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The Intensive Pet Care Unit

The Animal Medical Center uses some of the most advanced medical technology known to man to treat dogs, cats, turtles, even rats. Crazy, you say? Not if the pet was a member of your family.

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Dr. Thomas Donnelly, a leader in his field, pokes his head into the waiting room and searches for Miss Cintron. Around the Animal Medical Center, she is sometimes affectionately called the Rat Lady, a distinction she hardly thinks she deserves. After all, she has only Junior, her black rat, and Tony, a brown one, plus two champagne-colored rats. One person she knows through her rat club has close to 100.

Miss Cintron arrived a bit early this morning, as she often does. She doesn't mind a little wait for Dr. Donnelly, who's taken care of her rats for years. She takes a chair in the easy-to-clean room with the cats and dogs of every variety, long-haired breeds ill-suited to the local climate -- a panting Alaskan husky is there one day -- as well as mutts. Dog and cat owners chat amiably, sharing secrets. "I give her sushi," one woman confides. Occasionally, Mrs. Vincent Astor, who's lent her name and energies to the hospital's constant fund-raising, accompanies, in her gloves and hat, Boysy and Girlsy, her quick-footed dachshunds. Dr. Donnelly's other clients -- hedgehogs, guinea pigs, chinchillas, rabbits -- arrive in small cages. Bernie Goetz, who once shot four kids on the subway, brings in wounded squirrels and pays to have them treated. Toucans stake out a shoulder, and sometimes a couple of mallards stand, each on its own chair, honking at what must seem an unruly flock.

Miss Cintron sometimes visits the hospital three or four times a month, lugging her rats in plastic containers inside D'Agostino bags. "To me, they're all my little children, as meaningful, as important to me as a person," she says, though 18-month-old Junior -- she calls him Juni sometimes -- may be her favorite. Dr. Donnelly has been especially diligent in tracking Junior's health problems. "He's my king," she says as the vet escorts her to one of the two dozen examining rooms.

People in New York will do anything for their pets -- it's a corollary of apartment life in Manhattan, where a terrier or a Siamese (or ferret or iguana or toucan or turtle or snake -- or, yes, rat) can be a shield against big-city loneliness. So it stands to reason that New York's animals would have their own state-of-the-art care center, right on hospital row, just south of Mt. Sinai and New York Hospital on East 62nd Street. In a sense, the Animal Medical Center is a children's-book world, a charmed circle; here, animals are cared for as if they were people. Injured pets are wheeled in on stretchers, past plaques honoring hospital benefactors and into the purposeful turmoil of orderlies, technicians, and coolly efficient doctors in white coats, stethoscopes hooked around necks. Does your cat have a brain tumor? The Animal Medical Center offers brain surgery. Cavities? There's a dentist. You say your snake isn't eating? Perhaps an X-ray is in order.

In the examining room, a boxy space with jars of Q-Tips and cotton balls, Miss Cintron -- her name is Raquel, but Dr. Donnelly has an old-fashioned bent -- moves methodically through her concerns, ticking them off her list, her nose pressed close, since she's nearsighted. Today she is mostly worried about Junior. He is, as Dr. Donnelly explains, a fascinating rat; his medical problems are unending and often difficult to diagnose. Miss Cintron had noticed that he occasionally had blood in his urine. It wasn't life-threatening -- and that's a life of perhaps two years -- but still, Miss Cintron wanted to know the cause. So Junior had undergone three cystocenteses, an intravenous paleogram, special blood work -- and nothing showed up. Then he'd had skin problems, and a form of pneumonia. He's got a medical file two inches thick.

"Chemo in animals is a lot less toxic than in humans. Only 15 percent experience really bad side effects, like nausea or lack of appetite or loss of whiskers."

Today Junior's feet are her first concern -- one of them has broken out in ugly blisters. Miss Cintron, 56, has strong, handsome features and a taut iron-colored braid, and as she talks she extends a lithe arm that Junior, plump and Twinkie-like, runs along on his pink, skittering feet, including the blistered one. He balances on her shoulder, nuzzles her neck. Junior's long, hairless tail hangs briefly down her back, next to Miss Cintron's long braid. She'd tried putting Junior on a diet. He's a little chubby, and that might be part of the problem. Miss Cintron, a senior research technician at NYU School of Medicine, feeds Junior three times a day. "Otherwise, he gets irritable," she confides, though she's trying to feed him less at each meal.

