By Gerhard Schneibel

Jay Empel’s life is centered on taking care of animals. So is that of his family.

Empel started Vernon Woods Animal Hospital in Sandy Springs in 1973 with one receptionist and one kennel assistant. It has grown into an operation with a staff of more than 40 people, including eight veterinarians.

Empel’s son, Andrew, also a veterinarian, works with his father and has branched out to open North Springs Animal Hospital. One sister, Ivy, is a veterinarian in Houston; the other, Ashley, opted out of the veterinary lifestyle and leases apartments.

When the kids were growing up, the family always had a golden retriever.

“You can do anything with them. You can play with them. Little kids can mess with them,” Andrew said. “They’re just great, family-oriented dogs.”

Having pets is a major part of the family dynamic, Jay said. “Families that have dogs or pets, to me it’s a more loving situation. If you get mad at the kid, the kid’s going to go to the dog and hold the dog, and then it’s ‘You’re my best friend now.’ I think it helps the kids a lot.”

Growing up in Montgomery, Ala., he knew he wanted to be a veterinarian before he “could even say the word.”

When he 5, he was playing with his dog in his front yard when a speeding teenager drove around the corner and hit the dog. “The first thing my mother did was take me and the dog to the veterinarian. And, unfortunately, the dog died. But at that point I knew I wanted to become a veterinarian.”

Andrew’s path to veterinary medicine was different, although he knew early on he wanted to practice medicine, he said. Growing up, he spent time at Vernon Woods Animal Hospital with his dad.

“I was able to kind of help out with some of the cases, which I thought was pretty cool,” he said. “The clients were always very thankful.”

Graduating from the University of Florida in Gainesville, Andrew applied to human and veterinary medical schools.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a human orthopedist associated with a sports team or veterinary,” he said. “Around the time we had to finish up applications, I decided I would rather build relationships with clients with healthy pets and see them a couple times a year. Here, we can build relationships and see people several times a year, and so I think that’s kind of what drew me to the veterinary side.”

He got his veterinary degree from the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, his father’s alma mater.

Being in a family business has helped the Empels and the doctors with them practice an individualized kind of veterinary medicine not readily available in corporate clinics, they said.

“You always have about 5 percent of your clients who say, ‘Doc, when I grew up, all we did was give rabies shots. That’s all I want.’ And you have to abide by what they ask,” Jay said. “Then you hear some people say, ‘I’ll do more for my dog than I will for myself.’ And I think in some cases that it’s true. We’re here to provide information, and hopefully most of the clients participate and do the right thing. And most of them do.”

If the doctors at Vernon Woods and North Springs “practice good medicine,” Andrew said, they’re free to do so “how they think is the best way.”

“I think family ownership probably would keep us from selling to a corporate entity,” he said, adding that his dad would have to sell at some point if he weren’t in the business. “You’d like not to sell to that corporate entity because they take it out of the doctors.”

Jay attributed a bit of his family’s success to luck and a lot to earning a good buzz. “If you can please 95 percent of the people, and they like what you do, and they see you’re sincere in what you do, I think that creates positive conversation.”