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Dog Whisperers

Veterinarians are like your own doctor — they observe, they administer medical attention,they care, and they become friends,of both owner and pet

Bob Capazzo

In a darkened room, a group of people hold hands in silence. They form a circle as the group leader chants and tries to make contact with the spirit of a deceased dog. Dr. Verena de Cholnoky had never been to a séance before and was skeptical of its validity, but as the former veterinarian of the departed, she wanted to be there to support its owner. “It’s not what I believe in,” Dr. de Cholnoky says, “but if it makes the people feel better, that’s what it’s all about.”

This attitude of complete devotion to animals, as well as to their owners, is a common thread that runs through the care offered by area veterinarians. Whether they’re doing a routine check-up on a kitten or performing invasive surgery on an old dog, the doctors make certain that both the animals and their owners are being properly taken care of.

“People in Greenwich, we’re nuts about our dogs,” says longtime pet owner Nancy Stillerman. “You have to have the personal communication with your doctor as much as if you were going in for work with your own internist.”

Dr. Sean Bell of Greenwich Veterinary Hospital says the key to creating a comfortable environment is sincerity. If the doctor “sincerely cares about providing for the animal’s welfare, both the animals and their owners pick up on that.”

Over at Davis Animal Hospital in Stamford, Dr. Robert Nizlek shares a similar philosophy. “They’re nervous being [at the hospital],” he says. “You have to try to appreciate them and get them to relax — to enjoy them as animals. You need to make a bond with the animal, and maybe even a larger bond with the owner.”

Some doctors prefer to get down and dirty. Dr. Steve Zeide of Bull’s Head Pet Hospital in Stamford literally drops to the floor when interacting with the dogs his clients bring in. He talks to them, plays with them and even lets them give him slobbery kisses. He believes that this is an effective way of putting himself on the same level as the dog, resulting in an increased level of comfort.

Dr. Zeide admits that gaining trust can be difficult at times, especially when dealing with less outwardly emotional animals. He singles out turtles as being particularly difficult to relate to and stressed the importance of communicating with the owners to figure out what’s wrong. Doctors have to listen. “I think veterinarians use their ears more than some other professions,” he says. “If you’ve got a turtle who doesn’t make noise or move very much, its owner is going to give you information about what’s going on with that pet.”

As a mobile veterinarian, Greenwich resident Dr. de Cholnoky can’t help but become well acquainted with animals and their owners, as she always sees them at their most contented — in their homes. She says sometimes her job is based more on psychology than on medicine. “I go to people’s homes, I sit down and everyone tells me their life stories,” she says. “Then they ask if I can look at their dog. So in a way, I see a lot more in people’s homes, for better or worse.”

She has attended countless pet funerals, having euthanized many of the pets herself, and, no matter how solemn or eccentric the ritual may be, she is always moved by what the owners have to say about their pets. “Some of the things people write and say when they bury their dogs are pretty amazing,” she says. “You always hear dogs referred to as ‘man’s best friend’ and it’s true.”

There was one funeral she attended where each child in the family took a favorite toy and buried it with the dog. It was hard to get through, especially when the children started bawling, but at the same time, it was something that had to happen. Pets, she says, are meant to teach young owners many things — first, responsibility and then, sadly, how to cope with the death of a loved one.

“In this country, we’ve undergone a sociological metamorphosis,” Dr. Bell says. “Pets have been elevated to the status of family members, and most people really care about their animals’ welfare. They want to give their pets top-quality care and, especially in our area, they do.”

Love for animals typically stems from happy childhood experiences, and that is as true for vets as it is for pet owners. Dr. Bell and Dr. Nizlek both grew up around dogs, cats and horses, fueling their appreciation for animals and their interest in keeping them healthy. Dr. de Cholnoky spent her childhood summers on a farm in the mountains of Austria, where milking cows and taking care of chickens and goats instilled in her a sense of responsibility. When she decided to pursue veterinary medicine as a profession, her decision was met with skepticism by a neighboring farmer who felt she was too young to stick to such a serious decision. She’s happy to have proved him wrong.

