It's kind of funny, really. Whenever I say something negative about VCA Antech (NASDAQ:WOOF), the howls of protest are about as reliable as the howls from my neighbor's dog when an ambulance goes by. Yet I'll bet you a few boxes of doggie treats that these are some of the same investors who would growl and snarl that "nobody warned them" if one of those negative points were to blow up into a more serious issue.

Leaving those mutts back in the pound where they belong, let's turn to VCA's third-quarter results. Revenue growth was a strong 25% for the quarter, and although margins softened a bit overall, operating income still grew by more than 20%, and earnings per share were almost 24% higher than in the year-ago period. Looking at what really feeds the bulldog, operating and free cash flow are both up nicely over the respective year-ago periods.

Revenue growth in the laboratory business came in better than 11%, as VCA traded off a better than 12% increase in tests with a modest (0.5%) decrease in revenue per test. Both gross and operating margins managed to improve as well.

In the hospital business, revenue climbed 23%, with much of that growth coming from acquisitions. Same-store revenue was up 6.5% as the number of transactions continues to decline, but the revenue value per transaction continues to grow at a faster rate. Margin performance was also sound, with same-store gross margins improving by more than 100 basis points in the quarter.

Although there will always be competition -- like PetSmart (NASDAQ:PETM)/Banfield Hospitals in the hospital biz and IDEXXLabs (NASDAQ:IDXX) in the lab space -- the market as a whole is growing nicely and is highly fragmented. While not every veterinarian will want to sell out to VCA Antech, plenty probably will. And even if the economy softens, I don't think people will stop spending on health care for their pets.

I can't get my cash flow valuation model to churn out the sort of price that would make these shares a great buy, but that doesn't mean I don't like the business. Health care in general is a great place to be, and VCA Antech doesn't have to worry about insurance, managed care, or the blizzards of paperwork that interfere with human health care enterprises. With more people lavishing ever more care on their animals, VCA Antech should be poised to benefit for some time to come.

For other humane financial views:

PetSmart is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation.

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares). He's happily owned by a passel of off-the-wall ferrets and an utterly indifferent boa.