When I started Ruff Start Rescue in 2010, I had a lot of big ideas that, at the time, seemed nearly impossible; like a vivid, feels-like-real-life dream, I knew they were achievable, but only if I could recruit a team that would work hard enough to make it all happen. One of those dreams? Hiring Ruff Start’s own veterinarian, providing specialized internal care to the animals the rescue had saved.

Since the beginning, we’ve solely relied on our partner veterinary clinics to provide the care that our foster animals need, like surgeries, health assessments, and annual vaccinations. But as the number of animals in our care grew, we found ourselves stuck: first, we were bottle-necked by our inability to get them seen by our veterinary partners due to cramped schedules, and second, our veterinary expenses were skyrocketing, quickly turning into the rescue’s largest annual expense – by far.

So, we put our thinking caps on and looked at our long-term goals. We knew our new facility was capable of becoming a space large enough for hands-on veterinary care; we purposely set it up with the intent of ‘eventually’ using it for that exact purpose. After much thought, consideration, and research, It seemed that ‘eventually’ had arrived.

Slowly, we began to build the “surgical suite” out into its namesake. We brought in multiple kennel banks to house animals when they stayed onsite for their appointments. We bought new medical equipment, like surgical packs and autoclave, and created procedures to document the care we wanted to give onsite appropriately. We enhanced our storage capacities and began filling shelves full of necessary supplies. And then, it was time! We conducted our first surgeries in March 2018, bringing a long-awaited dream of mine (and many of our supporters!) to fruition.

However, as time passed, we realized surgeries weren’t necessarily the only bottleneck we were experiencing. While sterilization was still an important part of the veterinary care we provided Ruff Start animals, we found that nearly 70% of our veterinary expenses were a result of routine care like clinic visits, vaccinations, and examinations – not to mention other tough medical cases kept popping up throughout the rescue, too. Leg amputations, heartworm treatments, eye removals, hernia repairs… we wanted to say yes to animals that needed us, but knew from a fiscal perspective working with our partner clinics on these matters time and time again was hard to justify. I don’t mean to speak ill of our partners, either; they all do such good and necessary work that truly helps further the lives of animals throughout the state of Minnesota. It’s just a hard fact that caring for hundreds of animals each month, even just basic routine care, is expensive. And as our numbers continued to grow, costs were adding up extensively. The only solution? We needed to do almost all of it ourselves.

First, we hired Dr. Jeremy Riddle (pictured here with his wife, Cindy), a long-time friend of the rescue and fellow Princeton, MN business owner, to serve as our Medical Director. His job fine-tuned itself over time, but he serves as an advisor to our Senior Medical Manager, Erica Jusczak (pictured with her pup), for tough medical cases that require more than your standard veterinary care. 

Together, they work out plans of action to treat our difficult and long-term cases, including but not limited to treating heartworm positive dogs onsite at our facility multiple days each week. Dr. Riddle’s personal practice, Northwoods Animal Hospital, continues to serve as a great partner clinic to the rescue just as it has for many years, so he was well-known to us and many of our fosters, making his transition to a staff member a very easy one.

Next, we hired Dr. Hillary McCulloh (pictured left), a rescue advocate whose heart truly lies in shelter veterinary medicine. Dr. McCulloh has worked with other rescues and shelters in the past, specializing in high volume spaying and neutering, as well as serving on staff on a few local vet clinics; her knowledge and expertise is unparalleled. She increased the number of pets we could help in a timely manner exponentially – on an average surgery day, she was sterilizing up to 35 animals PER DAY! But our needs continued to grow and expanded into needing more intensive surgical care, which was luckily another one of Dr. McCulloh’s strong suits. As a result, we decided to restructure our surgery days to include both spaying and neutering AND other elective and life-saving care, including:

  • Dental cleanings and extractions
  • Hernia repairs
  • Lump removals
  • Eye removals
  • Quill removals
  • Dewclaw removals (only if medically necessary)
  • Amputations
  • Vulvoplasty
  • Exploratories

With the help of our contracted surgery technicians, Mindy Rinkel (VT, pictured in green) and Alexia Heimbach (CVT, pictured in black), Dr. McCulloh now performs surgeries three days a week at our office: two days exclusively committed to spaying and neutering, and one for specialized surgical needs.

We’ve also grown our hands-on animal care capabilities by hiring another in-house veterinary technician, Katie Corns (pictured), enhancing the services we can provide onsite at the Princeton facility outside of our scheduled surgery days. We offer the following services to our foster animals by appointment, sometimes even same-day – how’s that for turnaround time?

  • Heartworm & feline leukemia testing
  • Vaccinations
  • Deworming & flea/tick treatment
  • Ear cleaning
  • Nail trimming
  • Routine blood work
  • Anal gland expression
  • Microchipping
  • Fecal examinations
  • Skin checks
  • Symptomatic care for sickness, like upper respiratory and urinary tract infections, kennel cough, and parvo

While at this time we can only provide veterinary care for Ruff Start animals and NOT the general public, we do hope to eventually expand out our veterinary services to provide even more TNR (trap-neuter-return) for community cats as well as low-cost spay/neuter surgeries for our local communities. Both of these things will help further our mission, but the logistics and funding behind them can be tricky, and we need time to more fully establish our own veterinary capabilities before extending out into the world.

Being able to build out our veterinary care program like this has been an absolutely amazing experience that is now a reality thanks to our incredible donors. Many of you have watched, helped, and supported our progress to make all of this possible – especially over the past three years, when we first decided to really go for the expansion of our veterinary program. Because of your steadfast contributions, I felt it was important to give everyone the inside scoop on how our center is operating and introduce you to the fantastic team that has made such an incredible difference in the lives of Ruff Start’s animals. While it’s going well now, I know we’re just getting started, and I truly cannot wait to see what we do next!