Southeastern Connecticut's 'Wizard of Paws,' Dr. Debbie Gross Saunders, has two young children, a happy obsession with buying fun dog collars for Bogart (her two-year-old clumber spaniel) and a deeply felt commitment to helping other beloved family pets live their best life.
On a great day, she delivers hope to a stricken pet owner — that there are options besides euthanasia for a pet who has experienced a significant loss in mobility. On the best day, she watches an animal — who had to be carried in to undergo treatment — joyfully stand and walk.
Saunders has always felt a bond with animals. "I've never had a issue with biting or aggression," she said.
While pursuing her bachelor's in physical therapy from Boston University, she came up with the idea of uniting her love for animals with her clinical expertise. She went on to earn her master's in orthopedic physical therapy from Quinnipiac University and her doctorate from the University of Tennessee in 2008.
She exudes calm — which can be an occupational hazard when she's out in public and dogs trot over and sit down next to her. One close friend in particular calls her "Dr. Doolittle."
But that name was taken. So she opened her practice under the moniker 'The Wizard of Paws' and now operates two canine rehabilitation facilities; at 2 Avery St. in Mystic and 155 Westchester Road in Colchester. The services provided at these locations mirror those associated with veterinary hospitals, including rehabilitation after orthopedic or neurological surgery, and treatment for hip and elbow dysplasia, muscular and athletic injuries, degenerative problems, wounds and cancer.
Saunders also helps show dogs gear up for the rigors of daylong competition. She was elated this past February, when an Irish setter her team had worked with made it to the coveted "Best in Show" division at the famed Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York. "We all became so bonded during that process," she said. When the announcement was made, "I almost fell out of my chair." When Grace spoke with Saunders, she was also looking forward to seeing some of her clients compete in the Thanksgiving Classic Cluster at the Eastern States Exposition (the Big E) in West Springfield, Mass.
But whether the dog is a rarefied breed or a pound puppy, love for these creatures and a desire to see them enjoy the highest quality of life for the longest time possible are what guide her practice.
"I can honestly say that I love what I'm doing" she said.
Back on their feet
Dogs are abundantly loving and expressive. So even when they can't tell you exactly what is wrong, changes in personality usually indicate a problem.
Owners may notice changes in eating and sleeping patterns, or the animal being withdrawn from the family unit, she explained. "If your dog has stopped jumping up and greeting you when you get home," that can be a sign.
The facility in Colchester is bright, open and welcoming. There is a mirrored area with a soft floor for exercise ball work, which builds an animal's core strength. Paint pawprints from each client decorate the walls. A rottweiler grumbles happily as it exercises in one of the underwater treadmill tanks.
Dr. Saunders is a big advocate of water therapy and uses it to help her canine clients stabilize joints, improve agility and build strength in large muscles like the hips. Water reduces the dog's body weight up to 75%, which reduces stress on the joints. Adjusting the height of the water targets different muscles and injuries. At the same time, the resistance of the water ensures a good workout - one mile on the treadmill is equivalent to three miles on land, she explained.
The Colchester facility provides special needs boarding, a kennel, in other words, for dogs undergoing rehabilitation. She also offers laser therapy for pain and inflammation, which helps dogs who have exhausted their pharmaceutical options, she explained.
Saunders is proud of the fact that most of her clients come from referrals. "We constantly strive for that trust," she said.
Many of the maladies she sees can be attriuted to two common factors: age and excess weight.
"Every five pounds of extra weight your pet carries can reduce its life expectancy by roughly 2 years," she said. Exercise is as essential to dogs as it is to humans, she explained. And just as with humans, a healthy diet and active lifestyle make all the difference. They become even more important as the animal advances in years.
"We try to help people understand that older dogs - they don't have to hurt. Being old is not a license to hurt," she said. "Different breeds are prone to different issues, but most dogs older than 7 have some form of arthritis."
Saunders urges her human clients not to give up on otherwise healthy animals who have become sedentary from weight gain or aging. If the animal seems unhapy, it is within the owner's power to change that. "We want owners to understand that as much as we'll do, they're the bigger component," she said.
They even design at-home exercise programs for senior dogs, who can draw a lot of benefit from simple exercises on the rug, she said.
Dr. Saunders takes a practical approach to measuring her success. "We look for objective improvements. When a dog jumps into the car for the first time in six months — that's huge," she said.
Her website includes testimonials from owners who are happy to see their animals jumping again - even if it means they have to be retrained not to jump on the coffee table.