The patients, siblings, make the trip over the bridge from Georgetown to Vienna twice a week, seeking relief for their aching arthritic joints. The aging brother and sister share joint ailments and therapies. There were no suitable medical alternatives for them in Washington so a referral sent them on their way to a specialty clinic in Vienna.
Coco goes first into the hydrotherapy tank, his head and chest above the waterline of the underwater treadmill. His pace is steady and strong, his breathing gentle.
Teapot waits her turn.
That Coco and Teapot Wilkins are dogs will not come as a surprise to a pet family. More and more, the depth of medical care rendered to humans is becoming commonplace for non-human patients, as well.
Vienna is home to four state-of-the-art specialized pet care facilities, whose patients come from across the metropolitan D.C. area and from hundreds of miles away, as well. From ailing reptiles to diseased cats, from dogs pierced by bullets to pets whose conditions are diagnosed by magnetic imaging, these, and other pets, are attended to by specialty veterinary care providers. A congenial, collegial community of pet care specialists works as a team to further the art and science of veterinary care. Located within a mile of each other on Maple Avenue, these medical centers share the spotlight as the Mayo Clinic of the pet-set.
<LST>VETERINARY HOLISTIC AND REHABILITATION CENTER (VET REHAB)
360 Maple Avenue, Suites A&B; 703-938-2563 or 703-938-2572
"Ever since I was in vet school, I found it hard to tell owners there were no other options available for their dying or chronically-afflicted pets," said Dr. Kim Danoff of the Veterinary Holistic and Rehabilitation Center. "I looked for alternative treatments for patients with terminal or chronic illnesses, and that’s what led me to this area of veterinary care."
Veterinarian Danoff, a client relations specialist, and three physical therapy assistants staff the rehab center that Danoff created and owns.
The Veterinary Holistic and Rehabilitation Center, where Coco and Teapot Wilkins are regular patients, offers hydrotherapy and underwater treadmill exercise, pulsed signal therapy, massage and reiki, electrical stimulation, therapeutic ultrasound, heat/cold therapy, and nutritional therapy. The treatments used in human physical therapy services have been modified for animals.
"They are miracle workers here," said pet-parent Rhonda Wilkins. "Coco and Teapot come in for their Adequan shots twice a week to treat their arthritis, and once a week for hydrotherapy. The underwater treadmill is a great form of exercise for them. The dogs walk three miles a day now."
Hydrotherapy alleviates stress on the animal's joints. Water’s resistance helps to improve strength, and unbalanced or weak animals can stand in water without falling. The underwater treadmill, adjusted to the patient’s needs, improves cardiovascular function.
"My goal is to enhance the quality of life for these animals and to satisfy their emotional needs, too," said Danoff. "Paralyzed animals, particularly, have special needs, such as hand feeding, and mobility adjustments. Our staff is very attentive, very caring. It’s time consuming to care for special needs pets. We teach owners how to adjust their lifestyles to live with a disabled pet.
"If things don’t work out the way we want them to, it brings peace of mind to owners to know they have done all they could for their pets."
Things have changed in the veterinary field over the last decade, particularly in the specialty areas, Danoff believes. There has been a change in how people view their pets, she says, admitting her office is skewed because all who walk in her door think of their animals as "family."
Danoff tells stories of patients who have come in dressed in special outfits; the dog who appeared in a St. Patrick’s day "dress;" another dog who showed up for water therapy in an improvised wetsuit; and the "mom" who brought a fan in to keep her dog cool.
"A patient is more likely to heal if you address the physical, mental, and emotional requirements," said Danoff. "We tailor treatment to the patient. It’s gratifying working with disabled pets given a poor prognosis, and be able to beat that prognosis or extend the animal’s life, improving its quality."
Speaking through his interpreter, Danoff, Pet Rehab’s hospitality director, Charles Danoff, details his commitment to the holistic and rehabilitation center.
Charles, reports Danoff, volunteers as hospitality director, therapy dog, and demonstration model. He is a black Lab mutt born with a congenital limb deformity of one forelimb and a developmental deformity on the other. Rather than taking his disability lying down, Charles dedicates his life to making other lives better.
He greets clients and patients at the door, provides moral support to them, and is hospitable with patients of all species. While maintaining his humility, Charles also plays demo dog when Danoff is teaching her clients how to perform various therapies on their pets at home. Charles welcomed Stella, whose physical attributes are similar to Charles, as his new assistant.