Dr. Zeide remembers his childhood dogs and cats and the time he dreamed of having a more exotic pet — a monkey. Reliving the escapade at the pet store, he couldn’t help but let out a chuckle. “It was slinging some stuff around it shouldn’t have been slinging, so we didn’t adopt that monkey.”

He may not have adopted that monkey, but he’s certainly worked with a few over the years. Because he will examine any animal that an owner can fit through the hospital doors, Dr. Zeide has encountered a veritable menagerie of domesticated pets. Along with dogs and cats, he has treated sheep, goats, monkeys, reptiles and even the occasional pot-bellied pig. For the most part, however, domestic pets in Greenwich are dogs or cats.

No matter how many different animals the veterinarians take care of during the work day, they make sure they have enough time and attention to devote to their own pets. Like Topper, a sixteen-year-old Border terrier, always has a place to crash in Dr. Nizlek’s office. Other than being almost completely deaf, the wirehaired geriatric is in perfect health, a testament to his owner’s care.

Dr. de Cholnoky’s twelve-year-old Labrador Maddie is always with her when she makes house calls. She sits comfortably in the backseat of the van, right in front of the trunk that is always stocked with an arsenal of veterinary supplies. Maddie has spent so much time with her owner on the road that Dr. de Cholnoky affectionately refers to her as “Nurse Madison.”

Another dog involved with its owner’s work is Dr. Bell’s ten-year-old English setter Annie. He uses her as a model in the instructional videos he puts on Greenwich Veterinary Hospital’s website. By watching these videos, dog owners can learn how to perform quick check-ups on their dogs, how to clean their dogs’ ears and teeth and how to prevent them from attracting ticks and fleas. There are also two charts on the site: one that explains the proper CPR procedure for use on animals and another that contains information about eye care.

A distinguishing feature of area vets is their willingness to help one another. Though it is now commonplace, using the Internet to get important data out to people was unheard of ten years ago, proving how much impact technology has had on the field. Today, the Internet is also opening up new doors of communication between veterinarians. “We can send information to other veterinarians to get some advice if we don’t know how to deal with a particular problem,” Dr. Zeide says. “The more minds that get involved, the more you can help that pet and pet owner solve their problem.”

Veterinarians from different hospitals also meet face-to-face during scheduled meetings and forums. Greenwich Veterinary Hospital is part of the Fairfield County Veterinary Medical Association, which holds monthly meetings at the Veterinary Referral and Emergency Center in Norwalk. Dr. Bell says that though not all of the members are able to make it every month, the meetings provide good opportunities to discuss individual cases, as well as new developments in the field.

Communication through the Internet is especially helpful for disseminating information during an emergency, such as the recall last March of several brands of dog and cat food. The nationwide crisis began with reports of pets experiencing renal and kidney failure as a result of contaminated ingredients in their food. The vets handled the situation in different ways, but they all made certain to keep the doors of communication open to their clients.

“We were able to put information on our website and immediately e-mailed our clients,” Dr. Zeide says. He also printed material to give out and made certain that everyone on his staff was equipped to answer any question.

“People’s antennas are always up, especially when it comes to their pets,” he says. “When this happens, alarms go off and they’re right on it, which is wonderful.”
Fortunately for Dr. Zeide and his staff, none of their clients had fatally infected pets. Dr. de Cholnoky wasn’t so lucky, as she watched one of her clients lose their dog to kidney failure. Although she doesn’t have proof, she is fairly certain that contaminated food was the cause.

Dr. Bell cautions that even though this particular crisis was handled carefully, there are larger implications that people need to pay attention to, and not just for their pets. “This is also a problem on the human side,” he points out. The E. coli contamination of spinach last year is an example of this. “It’s a worldwide problem in the food industry,” he states.

And as time progresses, human and veterinary medicine are beginning to share more similarities. Both fields are constantly being introduced to new technology and to keep up with the changes, veterinarians are expected to play a number of different roles — doctor, dentist, dermatologist and nutritionist to name a few. But this juggling act is becoming increasingly difficult to handle.

