadow, a cocker spaniel mix, and another cat, James. McIntyre and her technician, Sarah Salazar, lug their medical bags upstairs and find Gabriel panting on the floor.
McIntyre, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, crouches and gently separates the fur on the cat’s front leg in search of a tiny hair-size vein. (She’s wearing Crocs because they’re easy to hose off when nature calls and a patient answers.) Five months ago, she diagnosed Gabriel with hypothyroidism and started him on meds. Now she needs a blood sample to check his hormone levels.
Once the prodding is over, Roberts swaddles him in a blanket. “He requires special handling,” she says. No kidding: The first time she tried to lure Gabriel into a carrier, he bit into her as if she were made out of Fancy Feast. “If it wasn’t for these two,” she says of McIntyre and Salazar, “I would not have been able to keep him.”
Although I secretly hoped the Welcome Waggin’ would resemble the sheepdog on wheels from Dumb and Dumber, it’s actually a soccer-mom gray minivan. But there are some cool features: a centrifuge, for spinning vials of pet blood, plugged into the car’s dashboard and, in back, a stash of pharmaceuticals that would make Walter White drool like a Saint Bernard. McIntyre, who has three sons, looks the Everymom part, too. But to the roughly 500 pet owners she serves in the suburbs, she’s like a superhero in scrubs, skipping among subdivisions to diagnose and treat everything from allergies to heartworm to kidney disease.
When McIntyre launched the Welcome Waggin’ nine years ago, she wanted to provide the same services as freestanding clinics. She briefly leased space to perform surgeries. “But I learned pretty quickly you can’t do everything and do it well,” she says. So she built what she calls a “fear-free practice” that concentrates on basic internal medicine, dermatology, and preventive care, adding a $25 to $75 travel fee to come to patients’ homes. When pets need specialized treatments, her three-person team takes them to an animal hospital.
Her patients are almost exclusively dogs and cats, but on occasion the Welcome Waggin’ caters to other creatures. Like the time the team bandaged a bitten bunny at a Plainfield petting zoo that came this close to becoming dinner for an escaped hawk. Oh, and when McIntyre’s other vet on staff, Lauri Safford, rushed to a farm in Plano to perform an emergency C-section on a goat. (She was paid in eggs.)
McIntyre has attracted a specific clientele: elderly folks who can no longer drive and owners who crave the friendly vibes of a small practice. “It’s more individualized care than you are going to get in most clinics—especially big corporate clinics,” she says after we stop by Downers Grove to check on a seizure-prone Westie mix named Coconut. “We know where our clients work and what their schedule is like; we know their [pets’] quirks and what parks they go to.”
These personal details make all the difference when the inevitable comes. Pet or human, it sucks getting old. But McIntyre, who specializes in treating geriatric animals, tries to make the end suck less by performing in-home euthanasia and serving as an intermediary with the cemetery or crematorium. During my visit, I spotted a pristine white box filled with the ashes of a dog named Barry Lawrence in her garage. It was sitting on a dedicated deep freezer/short-term pet morgue.
Glen Ellyn resident Susan Andrews first encountered the Welcome Waggin’ in March when she faced one of those circle-of-life situations with her elderly poodle, Coco. Now she must deal with the sudden gastrointestinal distress of one of her two remaining pooches: sweater-wearing 16-year-old Buddy, who has begun losing control of his bowels.
McIntyre listens patiently as Andrews lists the litany of treatments she’s tried, including energy healing, Chinese herbs, and chiropractic care, stopping just short of a full-time shaman. (“We are a judgment-free zone,” says McIntyre.)
“You have a good-sounding heart for an old guy,” McIntyre tells Buddy as she prepares a needle for a blood sample. In a few days, she’ll report that Buddy’s stool and urine tests were normal—and chalk up the digestive issues to stress from the loss of his pal.
The last patients of the day are a trio of cats who live near downtown Naperville. McIntyre met Kim Reher, the Lululemon-wearing mother of the house, in an exercise class. The pair struck up a friendship and agreed it was a good idea for McIntyre to take a gander at Disney, the Reher family’s nine-month-old Maine coon; Callie, a 15-year-old dark-haired tabby; and Bailey, at 18, the elder Maine coon statesman.
In just under an hour, the Welcome Waggin’ crew administers three sets of rabies shots, checks Bailey’s bloodwork for possible hyperthyroidism, suggests a solution for Callie’s allergies, and diagnoses Disney with a pesky case of ear mites.
When Reher casually mentions that Disney’s poop had been extra smelly lately, Salazar enthusiastically offers to swing by later in the week for a sample. A few days later, the lab results come in: intestinal parasite.
A quick prescription and Disney’s waste is no longer nuclear grade. And just like that, another pet-loving household can breathe a little easier.