Danoff’s regard for animals does not end when she leaves her practice for the day. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Danoff responded quickly to the need for pet rescue and evacuation. She recalled the chaos that comes from having no system in place to help the animals, and in her reception area are caged birds she brought home from the disaster.
Clients at the holistic pet center sense the dedication of the facility’s staff.
"Animals don’t have a voice of their own," said pet-parent Wilkins as she stroked her damp dogs. "We have to take care of their needs. It’s reassuring that there are such people as Dr. Danoff and her staff, people who care."
IAMS PET IMAGING CENTER
328 Maple Avenue East; 703-281-9440
Rocky King began crying in pain and was not able to walk on May 8, and by the next day, the big fluffy dog could barely get up. The staff at Mt. Vernon Animal Hospital picked Rocky up from his home, transporting him to their hospital. He was examined there and then referred to a surgical center. The consulting doctors suspected Rocky had a calcified disc in his lower back; an MRI would confirm — or reject — their suspicion.
"Animals are family," said Shirley King, Rocky’s companion, as she petted Rocky in the waiting room of Vienna’s IAMS Pet Imaging Center. "You just do what you have to do. At eight years old, Rocky still has good years ahead of him."
Dr. Julie Smith, DVM, chief of anesthesia and medical director at the imaging center, brought Rocky into the procedure area, examining him after consulting with the referring veterinarian. Rocky’s MRI procedure was typical: he was anesthesized and his vital signs constantly monitored by high-tech equipment. A neurologist was hooked up to the computer, analyzing MRI data in real-time. If there had been a question, the neurologist would have called in to the imaging center. A board certified radiologist read the scan. As with all patients brought in for imaging, Rocky was respirated and administered drugs personalized to his condition.
In February 2002, the nation’s first public, walk-up magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) center dedicated solely to pets opened in Vienna. Developed by the Iams Company, known for its pet food, the flagship Vienna medical facility is now one of three Iams pet imaging centers nationwide.
"This technology finds things in animals we never knew existed before," said Smith. "I feel like I touch people every day, getting answers for pet guardians to make the decisions they need to make."
Before this diagnostic tool became available, vets frequently resorted to surgery to determine the source of a condition. Now, through imaging, the vet can distinguish a tumor from an infection, and animal surgeries may be performed with MRI assistance.
Most animal imaging centers are in veterinary schools, used as teaching tools; community vets needing imaging typically rely on private human centers or veterinary schools.
Most veterinarians specializing in anesthesia remain in academia, and Smith herself maintained a faculty position at LSU until she was recruited by IAMS to run Vienna’s facility. She says she "jumped at the opportunity to be a part of such an innovative practice.
"It is very rewarding to be back in touch with pet guardians," said Smith. "I love being in Vienna. It’s a small-town atmosphere, and the whole vet community in this town is very collegial."
Smith pointed out her staff’s expertise: the "everything director," Sharon Cornelius; LVT Lynn Abbott, specialty-trained in anesthesia; and Dennis Daniels, MRI technologist.
Daniels, certified to perform human MRIs, was intrigued and challenged by the idea of working with animals. Adjusting for the different anatomical structure of animals, Daniels adapts protocols to each patient.
"It’s enjoyable, a lot of fun. Who doesn’t like animals?" Daniels asked.
"Every pet is special," said Dr. Smith. "We did imaging on search-and-rescue dogs after 9/11. Those dogs are workhorses; the job they do is phenomenal. And, then, there are family dogs. A young man drove up with his mother from North Carolina, bringing his paralyzed dog to us. He told me he sold his two motorcycles to pay for this. ‘I’d do anything for my best friend,’ he said.
"Pets are family members, not something you keep in your backyard."
THE HOPE CENTER FOR ADVANCED VETERINARY MEDICINE
416 Maple Avenue West; 866-PETS-911
Advanced Veterinary Care, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
"What the patient needs, needs to happen," said Kris Boucher, CEO, of the Hope Center for Advanced Veterinary Medicine.
"What needs to be done" is at the epicenter of their pet care mission. The Hope Center maintains a staff of over 100 members, including licensed veterinary technicians, specialists, and support staff in its 24-hour a day operation. Of its shareholders, 66 are veterinarians, all with the common goal of providing state-of-the-art care. Boucher emphasized that there is no feeling of competition among Northern Virginia’s pet care providers and they are, in practice, a very "close-knit" community.
