Animal doc in demand for serious, weird surgeries
By Russell Contreras
BOSTON — Michael Pavletic has removed a butcher knife from a dog’s stomach and tumors from tiny mice. He’s performed plastic surgery on injured hawks.
But he draws the line at giving canines body piercings or fat cats liposuction. "That’s just not what I do," said the longtime head of surgery at Boston’s Angell Animal Medical Center.
The 58-year-old surgeon is known as a pioneer in reconstructive animal surgery and is so skilled at saving severely sick and injured animals he is sought out by worried pet owners from around the world. Pavletic has cared for thousands of animals, including a dog that swallowed an engagement ring right before the wedding, a cat needing a face reattached and a gorilla that required reconstructive surgery on a finger.
He’s removed bullets from puppies, performed dental work on wolves, and even tended to snakes with throat problems.
"I’ve been doing surgery for 30 years and there are very few things I haven’t seen," Pavletic said just before going into surgery to remove stones from a cat’s bladder.
In the past, animals with very serious injuries may have simply been euthanized to avoid life long pain and because surgical techniques on some injuries had yet to be developed. But advancements in medicine coupled with pets becoming more a part of families have increased the demand for serious animal surgeries.
"If it wasn’t for him, my cat wouldn’t be alive," said Kristin Gagnon, of Hanson.
Four years ago, Gagnon’s Siamese kitten, Max, burned his palate to the bone after chewing an electrical cord. Pavletic reconstructed Max’s palate by taking a graft from inside the cat’s lip. "What a fantastic job he did," Gagnon said. "He’s the only surgeon who could have done this."
For Pavletic, his love for animals started with sick birds and a terrier mutt named Tiger.
As a 6-year-old in Illinois, Pavletic tried to save injured wild birds by giving them water, food and a little attention. It rarely worked. And he was inseparable from his grandparents’ terrier until the dog was killed by a neighbor’s car.
But he began his journey into animal surgery after finishing veterinary school at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1974.
As an intern at Angell, Pavletic came across a cat named John Glenn that had a tumor on his face. At the time, veterinarians couldn’t remove such tumors from animals while also closing the wound using conventional methods. Pavletic turned to an older human reconstructive surgery textbook that suggested a simple skin flap might do the trick. He took what was a routine technique in human surgery and tailored the procedure for a cat. It worked.
"My interest in surgery grew from there," he said.
Pavletic held teaching positions at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La., and Tufts University in North Grafton, Mass., and over the years developed more than 40 surgical techniques. He also authored a textbook, "Atlas of Small Animal Reconstructive Surgery," that is about to go into its third edition.
He returned to Angell in 1988 as head of surgery. That’s when the fun started and his reputation grew as a healer of the strangest afflictions. The hospital began seeing oddball cases.
Once there was a dog with severe stomach pains. Pavletic’s team found that the dog had swallowed a pair of red panties. They didn’t belong to the dog’s female owner.
"I don’t know what happened to that marriage," said Pavletic.
Another time a family brought in their recently deceased goldfish and asked the team to perform an MRI to determine why it died. The cause: old age.
There was the case of the Labrador retriever who suddenly stopped urinating midway. After various tests, Pavletic discovered that the dog had a pellet stuck in its penis. The bullet had somehow moved down from its bladder after the dog was shot by an unknown assailant. Pavletic surgically removed it — delicately.
And while the injuries Pavletic sees may seem a bit weird, so are requests by some pet owners who confuse animal reconstructive surgery with superficial cosmetic plastic surgery. Over the years, Pavletic has fielded inquiries about dogs getting diamond studs in ears and cats getting liposuction.
"I tell them no," he said.
Nick Trout, an Angell surgeon and author of "Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon," said Pavletic has been a "great mentor" to many aspiring animal surgeons, Trout included, and has always been accessible to veterinary students.
"We see a lot of people who come here specifically to hang out with him and learn from him," Trout said.
Pavletic said laughter is key to any animal surgeon’s health, especially when you come across cases of animals that have been purposely injured by humans.
"You have to keep a sense of humor in this business," he said. "If you don’t, you’ll either leave it or go insane."