Vet hospitals compete for best in show
When his 6-year-old St. Bernard developed a limp, Seth Weinstein noticed immediately. A real-estate developer who has never married, he takes his 140-pound dog everywhere, from job sites to his home in Stamford, Conn., and to his pied-à-terre on Central Park West.
A veterinarian on the Upper West Side gave Mr. Weinstein the bad news — X-rays showed a likely tumor on Molly’s left leg, which could mean amputation. The veterinarian offered Mr. Weinstein two choices of animal hospitals with the best specialists in the city.
He knew of one, the Animal Medical Center on East 62nd Street, long recognized for its pioneering treatments and its annual Top Dog charity gala attended by Manhattan’s social elite. At one soiree, Barbara Walters told of how Brooke Astor, an honorary trustee, famously said, “If I ever get really sick, take me to the Animal Medical Center.”
Mr. Weinstein had taken a previous St. Bernard of his to the Animal Medical Center, where, he said, the dog received excellent, if slightly impersonal, care. But he was intrigued by the second choice: NYC Veterinary Specialists, a for-profit hospital that opened last fall on West 55th Street.
“As soon as I walked in,” Mr. Weinstein said, “it seem liked it was a great place. It was clean. You could pull up with your car right in front, and the receptionist was nice.”
Doctors performed a groundbreaking “limb spare” surgery on Molly, sawing off the tumor-ridden section of her radius and grafting another bone in its place, saving the leg and, by all indications so far, eliminating the cancer.
Mr. Weinstein’s choice of hospital cost the Animal Medical Center the $25,000 he has spent on Molly’s care and the chance of allowing its student doctors to learn from a fascinating case.
A new player has arrived in New York, a city more obsessed than most with its pets and willing to spend lavishly on them. While it is not quite a cat- or dogfight that has broken out between the grizzled 97-year-old Animal Medical Center and the puppy-eager NYC Veterinary Specialists, vets around the city say the two are using every weapon in their arsenals to be considered top of the heap for advanced — frequently expensive — animal care.
Nationally, spending on veterinary care is expected to reach $9.8 billion in 2007, up from $7.2 billion five years ago, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. A survey released by the group last month found that 47 percent of dog owners say their pet sleeps in a family member’s bed.
“The bond that people have with their pets is increasing exponentially, the closeness they feel, viewing them as family members,” said Dr. Thomas Carpenter, president of the American Animal Hospital Association.
New Yorkers bought more new pet health insurance policies last year than residents of any state except California, according to VPI Pet Insurance, a leading insurer. The policies pay not only for routine care but for high-cost specialists who provide near-human levels of medicine, everything from neurosurgery to radiation therapy for cancer.
Nowhere is the competition for deep-pocketed pet owners more apparent than at the city’s leading specialty hospitals. NYC Veterinary Specialists touts its $1.25 million dollar linear accelerator for radiation therapy and shows off a $750,000 M.R.I. and $350,000 CT scan machine. Across town, the Animal Medical Center says it is planning to install its own linear accelerator and upgrade its M.R.I. It trumpets its hemodialysis clinic for pets with kidney disease and a new $300,000 rehabilitation clinic with an underwater treadmill.
The two hospitals are not shy about dropping the names of celebrity clients to enhance their appeal. A few nights before Christmas last year, Steve Martin’s blond Labrador, Wally, gobbled down some chocolate and his regular veterinarian advised him to rush the dog to NYC Veterinary Specialists, said David Gersholowitz, the hospital administrator. The attending vet induced vomiting and by the next morning Wally was home safe. The bill: $935.
While leading a tour last week of the Animal Medical Center, Wendy Gallart, the director of marketing and communications, directed a visitor’s attention to Tappy Phillips, a reporter for WABC-TV, who was in a waiting room with a poodle. “She’s a regular here,” Ms. Gallart confided.
On the busy floors above, a veterinarian in the exotic animal department was taking blood from a chinchilla with kidney disease, an orthopedist was examining the lame front leg of a German shepherd named Gunner belonging to the canine unit of the city’s Department of Correction, and nurses were preparing a loudly meowing cat for X-rays.
Despite the reputation of the nonprofit Animal Medical Center as a leading veterinary hospital — sometimes called the Mayo Clinic of veterinary care — it has became complacent in recent years, say some of the city’s animal care professionals, leaving it open to competition.
Seizing the opportunity, NYC Veterinary Specialists has been waging a yearlong courtship of general-practice veterinarians, aimed at winning referals from them. “They sometimes have come just to stop in and say hi,” said Dr. Steven Kasanofsky, the director of the Riverside Animal Hospital on West 108th Street. “The dermatologist from there took all my doctors out to lunch and explained what they offer down there.”
The Animal Medical Center’s slim, nine-story building, constructed in the early 1960s, has the unfortunate stark and artificially lighted character of many structures from that era. Waiting rooms are institutional-feeling and the bustling hallways are cramped with dozens of staff members, who sidestep one another while moving between exam rooms.