“The days of the do-it-all practitioner are fading because the body of knowledge is too great,” Dr. Bell says. “You can’t be great at everything. Sure, you can do a good job at most things, but you always need to be thinking about the animal’s interest.”

As more knowledge is gained about different aspects of veterinary medicine, many doctors have decided to become specialists in a particular area. Some choose to specialize in caring for certain animals, like birds or horses. Others become specialists for different parts of the anatomy, like the feet or the heart.

Dr. de Cholnoky says it’s essential that veterinarians refer their clients to specialists when necessary. While she performs many surgeries herself — sometimes on her clients’ kitchen tables, depending on how minor the surgery is — she does not hesitate to refer her clients to various specialists. “That’s how human medicine works,” she says. “And it’s how veterinary medicine should work.”

The increase in technology, as well as specialization, has enabled veterinarians to perform more complicated procedures than they ever thought possible. Dr. Zeide first noticed the change in animal dentistry.

“We now have X-ray machines for dentistry,” he says. “There are root canals being done, there are caps being done, there are dental specialists. It’s become a field that has enabled our pets to live a longer, healthier, happier life.”

Dr. Nizlek pointed out that more ultrasonography work is being done, a skill that veterinarians have been working at for years. “We use ultrasounds for two things, primarily,” he says. “One is sonograms, which involves examining the abdominal organs with ultrasound. The second thing we do is echocardiograms, where we look at the heart muscle and decide if it is diseased or not. We’re also starting to work with animal pregnancy more and more.”

Traditionally, owners brought their pets in once a year for a check-up, but today veterinarians are recommending bi-annual visits, particularly if the animal is older. “A lot of times, we’re dealing only with subjective symptoms and signs and when they’re overtly sick,” Dr. Nizlek says. “If we pick up on problems earlier, we might have a chance to fix them. Within the last four or five years, medicine has been breaking out more into pediatric care, mid-life wellness care and geriatric care.”

A common problem veterinarians run into during these routine check-ups is nutrition. Dr. Zeide says that, just as obesity in humans is a serious issue in the United States, the same problem is often seen in pets. This puts him, he explains, in a difficult position. It’s hard to tell an owner who is a hundred pounds overweight to put their pet on a diet. The most he can do is tell the owner to feed their dog a particular healthier brand of food. He figures if the owner is not going to exercise, they probably won’t motivate their pet to do so either.

Because modern medicine “maxes out after a point for older dogs,” according to Dr. de Cholnoky, dog owners are now turning to more unconventional treatments. Maddie makes regular trips to an acupuncturist and is given Chinese herbs for additional healing. The vet says that as people become less skeptical of Eastern medicine, they warm up to the idea of trying it on their pets.

“The demands of sick animals are 24/7,” Dr. Nizlek points out. “I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, and still work over fifty hours a week. Most veterinarians spend a lot of time, if not in the office, then keeping up with new trends and literature. The demands are huge.”

This always-on-call approach to veterinary medicine is what saves lives. Nancy Stillerman vividly recalls an emergency situation she experienced a few years ago with her golden retriever. During a routine feeding, he suddenly started heaving. He was only seventy pounds, but his stomach was extending. In a panic, Stillerman called her veterinarian and was told to bring her dog to the hospital immediately. She dragged him to the car and drove him to the hospital, where two technicians carried him inside. The dog’s stomach had twisted, and the doctor had to put a tube down his throat to stop the bad situation from getting even worse.

“He had torsion,” Stillerman explains. “The doctor said he could have died if I hadn’t gotten him there right at that moment.”

Dr. Zeide says that having the opportunity to help people, to heal a member of their family, makes the long hours worthwhile. “We’ve missed a lot of meals, but we’re very dedicated and passionate about what we do.”

“I think that, as our society changes, people are increasingly concerned about the quality of their pets,” Dr. Bell says. “They really do great things to ensure that. It’s nice to be a dog or a cat in the United States.”