Dog days: Veterinarian Kevin Fitzgerald checks on a patient.
Dog days: Veterinarian Kevin Fitzgerald checks on a patient.
Mark Manger

Pet Project

At five years old, Nugs is feeling the effects of middle age. He has arthritis in both hips and doesn't walk like he used to. Rather than suffer, though, he gets physical therapy.

He steps into a tank and waits as water fills up to his chest. The treadmill beneath his feet starts moving, and the husky/shepherd mix takes off. Exercising in water strengthens his hips without stressing them.

The underwater doggie treadmill, which the Alameda East Veterinary Hospital purchased three years ago for $32,000, is the only one in the state. Specializing in the best of modern medicine (CAT scans, ultrasounds, endoscopic surgery and chemotherapy), Alameda East is where people bring their dogs for physical therapy after orthopedic surgery, where police officers bring injured K-9s for rehabilitation, and where show-dog owners bring their animals to ensure that the prize-winners remain in top form. But it doesn't come cheap.

Clients pay only $32 to use the treadmill, but CAT scans run $1,000, and cancer treatment can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. If there's one thing Alameda East vet Kevin Fitzgerald has learned in his twenty years on the job, however, it's that people will do almost anything to help their animal companions -- even if it means maxing out their credit cards. The reason, he says, is simple: Pets are human to many folks. In a telephone survey conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 1957, participants were asked whether they considered their pets to be part of their family; 57 percent answered yes. When the AVMA repeated the survey in 1999, 97 percent said yes.

Kevin Fitzgerald can't get over what an exciting time it is for veterinary medicine. But it's also an exciting time for him and Alameda East. The vet hospital has been featured on the popular Animal Planet cable-television program Emergency Vets for the past five years. And it's made a celebrity of its tall, lanky, 51-year-old doctor.

Fitzgerald made People Magazine's fifty-most-eligible-bachelors list this past June, and viewers often recognize him in public, even if they don't always believe it's him. "At DIA once, a kid came up to me and said, 'You look like that animal doctor on TV,' and I said, 'I am.' Then he said, 'You wish,'" Fitzgerald remembers. "A lot of people don't know that Emergency Vets is filmed here; most people think all TV comes from L.A."

For the first few seasons, Alameda East wouldn't allow its name or location to be announced on air, because its vets worried that colleagues would look down on them. But since the show recieves so much praise, they no longer mind if the hospital's name is mentioned or listed in the credits.

Even before Emergency Vets, the super-friendly Fitzgerald was a familiar face to locals. Two hundred nights a year, he can be found performing at Comedy Works comedy club. Naturally, a lot of his material comes from what he knows best. He regularly culls the Pets section of the classified ads for inspiration. "I'm amazed by how Americans can't spell or do proper grammar," he says. Some of his favorite one-liners come from the double entendres of unpunctuated ads:

"Free to good home pit bull will eat anything loves children."

"Free to good home Doberman neutered just like one of the family."

Fitzgerald, who's been with Alameda East almost since it opened in 1971, helped bring the hospital into homes across the country. Jim Berger, founder of the Littleton-based film company Rocket Pictures, had featured Fitzgerald on a program about local comedians. When Berger decided to produce an ER for pets, he immediately thought of Fitzgerald and Alameda East. But the producers had a hard time convincing Bob Taylor, the owner of the private animal hospital, to go for it. "They had to come back three times and convince me before I agreed to try it," Taylor says.

Alameda East doesn't get paid for hosting the show, and it hasn't noticed an increase in clientele as a result of the publicity, but Taylor says it's been rewarding. "We've been able to get the word out about what goes on behind the brick walls of an animal hospital," he says.

Fitzgerald says nine out of ten clients give permission to have their pets' travails taped. And the staff at Alameda East has gotten used to the cameras, which show up for seventy days of filming a year. "They said they'd be a fly on the wall, and they have been," Fitzgerald says.

Although there is no one star of the cable show, Fitzgerald has emerged as a spokesman for Alameda East. He's eager to talk about all things animal, and he appears to be the office character. He stands a little too close to people when he talks and has no compunction about disrobing in front of others when changing out of his scrubs and into his street clothes. Maybe that's what happens when you're around animals all day.

Fitzgerald had a longtime companion of his own until last Christmas, when Rudy, his eleven-year-old bullmastiff, died of cancer. He isn't ready yet to get a new dog, but he finds joy in other people's pets. And animals light up when they see him. On a recent day at the hospital, an Airedale terrier named Lucy came in to get stitches out after having been spayed ten days before; Lucy gladly let Fitzgerald lead her back to the treatment room -- with tail wagging.

And when Fitzgerald checked to see how Simon the Siamese cat was healing after a recent tooth extraction, he sat on the floor and examined Simon in his lap. Simon, you see, doesn't like the cold metal of the examining table, but give him a warm lap and he's yours. Fitzgerald knows these things about his patients, and that's why their owners are loyal to him.

In addition to being a 24-hour emergency room for animals that have met with all kinds of misfortune -- everything from getting hit by cars to swallowing small objects -- Alameda East also provides general and specialty care for pets.

The hospital employs nine general practitioners, of whom Fitzgerald is one, as well as five interns, two internists, one radiologist, one radiographer, four surgeons, one dermatologist, a visiting dentist and a visiting ophthalmologist.

The cramped quarters of the 11,000-square-foot building contain five examining rooms, a treatment room, a radiology room, an orthopedic suite, an endoscopy room, an anesthesia prep room, a minor-surgery room, a physical-therapy room, a lab and an intensive-care unit complete with oxygen cages and an isolation area. There is also space in which the hospital's blood donors are boarded: Stray cats that are brought in are kept here for six months, during which time their blood is periodically drawn for the hospital's blood bank. After their duty is up, the hospital finds homes for them. Greyhounds whose racing days have ended are brought to Alameda East for six months for the same purpose; homes are later found for them as well.

Because space is so tight, Alameda East plans to construct a new building on the adjacent property. Ground for the $2.4 million, 22,000-square-foot structure will be broken on January 8. The hospital hopes to move into its new quarters in June.

With the exception of zoo critters, the hospital does not treat large animals such as horses. But it sees every other kind of animal imaginable, including turtles, mice, spiders and more exotic pets like cobras, marsupials and alligators. Last Christmas, a Denver police officer making the rounds noticed a small animal running from three dogs. Thinking it was some kind of weird rabbit, he chased it and then opened the door of his cruiser. The animal leapt in, and he took it to Alameda East. The weird rabbit was actually a baby wallaby with a name tag that read "Hello. My name is Joey."

A trailer behind the animal hospital houses Alameda East's biggest medical innovation yet: a CAT scanner that nearly fills the entire room. The machine, formerly used on humans, now diagnoses animals.

Alameda East, which has been leasing the equipment for $2,000 a month since January, is one of only three animal hospitals in Colorado with the technology; Colorado State University's vet school has one, and so does an animal hospital in Loveland. In addition to its normal pet-related uses, operator Steve Jonseof also has used the CAT scanner to study dinosaur bones found by University of Colorado researchers, determining that the stegosaurus had suffered from a fungal infection. The biggest animal he's ever scanned was a 420-pound walrus from the Denver Zoo; the smallest was a ferret. With this technology, Jonseof says, "Now your dog or cat may live fifteen years instead of nine or ten."

Other technological advances also afford pets the same comfort and care as humans. Chemotherapy is now prolonging pets' lives. It won't be long before MRI machines are available for pets. And endoscopic surgery is preventing animals from having to go under the knife.

Special scopes are manufactured just for animals; tiny ones can even fit inside a cat's nostrils. Alameda East recently used an endoscope on an English bulldog, whose owner brought her in because she'd been vomiting. When the tiny camera was placed down her throat, the doctors saw a startling image on the screen: little faces peeking out at them. The scope, which had small pinchers attached to the end, plucked 22 rubber dinosaurs out of the dog's stomach.

Just a few days ago, an endoscope was used to remove coins from an iguana.

"We're able to do so much more for animals now than we used to," Fitzgerald says. "The last ten years have revolutionized pain management for animals. After surgery, people get a painkiller; now pets do, too."

Denver cable viewers can catch Alameda East in action on a special two-hour Emergency Vets on December 17. The show, which will follow an intern on his first overnight shift, airs at 6 and 9 p.m. on Animal Planet.


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