The financial life of a mobile vet in Abu Dhabi

Veterinarian who runs a mobile clinic tells how she arrived in Abu Dhabi.

Dr Sandra Madden has set up a mobile veterinary clinic and hopes to recoup her initial investment within a year. Delores Johnson / The National
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From a young age, I was taught the importance of being able to take care of myself financially. But I don't think my sense of self-worth comes from the amount of money I make. I have spent 16 years doing veterinary medicine. I arrived in Abu Dhabi from Canada in 2007 and in October this year, I opened a mobile veterinary clinic.

The most heartbreaking part of a vet's job is being faced with euthanising a patient they know they could heal because of the financial cost. Finances in veterinary medicine are very difficult. We want to help our patients. So to be faced with making a decision based on whether owners will pay for their animal's treatment is not easy.

As an employee in a clinic I had no choice, but having my own business now I have more leeway.

I visit patients in their homes. It's more convenient for the owner and less stressful for the patient.

But I still find at times that I care more about my patient than the owner does. Sometimes if the cost is an issue, I can get that person to sign the animal over to me and I can take responsibility, treat the animal and try to find a new owner.

I have adopted two dogs since moving to Abu Dhabi and look after foster dogs and cats on a regular basis. Luckily, my husband is an animal lover.

As a young girl, I dreamt of being a vet, but after high school I was encouraged to do something where I could educate myself quickly and get a solid job with benefits.

I studied nursing for about 18 months, but soon realised I was too dreamy and too much of an idealist to be a nurse, so I began a biology degree at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

As I worked through the course, I returned to my original dream. The letter accepting me to study veterinary medicine at the University of Saskatchewan was one of the proudest moments of my life.

The course took four years on top of the four years I had already spent getting a biology degree.

After completing the course, I worked in a small general practice with dental specialists in Vancouver. I learnt what I could, but I wasn't paid a lot and felt I was being used a bit, taking all the late- night and emergency calls.

It wasn't easy but it was valuable experience. After a year I packed up my dog and worked my way east across Canada. There are many, many vets in small towns in need of a holiday and a lot of locum work.

As a locum, you can tell people when you would like to work and what you would like to get paid.

This independence gave me a better sense of value in myself.

I reached Ontario and then moved back to the east coast, where I took a job in a small animal clinic serving a very low-income community, near Sydney, Nova Scotia. This was a very different experience working with people with financial limitations.

There is a real lesson to find the balance between what you have to charge and what people can afford to pay.

I met my husband when I was at university and we got together when I returned to Vancouver after Nova Scotia.

In January 2007, he was offered a job with the Urban Planning Council in Abu Dhabi. Soon after we arrived, I started doing some work at a local vet clinic. It was very busy and my enthusiasm for veterinary medicine started to fade.

When you work for others, you run by their rules and there's always a full waiting room. I left last January and almost straight away started planning my own mobile business. I found so many friends and family members able and wanting to help.

With this assistance, I was able to do my own website and marketing. I could probably have kept set-up costs down to Dh50,000, but I wanted to offer a quality service and my own laboratory, so I spent probably double that. All the equipment is very portable and I can take it with me whenever we leave the country.

Getting a business licence was probably the hardest part because expats are not permitted to run a business from home. I was told I could set up an operation as an offshoot of another vet clinic, so I linked up with one in Dubai.

It acts as my supplier with a slight premium and I get a legitimate licence to run my business. There was also an unbelievable amount of paperwork. I had to supply copies and translations of all my university and school degrees and grades. I almost came to a dead end when I couldn't find my official Grade 10 results.

The mobile clinic - called Dr Sandra - has been very well received (

I advertise on Google AdWorks and on the website. And I have also put up flyers around the city. I always find it hard to charge fees. It would be nice to do the work for free, but I can't do that. However, with low overheads I can keep my fees comparable to a conventional clinic.

I think within a year, I should have recouped my start-up costs and will have an income I am satisfied with.

At this stage, it's not about money, but doing something that satisfies me. Having said that, there is comfort in being financially independent and in control.

* As told to Jane Williams