Most of the time when Maine’s island residents need everything from groceries to building supplies and clothes, they either hop on their boats or take the ferry to the mainland. But thanks to two Portland veterinarians, neither they or their pets have to make that trip when they need care.
Dr. John Flood and Dr. Kate Domenico of Island Veterinarian Services in Portland provide island house calls in Casco Bay to provide cats, dogs, and other four-legged creatures great and small routine wellness checks, vaccinations, sick visits, and small procedures.
John started providing these services to residents on Chebeague, Peaks, Diamond and Long islands in 2003, located about 30 minutes from where the 27-foot Rita Joan is docked in South Portland.
“It’s been real busy,” said John of his island vet calls this summer season. “There were more people on the islands.”
He attributes the increase in full-time island residents to the COVID-19 pandemic that saw a number of folks either transform their seasonal summer cottages into year-round residences or build new dwellings.
John and Kate provide island vet services twice a week aboard their boat and on the dock from April to September. They usually have a vet technician on board to assist them. During the winter months, they will take a Casco Bay ferry out to the islands once per month and set up shop either inside a church or a community center to administer service.
Getting out on the water to provide veterinary care to their patients never gets old, Kate said. Sometimes the doctors will pilot the boat themselves with a technician in tow “and it works very well that way.”
“We set up chairs on the dock for the client and have the pets come onboard the boat for care. The clients can see and interact and play a role in the visit,” Kate explained.
While many of their calls are for routine wellness checks, Kate said they also treat more serious issues like ear infections and euthanasia inside of pet owners’ island homes.
If they encounter cases that require more extensive treatment and surgery, John said they have to be performed on the mainland, either at their clinic in Portland or elsewhere.
When asked why he began this island veterinary service, John replied there was a need. He felt that by bringing the service directly to island residents, they and their animals could be spared from having to make the trip to the mainland.
“We were the closest clinic when we started,” John explained. “Folks on the islands would get off the ferry and find their way to our practice on Brackett Street and it just seemed like an easier way to get to them.”
When they rolled out the service, it was received very well, he said. “We felt like the Good Witch on the Wizard of Oz.”
He recalled that began with a 37-foot trawler before going with the Rita Joan, which is a lobster boat.
John also had some experience delivering island veterinary service to island residents in another part of the world before he came to Maine.
After John graduated from Ontario Veterinary College in Canada in 1977, he did post-graduate work in small-animal surgery for a year at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand. There he made trips by boat to provide care to island residents’ animals. During that time, he earned membership in the Australian College of Veterinary Scientists in Small Animal Surgery. John has practiced small-animal medicine in England, Canada, New Zealand, and the US.
Kate’s journey to practicing island veterinary medicine was totally unexpected when she arrived in Maine from her native Chicago.
After she graduated from Ross University and the University of Illinois School of Veterinary Medicine in 2004, Kate focused on soft tissue surgery, hospital management, and emergency medicine. Kate joined John’s team as a partner in 2020. In addition to her full-time work in Emergency and Critical Care at Maine Veterinary Medical Center in Scarborough, she is a Veterinary Medical Officer for the National Veterinary Response Team of the Department of Health and Human Services. This role has deployed her all over the US for disaster mitigation and providing emergency medical care to Secret Service working canines.
Kate is one of the lead instructors for the Working Canine Medical Skills course, organized by the Portland Police Department, and she is on the Board of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association. But her work administering care to her island patients from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. is very special.
“This has been quite a unique opportunity to serve the community,” she said.
John also gets a great deal of personal satisfaction from providing his services in a very traditional Maine way via the water.
“You certainly feel useful going to the islands and providing the service. People really appreciate it and it’s great to get out on the water,” John said.
Kate noted the island service also allows them to meet with pet owners in person. As a result of the pandemic, they are still conducting curbside service at their Portland clinic.
“I really enjoy talking to people face to face,” Kate said. “Making things convenient for these island dwellers is good, as well.”
“The harbor masters are very kind to us and allow us to dock on the islands for free,” Kate said.
While the dogs and cats are not always thrilled to see the vet boat dock, Kate said their owners “are in a great mood when they see us.”
To win over their patients, Kate said the vets and techs make sure they have plenty of goodies onboard.
“We try to give lots of treats and positive reinforcement,” Kate said.
Both doctors would like to expand their island service to more islands.
“That’s our hope, yes,” Kate said. “We would actually like to expand the service to other underserved communities on other islands like Cliff Island, which they have never served before.”
As much as they try to get the word out, Kate observes “there are still a lot of people who do not know that we provide this service.”
She said they use an app called Next Door via social media that helps them connect with some island residents. Word of mouth tends to work better for older island residents who are not as tech savvy, she added.
To learn about Island Veterinary Services in Portland, please visit islandvetservice.com.