State-of-the-art hospital in Malvern will treat pets

Hope Veterinary Specialists' $4.5 million veterinary hospital in Malvern will open in July.
Hope Veterinary Specialists' $4.5 million veterinary hospital in Malvern will open in July. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff)
Posted: June 03, 2013

When it opens next month, it will boast 21,000 square feet and showcase some of the region's best medical facilities.

It will have three state-of-the-art operating rooms, an intensive-care unit, a 24-hour emergency room, a massive CT scanner on the premises, and "a grieving room." It is looking to draw 12,000 patients a year.

And the new $4.5 million hospital on Three Tun Road in Malvern quite literally is going to the dogs. And the cats. And, potentially, the birds and rabbits and guinea pigs, too.

Not so long ago, dedicating an entire hospital to household pets would have been unthinkable to most people. But Dennis Burkett, who has headed Malvern's Hope Veterinary Specialists since 2004, says people's attitudes toward their pets have changed drastically in recent years.

"Many of our clients treat their pets like children," he said. "For many, their pets are their children."

In 2011, 63.2 percent of American pet owners told the American Veterinary Medical Association they considered their pets family members.

That same year, the association said, pet owners spent, on average, $375 on veterinary costs for all pets in their households.

And in wealthy Chester County, especially, the "parents" of ailing cats and dogs have shown they are willing to spend significant sums to ensure that Spot and Fluffy make full recoveries.

Burkett, a former schoolteacher, earned his veterinary degree from the University of Pennsylvania, which also boasts a top-notch veterinary referral hospital. His enthusiasm for Hope's new facilities is infectious.

On a tour of the new hospital last week, he pointed out everything from bathrooms to laundry stations to the bright room with floor-to-ceiling windows where dogs and cats with cancer will receive chemotherapy treatments.

"This is the grieving room," he said, opening a door to an empty room painted soothing green. "It's for when we have to put animals to sleep - we'll have couches in here. It's peaceful."

His office will have large windows looking out onto the waiting room.

"I want people to be able to say, 'Oh, there's Dr. Burkett!' " he said, laughing.

During construction, vets are working out of four trailers connected by a small boardwalk - Burkett calls it his "Boardwalk Empire." They were operating out of a clinical facility about half the size of the new hospital. When the client list expanded to 13,000, the old space became untenable.

On a sweltering day last week, a client gingerly unloaded an enormous black Labrador retriever from her car onto a gurney, while inside, a veterinary technician prepared a tabby for a chemotherapy treatment. In a recovery ward, a tiny puppy suffering from pneumonia snoozed in what appeared to be a repurposed incubator.

Hope has 22 veterinarians on staff, many of them specialists in areas such as cardiology, internal medicine, and neurology, and the hospital will boast an ICU with two temperature-controlled cages, an isolation ward for infectious diseases, and, most important, more space.

In the temporary trailers, "we're much more limited in what we can do," said Lauren May, one of two surgeons at Hope. "It's mostly emergency soft-tissue procedures - we're not doing orthopedics or any minimally invasive procedures."

But even in cramped quarters, treating a Pomeranian with a heart defect or an American shorthair with cancer isn't as daunting as it might seem - and learning how to effectively treat pets' ailments can help researchers looking to cure human maladies, Hope veterinarians said.

"Dogs have many of the same cancers we develop - bone cancer in dogs is literally identical to bone cancer in humans," said Craig Clifford, one of three oncologists on staff at Hope. "So we can treat the disease in dogs, but the information benefits people as well."

Medical treatment for pets is significantly cheaper than it is for humans, Burkett said. Fixing a heart defect in a puppy might set a pet owner back about $3,500. For a human, the same procedure would cost up to $40,000, he said.

And the growth of pet insurance - which about 3 percent to 5 percent of pet owners buy, Burkett said - has made it easier for pet owners to afford treatments.

The hospital plans to hold seminars for other veterinarians, and, at some point for pet owners, including a class on how to perform CPR on their pets.

Hope won't see patients for regular checkups, Burkett said; it's a referral hospital where veterinary general practitioners can send pets who need special treatment. For now, the hospital will be limited to dogs and cats.

"It's like an extension of a general practice," Burkett said - and, judging by the volume of patients the hospital is already seeing, and the high-income demographics in Chester County, he expects the facility to succeed.

The veterinary-hospital phenomenon "came into existence because there was a demand for pets to be treated at the same level as owners," Burkett said. There are about 300 to 350 such hospitals across the country.

"We didn't invest in this lightly," he said.

"We want to provide for as many patients as we can see."


Contact Aubrey Whelan

at 610-313-8112, awhelan@philly.com,

or follow on Twitter @aubreyjwhelan.

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