New center aspires to help dogs that might otherwise be euthanized

Rehab, pain management and imaging under one roof in Houston

February 2, 2009 (published)
By Edie Lau

Thursday was a big day for Homer, a 9-year-old, 105-pound mix of golden retriever and bloodhound. That was the day he climbed into the back of his owner’s Honda Accord sedan for the first time without any help.

“Yay! It's like he’s a whole new dog,” cheered Melinda Seckt, who’s watched Homer struggle with weak hips since she adopted him from a shelter two years ago.

Seckt credits her pet’s turnaround to 3-1/2 weeks of physical therapy and pain treatment at the Canine Health Institute, a brand-new center in Houston that opens its doors officially on Monday.

Homer got a sneak preview as one of several dogs who helped institute staff test equipment and warm up for business. As a stand-alone private center offering rehabilitation, pain management and medical imaging services under one roof, the Canine Health Institute is a rarity in the veterinary world; possibly unique.

“Unusual? Hugely so,” said Dr. Robert Stein, a pain-management specialist not involved with the institute and president of the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management.

“From what I hear,” Stein said by e-mail, “this is going to be a (perhaps THE) critical force in the evolution of pet pain management.”

Its founders are lifelong animal lovers who have a simple wish to save and improve dogs’ lives by giving them access to medical services that are standard for people.

“We discovered that there were no good options for old geriatric arthritic dogs in Houston, and that hundreds of hundreds of these dogs were being put down every year,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kozak, a human spinal surgeon who, with his wife Vickey, conceived and funded the center. “So we decided we needed a rehabilitation facility for dogs in Houston.”

Physical therapy for dogs, while not common, is not new. Vickey Kozak said she became aware of the service several years ago while selling physical therapy equipment. She learned then that sales of underwater treadmills were growing particularly well in the veterinary realm.

“That’s when I started saying to my husband, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if we could start the first physical therapy center for dogs in Houston,’ ” she recalled.

Drawing from his experience as a spinal surgeon, Jeffrey Kozak said he thought that for physical therapy to be successful, pain management should be included.

“A large part of what I do for my patients is rehabilitating people with spinal injuries and spinal degeneration,” he said. “One of the things we realized in the human arena is that pain management is just as important as rehabilitation. If we don’t control your pain well, you’re not going to have a good response to rehabilitation.”

Like physical therapy, pain management isn't unheard of in veterinary medicine, but it is far from an established field. “A large number of people say, ‘Dogs can’t talk. You can’t really assess pain. This is something that’s not going to work very well in the canine population,’ ” Kozak said.

But others disagreed, and Kozak came to the conclusion that assessing and managing pain is possible in dogs, using clues such as vital signs, facial grimacing and lameness.

To fully address pain, Kozak said, he realized that the center would want to include state-of-the-art medical imaging. Imaging is essential for techniques that involve injecting medicine directly into painful joints and inflamed nerves.

The combination of rehabilitation, pain management and imaging makes for what the institute's medical director Dr. Stephen Pittenger laughingly calls a “three-headed monster.” “There’s nothing quite like it,” Pittenger said.

Pittenger is the Kozaks’ veterinarian and was their sounding board as they developed the institute. He’ll serve as its medical director while maintaining his own separate general practice.

The regular on-site staff include a full-time veterinarian — Dr. Adrianne Brode — two veterinary technicians, a technician to run the MRI and CT machines and support staff.

Seckt, who works in medical research sales at Texas Medical Center, said the equipment at the 6,000-square-foot center Canine Health Institute equals anything she’s seen for people. “I'd take my mom there!” she said.

Her dog Homer has been visiting the center twice a week for the past three weeks, working out on an underwater treadmill. The treadmill is housed in a tank that fills to just below the dog's belly. As the treadmill starts to roll, staff hold a ball in front of Homer. “He starts trying to go for the ball, so he starts walking,” Seckt said. “It’s pretty fun.”

On his first visit, Homer walked the treadmill for two minutes; now he’s up to 12-1/2 minutes, and Seckt spied him the other day in her yard playfully chasing another of her dogs.

As a participant in the center’s warm-up, Homer has received the therapy for free. But Seckt said she is prepared to pay to continue. “The progress I’ve seen, it’s priceless,” she said.

That will come as good news to Jeffrey Kozak, who acknowledged that the center is debuting at a less-than-ideal time. “The economy is bad right now, and we’re kind of wondering how that’s going to affect us,” he said.

The approaches they offer span a gamut from acupuncture and chiropractic therapy to experimental stem-cell treatments.

Prices will vary accordingly. On the less-expensive side, Jeffrey Kozak said, an initial visit and treatment for physical therapy might run $150, with sessions on an underwater treadmill going for $45 per visit. A steroid injection that could alleviate pain for months at a time might go for $300, including pre-treatment imaging and sedation. At the high end are stem cell treatments, in which a patient’s own fat cells are used to generate stem cells that are then injected into his or her arthritic joints. Kozak said deriving the cells alone, a patented process performed by a California laboratory, costs $1,300.

Imaging is available for cats, too. Kozak said the other services may be extended to cats eventually, but they want to get it right in dogs first.

In suburban Houston about 40 miles from the city, Dr. Rick Wall is the nearest veterinarian to the Canine Health Institute offering a combination of pain management and rehabilitation. Wall said that although the institute potentially is a competitor, he expects to collaborate, as well.

“Pain management and rehabilitation is a new discipline in veterinary medicine,” he said. “There are no formal residency programs for that. ... If I look at them strictly as competition, it’s not going to do the discipline any good.

“They have a capability with their imaging to do things that I can’t do right now,” Wall said. “...So it would benefit us, if I can share experiences and they can share equipment, to (work together to) expand the knowledge of the veterinary community in Houston.”

The founders said they would like to see the institute become a model in veterinary medicine but their chief goal simply is to help dogs. “They’re our buddies. They’re our best friends,” said Vickey Kozak. “They’re becoming more and more so like family members. If we can help them age with a better quality of life, let’s do it.”

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