As Dr. Donnelly considers the matter, his nose begins to itch. He's allergic to rats -- to most animals, actually -- and he's taken a precautionary corticosteroid and antihistamine. (He carries an emergency needle with him in case he goes into anaphylactic shock.) He wears plastic gloves, but still he's affected.

"I think he needs to do a soaking," says Dr. Donnelly, ignoring his allergy.

"I could try," says Miss Cintron, momentarily unsure.

"Epsom salts, Miss Cintron," explains Dr. Donnelly, though he wants to double-check and makes a note to himself -- he's a bit forgetful.

AMC is one of a handful of elite animal hospitals in the country and the largest private one. Reminders of the nature of the clientele are continuous -- "Cat loose!" you'll hear as a feline breaks for freedom, or a dog will lift a proprietary leg against a wall -- and yet the institution takes most of its cues from high-powered human medicine. Inside the Elmer Holmes Bobst-endowed door -- he's the same donor who paid for NYU's red-clay library on Washington Square -- there's a list of over 80 vets in 28 specialties. "Here we don't ever say, 'We don't do that,' or 'We don't have the equipment,' " explains Dr. John Broussard, an endoscopist who spent a few dull, financially rewarding years in private practice. These days, under videoscopic guidance, Broussard winds a tube into animals' bellies, snatching back the many things they manage to swallow. Recently, a dog showed up having ingested two condoms, though the owner admitted to only one at first. And one day, Dr. Andrew Obstler was running around with Wimpy in his arms. Wimpy was a dopey-looking beagle who had jumped out of a moving car, mauling his leg; and as if that weren't enough, while he lay on the street, he'd gobbled a bottle cap.

In any given week at AMC, a vet might see dozens of cases. "The pace is insane, says Obstler (and he should know from insane, having worked as a Wall Street oil trader before deciding to become a vet). For interns like Obstler, shifts are sometimes sixteen hours, and a veterinary machismo prevails. "You want to see all the big, heavy stuff," is how one resident puts it. "The stuff other vets don't see."

For instance, there was Pugsly, a licking, almost grinning pug from Queens who'd been banging his recessed nose into telephone poles until Dr. Alexandra van der Woerdt, a veterinary ophthalmologist, microsurgically removed his cataracts. (She'd worked on ferrets, birds, and even, once, a snake.) "Now," says his pleased owner, "he goes right for the Cheerios we drop on the floor at breakfast."

Then there was the Wheaten terrier who took a limo in from Philadelphia and got hooked to a kidney-dialysis machine (a human one) in a room endowed in the memory of a dog named Bear. Soon the same nephrology department will be transplanting kidneys, using stray cats as donors. (Cats can live with one kidney, so owners whose cats get a kidney go home with two cats -- the hospital requires that they adopt the donor.)

There was also a red-eared slider turtle named Gigi, a boy, though the owners didn't know -- motionless on a towel, a syringe of anesthesia taped to its shell, about to have an oral mass explored. (The turtle will awake from the anesthesia gently flapping its legs as if trying to swim away.) Or a high-rise kitty might come in for repairs -- they've seen cats survive falls of 40 floors. The ICU might have an older cat with a shot bladder in whom vets installed what amounted to a faucet. The owners have to open it three times a day.

Dr. Sean Aiken, once a traveling surgeon, now replaces arthritic hips with shiny steel ball-and-socket joints. He fixes torn knee ligaments -- the same anterior-cruciate-ligament injuries that human athletes get. If needed, blood transfusions are available from the hospital's supply of greyhounds. These animals, saved from racetrack extinction, are kept for two years, then given away as pets. In the basement, the oncology department -- directed by Dr. Philip Bergman, who's just finished training at MD Anderson, the human cancer center -- offers radiation therapy from its own cyclotron, one of two on the east coast, as well as chemotherapy. "Chemo in animals is a lot less toxic than in humans," Bergman says. "Only 15 percent experience really bad side effects, like nausea or lack of appetite or loss of whiskers."


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