"The Hope Center’s mission," said Boucher, "is to take sick patients and make them better; if that is not possible, then we help the family through a difficult time. I want our clients to know that they are getting the absolutely best and most compassionate veterinary care available."
When "Rocky’s" family observed their Labrador having trouble breathing and holding down fluids, they brought their dog to Hope. What the doctors there discovered through X-rays was that Rocky had been shot with buckshot through his armpit into his heart. The surgeons at Hope saved Rocky’s life, and the community, strangers, responded with financial contributions that paid Rocky’s medical bills in full.
"Rocky’s plight captured the hearts and minds of people," said Boucher. "His cage was posted with ‘get well’ cards from people who had heard about his injury.
"He was able to go home with his family. The sooner we can get a patient back home or to his primary care vet, that’s our goal."
While not all of Hope’s patients are famous, they are all equally important to their families and to the staff who treats them.
Maria Lardner of Potomac Falls took a day off from her job at the World Bank to bring in Kinsey, one of her two Jack Russell Terriers, for laboratory tests. Kinsey’s primary vet did not have the equipment to pinpoint the source of the dog’s high enzyme level but the Hope Center did.
Dr. Heidi Allen described the tests and their associated costs with Lardner, examining the most likely causes first, an approach that Lardner appreciated.
"I am willing to do whatever is needed for this dog to have a good quality of life," said Lardner.
Currently, the Hope Center provides specialists in internal medicine, cardiology, ophthalmology, and surgery, and has been rendering veterinary emergency medicine for more than 30 years. In the fall, the clinic is moving and expanding into larger facilities on Park Street.
To meet with a specialist, a referral from the patient’s primary veterinarian is required; emergency care is 24-hour walk-in for any animal.
STAHL EXOTIC ANIMAL VETERINARY SERVICES (SEAVS)
111-A Center Street South; 703-281-3750
The patient, whose body was not much larger than the size of a man’s hand, had tubes and wires connected to her as she lay in wait for surgery. A ventilator assisted her breathing and a Doppler monitored her heart rate, while a special heating unit blew warm air over her still body. A capnography machine, used to determine depth of anesthesia, monitored her CO2 output.
A surgeon removed a tumor and the patient recovered.
The patient was a family ferret.
Dr. Scott Stahl is one of but a 100 board-certified avian medicine specialists and an internationally renowned practitioner and lecturer on reptilian medicine and surgery.
"Dr. Stahl’s practice definitely fulfills a need," said Carol Wingfield, whose African gray parrot was there to have some "blood feathers" removed. "I come to this office from Georgetown because I have confidence in Dr. Stahl and Dr. Crum. It’s very difficult to find avian certified vets."
When Stahl started veterinary school at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine based at Virginia Tech in 1989, there was very little training available in exotics. Today, Stahl maintans a position as an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech’s veterinary school, and his clinic is a teaching facility, where veterinary students from throughout the country come to learn.
"We’re one of the largest exotics practices in the world," said Stahl. "We see birds, parrots, rabbits, rodents, ferrets, reptiles, lizards, turtles ... everything."
Ten professionals, including veterinarians David Crum and Lisa Carr, and licensed veterinary technicians and support personnel, staff SEAVS. Clients may travel for hours to bring their ailing pets here.
"Vienna is fortunate to have Dr. Stahl," said Hope Center CEO, Kris Boucher. "He’s very respected in his field and is a known authority on exotic pets."
Stahl characterizes himself as "one of those kids who always had frogs and lizards in their pockets." His undergraduate research on the reproductive attributes of copperheads in Virginia sealed his admission into Virginia Tech’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and he’s had frogs and lizards in his pockets, so to speak, ever since.
Pumpkin, a bright green chameleon, came in with a case of what a layman might call the sniffles, actually a respiratory infection characterized by a bubbling sound. Because reptiles heal slowly, said Stahl, this patient will need to be on antibiotics for a month, and Stahl will teach the chameleon’s guardian how to give the small creature his shots.
"Our mission is to help people and their animals," said Stahl. "We’ve treated all kinds of exotics, even removed tumors from pet rats.
"Animals are surrogate family members and we’re here to help these little guys improve their quality of life."