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An Interview with Dr. Phil Zeltzman

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Why did you become a veterinarian?

Very simply, to help animals. I wanted to be a vet since the age of 5. My favorite TV shows were Flipper, Daktari and Lassie. Becoming a vet, and later a veterinary surgeon, has been a dream come true, and I am as passionate about my profession today as I was when I first started.
When I was a kid, I read countless books about all kinds of animals, including ants, bees and German shepherds. Little did I know then what I know now: being a vet is just as much about helping people.

Do you have pets?

I only adopt rescued cats, although I also rescued Valentine, a bunny, when I was a surgery intern. My cats are named after delicacies: Caramel, Nougat, Praline…

Where did you go to vet school?

I graduated in 1993 from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Liege, in Belgium. Then I worked as a family vet, an emergency vet, and a veterinary journalist for three years in my native city of Paris, France. But my true passion had been surgery since vet school.

What training did you go through to become a surgeon?

After 8 years in vet school, I completed a 1-year internship at the University of Georgia, followed by a 3-year surgery residency at Surgical Referral Service in Buffalo Grove, Illinois.
So that’s 12 years of schooling, and I consider myself a life-long learner, so I’m not quite done!
After fulfilling multiple requirements, including passing a difficult exam, I became a board-certified surgeon, with the title of Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons.

Can’t all vets perform surgery?

Yes they can, and some do it very well.
A surgery specialist has to meet certain criteria, which I know is very confusing for pet owners. According to our surgery College:
“It is the position of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons that the term "specialist" be reserved for the exclusive use of those veterinarians who have successfully completed a residency training program and passed a certifying exam. The term “surgeon” may be used only to refer to ACVS board-certified veterinary surgeons.”

What is a traveling surgeon?

When a family vet has a patient who needs specialized surgery, one option is to send the pet owner to a referral center, sometimes far away. This may mean taking time off of work multiple times (for the initial visit, then the surgery, then the follow-ups).
Another option is to call a traveling surgeon to their practice, where the pet can be treated in a familiar place. So I travel to family practices, along with my wonderful surgery nurse.
I perform specialized orthopedic, neurologic, cancer, and soft tissue surgeries on dogs, cats, “exotics” and wild animals.

What exotic animals have you done surgery on?

From memory, a chinchilla, Guinea pigs, rats, many rabbits, pot-bellied pigs, deer, foxes, bears, pet birds (including a duck), wild birds (including a hawk) and a coyote.
Surely there were others...

Where have you worked before becoming a traveling surgeon?

I’ve worked as a surgeon for 4 years at a surgical practice in Cincinnati, OH, and an additional 4 years at a surgical practice in Whitehall, PA.
I started traveling surgery part-time in 2007 and I went full-time in 2012.

Which areas do you serve?

I mainly travel to Allentown (Lehigh Valley), Bethlehem, Easton (Northampton County), Berks County, Carbon County, Stroudsburg (Monroe County), Quakertown (Bucks County), Schuylkill County, the Poconos and others areas in Pennsylvania, as well as parts of New Jersey.

What if I don’t live in those areas?

I regularly get referrals from all over Pennsylvania, and from out of State, including North Carolina, New York State, Washington DC, Ohio, New Jersey and Maryland.
My furthest client to date drove about 600 miles, or 10 hours, from Charlotte, NC!

So do these far-away clients need to travel multiple times if there are follow-ups?

No, instead, I keep in close contact with their family vet, so that the follow-up, such as X-rays, can all be done locally. The rest is done with email and phone calls. We have a very good system we’ve used for years.

How do you do your initial consultations?

Because I am a traveling surgeon, almost all of my consultations are done by phone. I like to call clients 1 or 2 days before surgery, so the information is fresh in their mind. This is an in-depth discussion of all of the information a pet owner needs to know: the pet’s diagnosis, preparation before surgery, the surgery itself and the postop care, including medications.
I will answer every question you may have until you fully understand everything you need to know.

What’s your philosophy?

I won’t use fancy words to try to impress you. I prefer to use simple words so you understand me.
I don’t sugarcoat things. We will talk about possible complications, not to scare you, but to educate you.
The rules are strict postop, but that’s how we achieve good results.
I don’t just treat a knee, or a hip, or a body part. I like to treat the entire pet, so I will also make recommendations for physical therapy, supplements, special food and even doggy or kitty psychology, as needed. So I see myself as a holistic surgeon.

What is your most common surgery?

By far, my most common surgery is the TPLO (Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy), a surgery to address a torn ACL. I’ve performed thousands of them, in dogs from less than 5 pounds to more than 250 pounds! The results have been very impressive. I am actually certified to perform TPLOs – not everybody is.
I am also certified (and an instructor) for the TTA Rapid (Tibial Tuberosity Advancement), also to treat a torn ACL.

Don’t you get bored after doing so many orthopedic surgeries?

The day I get bored is the day I should retire!
Pet owners trust me with their pet’s care. Most of the time, this pet is their best friend, a family member, a confident, a companion of 5 or 10 or 15 years.
So I take that trust very seriously. And I take each surgery as a challenge. My goal is to help a family pet to run with the kids, or hike in the mountains, or an agility dog to compete again, or a pet to stop being in pain.

What other types of surgeries do you perform?

I enjoy all aspects of soft tissue, orthopedic, cancer, reconstructive, and neuro-surgery. I also have a strong interest in physical therapy, open wound management and emergency cases. I enjoy helping with the prevention and treatment of overweight and obesity, as well as comprehensive pain management and arthritis management.

What are all these letters after your name: DVM, DACVS, CVJ, FF cert.?

DVM stands for Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, which means I’m a vet.
DACVS stands for Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, which means I’m a surgery specialist.
FF cert. means Fear Free certified. This certificate is given to people who pass a test to prevent fear, anxiety, and stress in pets.
CVJ stands for Certified Veterinary Journalist.

So you’re also a journalist?

I love writing. I’m a blogger, columnist, award-winning writer and book author.
I write a blog, which pet lovers can subscribe to on my website.
I’ve written articles in all kinds of magazines over the years: human medicine, science, general interest, and of course veterinary medicine, both in the US and in Europe.
I am a monthly contributor to Veterinary Practice News . I write a monthly surgery column and a monthly management column.
I also write for Today’s Veterinary Business and a French publication, La Semaine Vétérinaire.
I’ve published two books:
Cocker Spaniels: A Practical Guide for People Owned by a Cocker
and
Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound, a book on weight loss for both dogs and people, co-written with Rebecca Johnson.
I have several book projects in the works…

You said earlier that you’re an instructor?

I regularly lecture to veterinarians, as well as vet students, practice managers, veterinary nurses and entrepreneurs, locally, nationally and internationally. I also mentor vet students, young vets and surgeons. I’ve organized all kinds of conferences, from 1 hour to 1 week long. I currently co-organize a conference specifically dedicated to traveling surgeons.

Have you really lectured abroad?

I’ve been invited to lecture in Turkey and China (twice), and I’ve lectured in Mexico and in multiple islands in the Caribbean.

What are some of the nicest compliments you’ve received from pet owners?

“I wish my physician would treat me as well as you treated my dog.”

“You would never know she had surgery.”

“My 10 year old acts like a puppy again.”

There are more (unsolicited) testimonials on my website.
Ultimately, the best compliment is when a pet owner comes back for another surgery on their pet, or brings another pet for surgery, or refers a friend. A referral is the best compliment!

For more information about Dr. Zeltzman, please contact him today.