NORTHAMPTON – Integrity Veterinary Center saw its first patient on Tuesday, led by a team of seasoned professionals determined to close several gaps in local veterinary services and bring a humane approach to treating animals, their owners and hospital staff .
The hospital at 518 Pleasant St., just minutes from Interstate 91, offers oncology, internal medicine, and emergency care for dogs and cats, as well as outpatient ultrasound services, but no emergency treatment, routine wellness checks or vaccinations.
Owner Dr. Martha MaloneyHuss said the new venture fills a need for pet owners with few options in the area beyond their primary veterinarian. South Deerfield Emergency and Specialty Veterinary Hospital is the closest site offering similar services and all three members of Integrity’s management team have previously worked there.
Dr Erika Mueller, Integrity’s chief operating officer, was chief of medicine at South Deerfield Hospital, which she founded in 2006. Chief of staff, Dr Claire Weigand, was a specialist in internal medicine there – dealing with chronic diseases, infectious diseases, multi-organ disease syndromes and more – while MaloneyHuss worked as a veterinary oncologist.
“The fact that we’re combining these two power plants into one facility is just amazing to me,” MaloneyHuss said of his colleagues.
At the moment pet owners can wait weeks or months for ultrasounds, and it could require extensive travel, but Integrity offers this service in the Northampton area.
“The problem is that many facilities with ultrasound capability are currently offering emergency services and they are overwhelmed,” Mueller said. “Trying to come in with something that’s a chronic problem, something that’s not immediately life threatening? These are the patients who keep getting pushed back until they become an emergency.
MaloneyHuss said the closest emergency veterinary care facility is an hour’s drive from town and similarly overwhelmed. Integrity is the only facility in Western Massachusetts to have a practicing veterinary oncologist.
The space, MaloneyHuss said, is less “clinical” than other hospitals. Bird feeders will be hung in front of the huge bay windows of the consultation rooms to the delight of the felines.
The hospital, which is open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., cannot yet treat exotic or large animals like snakes or horses.
Integrity staff will not take after-hours phone calls, and at the end of the working day the hospital will close and everyone should go take care of themselves, physically and emotionally. Integrity will take appointments Monday through Thursday and offer what MaloneyHuss said competitive salaries so staff don’t have to overwork themselves to pay the bills.
“One thing we’re really focused on with this hospital is making sure we’re providing top quality medicine in a sustainable way for our staff,” MaloneyHuss said. “We want to make sure that… our doctors and our staff are not going to burn out after a few years. They will not be subjected to such permanent stress that they will suffer from professional exhaustion and, in time, from moral injuries, like many of our colleagues.
She said suicide is a crisis in the veterinary field and Integrity will do what it can to support its workers.
According to a 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six veterinarians have considered suicide, and female vets are 2.4 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population; 80% of veterinarians are women.
The study found that 1.1% of men and 1.4% of women in the field had attempted suicide since vet school. Although these numbers are lower than those of the general population, the study notes that “veterinarians’ easy access to drugs may more often result in fatal suicide attempts, leaving fewer survivors to respond to the investigation,” and a 2019 study found that “poisoning was the most common cause of death among veterinarians.
According to the 2019 CDC study, veterinary technicians and technologists are more likely to die from an opioid overdose than veterinarians and the general population.
Weigand said she lost two colleagues to suicide.
“Right now, with the burnout rate and compassion fatigue, having someone (who has) seen cases every day for 30 years” is a boon for pet owners, Weigand said. “We still love him. We’re an oddity.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many owners stopped taking their pets to the vet for routine visits and, in some cases, even for serious health issues, Weigand said.
“We were seeing cases that were so much sicker than they needed to be,” she said.
Now, as the few facilities available are constantly overbooked, pets still suffer dire consequences.
“The flip side is that now people have puppies and kittens, and they can’t come in to get vaccinated,” she said. “We have to react to things instead of preventing things.”
MaloneyHuss said some owners have opted for palliative care and euthanasia over the high costs and travel associated with cancer treatment. Integrity, in addition to providing this care for local pets, hopes to encourage people to purchase pet insurance in the event of catastrophic injury or illness and to take appropriate preventative care.
Obesity, doctors agreed, is a major problem in dogs and cats, leading to ligament tears, diabetes and inflammation, among other conditions. Pets should not be exposed to smoking, and they should eat a properly nutritious diet, rather than what Weigand described as “home-cooked meals.”
The area’s veterinarians and primary care specialists, MaloneyHuss said, are “a giant team,” but veterinary care begins at home.
A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled at Integrity on Friday at 1 p.m.
Brian Steele can be contacted at email@example.com.