In contrast, most human visitors to the NYC Veterinary Specialists, a 20,000-square-foot center on two floors, wait in a sunny, street-level room with tall windows. Below, the treatment floor is a vast open-plan space with few doors.
“A.M.C. were the first and had the whole game to themselves until this new place opened up,” said Dr. Lewis Berman, whose veterinary practice, Park East Animal Hospital on the Upper East Side, dates to 1961.
Dr. Berman said the Animal Medical Center has sometimes earned ill will by forcing pet owners with late-night emergencies to wait for hours, and not providing referring veterinarians with timely case updates. Worse, in his view, the medical center would occasionally steal clients from referring veterinarians because, in addition to specialists, it offers general services like checkups and rabies shots.
“The people who started this new place,” Dr. Berman said, “perceived in the New York market a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction with A.M.C., not only among pet owners but also among veterinarians in the city.”
Dr. Jill Elliot, a veterinarian who works at the Heart of Chelsea Animal Hospital, said she has been referring clients to NYC Veterinary Specialists because at the Animal Medical Center, pets are likely to be seen first by interns; a new class of whom begins stints at the hospital in June.
“If you go in July, you get someone who just got out of school two weeks ago,” Dr. Elliot said.
Dr. Jeffrey S. Klausner, the recently hired chief executive of the Animal Medical Center, has heard the complaints about service and vowed improvements. “It will become a priority,” said Dr. Klausner, who was recruited from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, where, he said, his initiatives led to a tripling of the caseload and a doubling of private gift giving. “If it hasn’t been in the past, it will be in the future.”
No one interviewed for this article had anything negative to say about the quality of the staff doctors at the Animal Medical Center, or its importance as a research and training hospital. Many of the city’s top veterinarians trained at the medical center, which has 50,000 pet visits a year. In March, the Department of Agriculture gave conditional approval for a vaccine to treat canine melanoma, a common and deadly form of cancer, that was developed through a partnership between the Animal Medical Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Merial, an animal pharmaceutical company.
One question Dr. Klausner faces is retaining the Animal Medical Center’s standing in the favorite charity pecking order. Its board of trustees includes Nancy Kissinger, Annette de la Renta and Iris Love. In the most recent tax filing available, the center received $13 million in charitable contributions in 2005.
In his office Dr. Klausner sat behind a desk with the management book “Good to Great and the Social Sectors” in front of him, and the geeky Muppets character Beaker looking on from a window shelf.
He defended the medical center’s use of interns to treat sick pets — 28 of the 98 staff veterinarians are interns — because it is a teaching hospital, ultimately providing staff even to its competition. “NYC Vet Specialists has to have specialists,” Dr. Klausner said. “Well, they have to learn somewhere.”
The new hospital is the result of conversations beginning in 2003 among a group of city veterinarians about the need for an alternative to the Animal Medical Center. They contacted Dr. Neil Shaw, who founded Florida Veterinary Specialists & Cancer Treatment Center in Tampa, which he says is the largest private veterinary practice in the Southeast.
Dr. Shaw opened NYC Veterinary Specialists, with some New York City veterinarians as minority investors. “Our primary focus is to provide strong clinical services in conjunction with the area veterinarians for the pet owners of New York,” Dr. Shaw said.
He has been luring top veterinarians from around the country with promises of working on state of the art equipment for pet owners willing to pay for the sort of advanced treatments that make a doctor’s workday interesting. One recent day, Dr. Jennifer Welser, a veterinary ophthalmologist, was doing a follow-up checkup on an English bulldog that belongs to the designer Ralph Rucci. The dog, Twombly, had been suffering from dry eyes. Dr. Welser surgically moved salivary ducts from the mouth cavity into the eyes, at a cost of about $7,000.
While there are 28 clinicians at NYC Veterinary Specialists now, Dr. Shaw said he expects to have 5o “in a short period of time.”
(Although Animal Medical Center and NYC Veterinary Specialists are the largest specialty hospitals in town, there is a third competitor, Fifth Avenue Veterinary Specialists on West 15th Street, which opened in July 2004, and, like the others, operates a 24-hour emergency room and has a CT scanner and other high-tech gear.)
At NYC Veterinary Services last week, Shannon Noyes, a critical care nurse, was preparing for one of any hospital’s realities: the death of a patient. As a large mixed-breed dog named Bullwinkle was being euthanized quietly in a back room, she was flattening a lump of white clay. After Bullwinkle died, Ms. Noyes would press his front paws into the clay, bake the tablet in a toaster oven, place it into one of the small colorful cloth bags she sews on her own sewing machine at home, and present it to the owner as a keepsake along with a condolence card signed by the hospital staff.
Dr. Tim Rocha, named by New York magazine in 2002 as the top veterinary oncologist in the city, and now working at NYC Veterinary Specialists, said Bullwinkle had been suffering from lymphoma and was not responding to chemotherapy.
His owners had spent about $7,000 over four months of treatments after the initial cancer diagnosis. Without the medical care, Dr. Rocha said, “He would have been dead in a month.” Autor: Allen Salkin