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Tail Waggin' Care

A new specialty in veterinary sciences, veterinary sports medicine is thriving at Animal Emergency and Specialty Center.

Article by Madeleine Kriech

Photography by Kaleigh Gibb

Originally published in Parker Lifestyle

There is no shortage of care pets can receive at the Animal Emergency and Specialty Center. From dermatology to oncology, the staff works to make sure the hundreds of pets they see each day are living their healthiest lives. The hospital is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ensure round-the-clock care for animals in the greater-Parker area. The team making this possible is made up of 25 veterinarians, each with two to three technicians, an administrative team and a customer service team, with Abbie Sheffield serving as the Hospital Director and Juliette Hart, MS, DVM, CCRT, CVA, DACVSMR, serving as the Medical Director.

“First, I wanted to be a horse,” says Dr. Hart, when asked how she got on track to her current position. After her mom broke the news that being a horse wasn’t an option, Dr. Hart decided her next best plan was to become a veterinarian. After veterinary school at Colorado State University and several residencies across the United States, a friend connected Dr. Hart to Animal Emergency and Specialty Center. Hired as the Sports Medicine Specialist in May 2020, she was promoted to Medical Director shortly thereafter.

Like humans, animals aren't 100% well after an injury or surgery; they must work to get back to being their best selves. This is where sports medicine and rehabilitation come in. A new specialty to veterinary sciences, the goal of veterinary sports medicine is to treat animals without performing open surgery, focusing on orthopedics and mobility. Beginning in horses, sports medicine has now made its way into small animal care, the type of animals Dr. Hart practices on. In the words of Dr. Hart, "If it's not 'cuttable,' maybe I can fix it."

All different kinds of pets can benefit from sports medicine treatment, from athletes to "weekend warriors" and even geriatric pets. "None of us are aging as gracefully as we wish we did," says Dr. Hart, "how we move impacts our quality of life." Sports medicine and rehabilitation can bring these older pets on a path to better mobility and a better life. For the athletes, Dr. Hart makes sure their bodies are in tip-top shape for competition. Weekend warriors, a term Dr. Hart uses for pets of average mobility, receive treatment that keeps them fresh for Monday walks around the block and Saturday hikes. 

For proper treatment, the first and maybe most important step is diagnostic testing. Using MRIs, CT scans, and other diagnostic equipment, Dr. Hart identifies what is going on with her patients to best create a treatment plan for them. Treatment in sports medicine uses a variety of equipment, including one machine called an AquaPaws. The AquaPaws is able to fill with water to different levels for either a walk on the treadmill or a swim in a pool.

Treats and many "good girl"s and "good boy"s are used to keep patients feeling comfortable while in the AquaPaws and the rest of the sports medicine treatment room. Dr. Hart and the other staff members use positive reinforcement to distance the sports medicine and rehabilitation room from the operation rooms in the pets' minds. "If [animals] don't trust you, you're not going to get the most out of an appointment." says Dr. Hart.

Although the aim of sports medicine and rehabilitation is that it is a finite experience for the pet, Dr. Hart does have some long-term patients. She likes to bring them in for occasional checkups to make sure everything is still working as it should. Especially as her patients get older, Dr. Hart wants to make sure pets are staying healthy into their later years. One of her favorite things is when she hears how previous patients are doing, like when she was invited to a patient's 14th birthday party. This patient wasn't supposed to live past six. 

As a specialist, Dr. Hart centers her knowledge on ways to help animals using sports medicine techniques, whereas a general practitioner has a wide range of knowledge on treating an animal. There is no competition between the two, however, as Dr. Hart predominately gets her patients through referrals from other veterinary clinics. Because the Animal Emergency and Specialty Center is open 24/7, some local vet clinics even refer their patients to them for after-hour calls. Dr. Hart is proud of how supportive the veterinary community is.  "I learn a lot from the primary care community," says Dr. Hart. "I'm very grateful."

Work done at the Animal Emergency and Specialty Center is not only for the patients, but also for their owners and other vets across Colorado and even the United States. Dr. Hart has trained other veterinarians to practice sports medicine and is excited about where this specialty is headed. In the end, her main goal is to be there for the animals. "I'm pretty lucky," Dr. Hart says. "I like what I do."

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