Aubrey Lavizzo, Colorado's Veterinarian of the Year, talks about pet peeves and pet loss

No, he didn't get a crown, Dr. Aubrey J. Lavizzo informs me, when the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association named him the 2011 CVMA Veterinarian of the Year. But he did get "a free lunch for me and my wife, Gale" -- and a round of applause from his colleagues in recognition of his decades of service to the field. From his days operating the Denver Pet Hospital in the 1970s to The Center for Animal Wellness, his current clinic on Santa Fe Drive, Lavizzo has been a well-respected and compassionate caregiver to beasts of all kinds.

For the past eighteen years -- point of disclosure here -- he's also been the vet consulted by all the cats and dogs in our household. A few years ago, our chow-mix, Bear, even served as the professional spokesmodel in a Center for Animal Wellness advertising campaign, for which he was paid handsomely in dog treats. (That's Bear mugging it up in the photo above.)

Lavizzo graduated from the Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine in 1970 and practiced briefly in Louisiana before moving to Denver. He's worked with the Children's Museum and the Colorado Alliance for Cruelty Prevention on an educational campaign, provided pet care to the homeless and mentored hundreds of students and interns. In light of the CVMA's recognition of his dedication and professionalism, an interview conducted by e-mail on common pet issues seemed to be in order.

Here it is:

Westword (Alan Prendergast): What prompted your decision to become a veterinarian?

Aubrey Lavizzo: My "calling" came around age 7, when I nursed an injured baby chick back to health and raised her as a pet I named Chirper. The decision to become a veterinarian came much later, when I was a third-year undergrad majoring in biology and was fortunate to attend a lecture given by Dr. Edward Braye, a large animal professor at the Tuskegee Institute (now University). It was Dr. Braye's kindness and compassion that rekindled the spark to care for animals, and I applied for admission to Tuskegee the next year.

WW: What's the most common concern people have about their pets?

AL: By far the most common concerns about their pets are behavioral challenges, which I believe arise when we attempt to "humanize" their behaviors -- not understanding that each species has its distinct, hard-wired behavioral traits that we may modify when appropriate, and/or to which we need to adapt our own behaviors.

WW: The field has, of course, changed dramatically since you started in the 1970s. What's been the most beneficial development?

AL: Advancements in veterinary medicine have paralleled advancements in human medicine to the point that nearly all technologies and therapies available in human medicine -- including specialty practices -- are also available for animals. Conversely, the over-reliance of human medicine on technology has crept into veterinary medicine, often supplanting the still-basic tools of a thorough physical examination and essential relational competence. Fortunately, a number of veterinary colleges have begun to address the need for greater relational skills among veterinary students and have introduced courses that teach and enhance interpersonal skills vital to success in a veterinary career and in life. In my opinion, this is the most beneficial development for animals, for our clients, and for the profession.

WW: With all the new technology and drugs, it seems that people's animal companions can be kept alive much longer, raising a number of quality of life issues that can be hard on vets as well as their clients. What sort of guidance do you provide people who aren't sure when it's time to let go?

AL: It is true that advancements in nutrition, drugs and technology help to keep our pets alive, healthy, and active far longer than ever. Yet for those of us for whom our pets are an integral part of our lives and our well-being, the time nearly always comes when we must make the decision to let a beloved pet go. And those moments of complete clarity about the decision are rare. Each person's decision is unique and personal. In Colorado we are fortunate to have the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine's Argus Institute as a pioneering and invaluable resource whose clinical counselors "offer support to people who are facing difficult decisions regarding their pet's health and help them manage the challenges of caring for a sick animal." Other resources and their websites include the Cornell University Pet Loss Support Line , Grief Healing, Pet Bereavement Counseling and Pet Loss Help.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "No sharing, stoners: Vet says pot can kill your dog."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast