Compassion & Innovation in Veterinary Medicine | Dr. Dena Lodato

In a world where our furry friends are not just pets but valued family members, the role of a veterinarian transcends simple medical care. It demands a blend of expertise, empathy, and a commitment to continuous learning and innovation. As a veterinary surgeon, Dr. Dena Lodato, DVM, embodies this role to its fullest, merging traditional veterinary practices with cutting-edge treatments to provide comprehensive care for her patients.

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Dr. Dena Lodato Resurge Veterinary Surgical Specialists and Rehabilitation

Her dedication to the profession is evident not only in her day-to-day interactions with animals and their owners but also in her pursuit of novel therapeutic options, such as stem-cell therapy and hyperbaric oxygen therapy, that push the boundaries of veterinary medicine. In 2024, she was named the “Top Veterinary Surgical Specialist” of the year by the International Association of Top Professionals.

Growing up surrounded by pets, Dr. Dena Lodato, DVM, MS, DACVS, CCRP, CHT-V, harbored a deep-seated desire to heal and care for animals. “After I graduated vet school, my mom found something that I drew when I was seven that said I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up,” she says.

Her journey was not without its doubts and detours. Initially hesitant about the more invasive aspects of veterinary care, such as injections, Lodato’s love for animals steered her towards grooming, an experience that, while fulfilling, only scratched the surface of her aspirations. It was her hands-on experience at a veterinary practice that cemented her decision to dive deeper into veterinary medicine.

“I enjoyed being able to help animals. But at that point, while I knew I was helping them feel better through bathing and clipping, I wanted to do more than that. I ended up shadowing this veterinary practice that I grew up bringing my animals to and got a job there.”

The path to specialization in surgery was a natural progression for Dr. Lodato, driven by a passion for hands-on healing and the satisfaction of directly addressing the ailments afflicting her furry patients. Another test of her commitment came with the daunting prospect of starting her own practice—Resurge Veterinary Surgical Specialists and Rehabilitation. The decision, spurred by dissatisfaction with her then-current work environment and bolstered by the encouragement of her fiancé and colleagues, marked a turning point in her career.

“There wasn’t an end in sight. I was like, if I’m going to be working this many hours and killing myself to do my job, why be miserable while I’m doing it?”

Opening a practice in 2021 amid the global upheaval of COVID-19 was a leap into the unknown, fraught with challenges but also filled with opportunities to innovate and adapt. “My fiancé was the one who pushed me into opening our own practice.”

The pandemic underscored the importance of clear communication and the adaptability of veterinary care, highlighting the unique bond between veterinarians, their patients, and pet owners.

“In 2020, trying to explain to people how you’re going to surgically fix something over the phone got really interesting. Normally, I find that showing pet owners what I’m talking about, in x-rays or books, lets them visualize the process better. In-person appointments also help owners be more at ease since they can see the person who will be doing the surgery.”

With a deep understanding of the bond between pets and their owners, she emphasizes the importance of preventative care, encouraging pet owners to trust their instincts and seek medical advice when they sense something is amiss with their animals.

“I always tell people that an owner knows their animal better than anybody. So, it’s one of those things where you will know something is wrong. Don’t doubt yourself and think, ‘Oh, I’m probably being crazy.’ Go and get it checked out because if you catch certain things early enough, it won’t become a problem. But if you convince yourself that nothing’s wrong and something is wrong, things could worsen.”

Her dedication extends beyond routine care, as she actively engages with pet owners, reassuring them through direct communication and encouraging them to reach out with any concerns.

“I’ve had people where they’d email me every day a picture of an incision and ask, ‘Is this still okay?’ It makes somebody feel better to know that. If we catch complications early, it could be the difference between medication and a second surgical procedure.”

Being a pet owner herself and having had to do surgery on her own dog once, she understands the stress that comes with having a pet go under the knife. Before meeting her, her dog Sadie was in a doghouse fire that led to burns over 70% of her body. Dr. Lodato eventually adopted Sadie after rehabilitating her. “It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears with that kind of recovery process because she had to regrow almost all of her skin.”

Soon after, Sadie struggled with PTSD. Recognizing mental health issues in pets as a significant aspect of their overall well-being, Dr. Lodato advocates for a comprehensive approach to veterinary care, one that includes acknowledging and treating any psychological traumas and conditions.

“You may have rescue dogs and not know what they’ve been through. Any animal, especially a rescue, if they’ve been brought out of a horrible situation, can have trauma. Animals have emotions.”

Sadie found relief and a renewed zest for life through medication commonly also used in human psychiatry. Dr. Lodato affectionately says, “Sadie is proud on Prozac.”

“Pets can have some of the same antidepressants that people have, and it’s to bring them to where they’re able to enjoy life more and have a better quality of living instead of being constantly anxious.”

Highlighting the role of veterinary behaviorists, Dr. Lodato draws parallels between their work and that of psychiatrists, offering insights into the complex behaviors of animals that may stem from pain or discomfort. “It’s kind of like doggy psychiatry.”

“Some people don’t realize that an animal that’s in chronic pain can also act out and come across as aggressive. Maybe the pet just needs to get his knee fixed or be put on a pain management regime to where it doesn’t hurt. When I’m hurt, I know the last thing I want is for someone to touch me. Animals are the same way.”

She underscores the many similarities humans and animals share in our afflictions.

“Dogs can get OCD. You can have a dog that just sits there and licks or engages in hyper-reactive behavior. A lot of people will bring their dogs in for limping. The dog may not be screaming out that it broke its leg like we do. Now, in the cold weather, people say that their dog is feeling lethargic. I ask them, ‘How does your arthritis feel? Because I know mine’s not doing so great.’”

Dr. Lodato encourages pet owners to observe their animals closely, noting that behaviors often dismissed as minor can indicate more significant health issues, including psychological ones.

“Do they have resource guarding? Kind of like, leave my food alone. It’s funny because they’re obviously a different species, but they are very, very close to us. Even dogs that you know start picking up people traits. They get into routines.”

At home, Sadie has her quirks. “Sadie, for instance, has her routine, and if you throw her routine off, she throws a temper tantrum,” she laughs.

“If she wants to go to bed, she wants to go to bed then, but it’s not okay for just her to go to bed. She wants somebody to come with her. We’re all like, okay, it’s not necessarily her fault she’s afraid to be in small areas.”

Her dedication to veterinary medicine is further exemplified by her exploration of cutting-edge treatments, such as stem cell therapy and hyperbaric oxygen chambers, offering hope and healing to pets like Sadie, who did not have enough skin for skin grafts.

“It’s a little device where you put skin into it, and it will dissolve into the stem cells from the skin. And then you can actually take those and spray those onto areas where the wounds are, and it creates little islands. So, now you have little islands producing skin versus just around the edges. They use it a lot for burn victims in human medicine. I thought it was the coolest thing. I wondered, why doesn’t vet med have all this cool stuff?”

Dr. Lodato saw how this new technology brought Sadie back to health. “Sadie is one of the first dogs ever to have that done. So, we’re proud of her. She got to have this novel treatment that no other dog has had before.”

In her clinic, Dr. Lodato also utilizes hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which involves putting a pet in a chamber with 100% oxygen to help the pet recover.

“We’re starting to get more people in the habit of thinking about hyperbaric treatments for a wide variety of issues that dogs and cats can get healed from. Sadie had ten treatments. I put all the post-op patients in it the day after surgery. I will complement hyperbaric oxygen treatment for them unless I have a reason that they can’t go in. It really does have a huge benefit in recovery because you’re essentially bombarding the body with oxygen, which is exactly what the body needs to heal. You are kind of forcing the body to heal quickly.”

Her clinic has several methods to ensure that both the animal and the pet parent feel comfortable.

“The chamber is clear. We have a little telephone through which you can talk to your pet if they start getting stressed out. Many of them go to sleep and sleep through their entire treatment, so I’m excited about people becoming more and more comfortable.”

Introducing the hyperbaric oxygen chamber in her practice is a testament to the evolving landscape of veterinary medicine, offering a non-invasive option that significantly enhances recovery times for various conditions. This method, akin to treatments available in human medicine, exemplifies the growing intersection between human and veterinary healthcare.

“The vast majority of dogs will just go in and not need any sedation. They’re like, okay, this is comfortable.”

Dr. Lodato’s approach extends beyond immediate medical treatments, incorporating elements like acupuncture and herbal supplements to support a more comprehensive recovery process. By also offering rehabilitation services, she simplifies pet healthcare for pet owners.

Dr. Dena Lodato Resurge Veterinary Surgical Specialists and Rehabilitation

“Having everything under one roof makes it easier for owners to schedule. Everybody has a crazy schedule. It makes it easier for owners to get these different services without having to drive all over the place.”

Dr. Dena Lodato Resurge Veterinary Surgical Specialists and Rehabilitation

Her advocacy for herbal supplements alongside pharmaceutical drugs represents a shift towards a more holistic view of veterinary care, where traditional and modern treatments are combined for the best outcomes.

“They have Chinese massage now for dogs. Bridges are being made between humans and animals. The stuff that is good for us can also be good for your pets. I think having everything work together is more of a whole-body approach.”

Dr. Lodato’s philosophy underscores the importance of not just treating ailments but enhancing the overall quality of life for pets, ensuring they recover from their illnesses and enjoy a positive, enriching life post-treatment.

“I view my job as more than just fixing something. It’s like, what else do we need to do for recovery to make it easier? I have a lot of people who will come in and say they had a similar procedure, and it was horrible. It hurt. They had to go through rehab after. They might have a preconceived notion that their experience is what their pet will experience. And they’re surprised when their pets return happy. They’ll do rehab and return, wagging their tails because they had a good time. We try to keep it a positive experience for them so that they do want to come back.”

Her approach also prioritizes the comfort of the animals in her care, making their experience as stress-free as possible, which is critical for their healing and well-being.

“It makes me feel good when owners recognize that we do care and we do try to make the animal’s experience as least traumatic as possible. If an animal doesn’t want to come back, that won’t help them. If an animal is stressed out or something hurts, it will delay healing in the long run. People are surprised when we send them pictures of their dog getting post-op acupuncture, sitting there looking around, eating, with the little needles stuck in them. It’s not a painful experience for them.”

Dr. Lodato says that obesity in pets is becoming more prevalent and is an issue that is often trivialized.

“I do see a rise in obesity, and I think the pandemic has exacerbated it because people were home more, so they fed their animals more. I find that snacks are the biggest offenders that lend themselves to obesity. A milk bone many people give their dogs is equivalent to a Snickers bar. The most difficult conversation I have to have with owners is about weight. Especially when you’re dealing with orthopedic surgery and long-term arthritis, weight is a huge component of recovery and maintenance.”

Her own chiweenie’s weight loss journey is a testament to how much a pet’s weight can impact its standard of life.

“When she was obese, she could run around the house twice and then had to sit down. Now, you can’t get her to stop running. She loves it. She just loves running around the backyard with the other dogs, which she couldn’t do before. So, it’s almost like we gave her another activity that she didn’t even know she liked.”

For those considering being a pet owner, she has some sage advice.

“The biggest thing is realizing that it is a responsibility. It’s a life. It’s almost like having a kid where they rely on you for everything. Now, the good news is that they do have unconditional love. They’re always happy to see you when you come home. You know they’ll love you no matter what, but they still rely on you, and it’s still a responsibility. Don’t go on a whim and decide you want an animal if you haven’t thought about it. Realize that it’s not just getting an animal but also making sure you provide for that animal.”

During the pandemic, the mental health of healthcare professionals was brought to the forefront of social conversation. Dr. Lodato stresses that veterinarians carry their own struggles with mental health because of the responsibilities they take on.

“There are several examples of areas that can weigh heavily. One is when people say hurtful things. Sometimes, people will be upset if they have to wait ten minutes, but they don’t realize that something terrible could have happened right before they walked in. The other thing is euthanasia. Thank God I don’t have to put animals to sleep often, but to me, it’s a huge responsibility knowing that you have the ability to take a life. It weighs. There’s never a time when I put an animal down and don’t take it home with me. It’s tough to leave what happened at work, at work. You’re putting in long hours, and you become attached to owners, you get attached to pets, and then you watch a pet grow up. Suddenly, you’re the one who has to end a life.”

In addressing these challenges, Dr. Lodato underscores the importance of mental health support for veterinarians, advocating for self-care and professional help to navigate the emotional landscape of their work. One non-profit organization, Not One More Veterinarian, aims to address these issues in the broader profession.

“It’s aimed at preventing vet suicide because it’s a big problem. The biggest thing that people need to do, and I had to do, is actually set aside and make time to go to a therapist and be able to voice ‘This is what happened,’ and ‘This is what’s bothering me.’ Instead of bottling it up, they can have a place to open up.”

Her emphasis on support underscores the often-overlooked aspect of veterinary medicine—that vets are human too.

“We put our heart and soul into doing what we do because our patients can’t tell us what’s wrong. It takes a lot of energy and effort to figure out the problem and then treat it.”

The financial aspects of veterinary care, particularly surgery, add another layer of stress, compelling veterinarians like Dr. Lodato to strive for perfection in their work, knowing the trust and resources pet owners invest in them. “It kind of puts an extra weight on my shoulders because I want to ensure everything goes perfectly.”

Recognizing the importance of mental health, Lodato advocates for therapy and self-care days for veterinarians, highlighting the necessity of balancing professional dedication with personal well-being.

“Take a day. With my schedule, I had to set aside time, even an hour a week, for therapy, and I got to the point where I felt like I needed at least one day off. So, it was one of those things where I had to realize I could push myself to be 150% at my job, but I couldn’t do that forever because it does weigh on you. I personally had to embrace that I’m not abnormal because my job stresses me out.”

Her approach to creating a supportive work environment reflects a desire to foster a sense of family and understanding within her practice, recognizing veterinary work’s unique pressures.

“We try to have the atmosphere of family versus this is a job you go to and get stressed out. It’s a different type of job when you’re dealing with the life and death of somebody’s pet. People consider pets family members, and so do I. We try to support each other and recognize, hey, if you’re not doing well, please take time to do what you need to do to get better.”

Lodato’s insights into the challenges exacerbated by the pandemic—both for veterinarians and pet owners—underscore the intensified emotional bonds and dependencies that have emerged during these times.

“To have company while sheltering in place, many people adopted cats and dogs. So, now you have more people who have more animals. The stakes are even higher when you have someone where their dog is their lifeline to being mentally okay.”

Another situation vets must wrangle with is the issue of addiction, which also rose during the pandemic among pet owners. Its implications for veterinary practice raise essential considerations about the prescription of medications, highlighting the delicate balance veterinarians must maintain between addressing the needs of their patients and mitigating the potential misuse of prescribed drugs. “I think that wherever drugs are accessible, there’s going to be an issue. It’s more for people to recognize the prevalence of the issue.”

In the past, Dr. Lodato has worked with clients to find a medication regimen that facilitates their pet’s recovery while also avoiding substances that may trigger the client—a profoundly empathetic approach to this unique problem.

Addressing the mental health challenges veterinarians face, Dr. Lodato touches on a critical issue within the profession. The emotional toll of veterinary medicine is profound, encompassing the stress of difficult medical decisions, the grief of euthanasia, and the strain of long hours. Her candid discussion about the need for support systems and professional mental health care for veterinarians is a vital call to action for the veterinary community and pet owners alike.

“It is for vets to realize that we’re people and for clients to realize that we’re people. It’s okay as a veterinarian to not be perfect. Owners need to realize that you can try your best with everything, and you might not get the outcome that you want. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care. As much as we want to be superheroes and save everyone, unfortunately, we can’t, and we have to recognize that because we are human, we are going to be upset about things. You need to be able to ask for help because other people are going through the same things. You’re not alone.”

Dr. Lodato’s work is a reminder of the challenges and hard work, but also the joy and fulfillment, that comes from improving the lives of animals and their human companions.

“The most rewarding thing is being able to watch an animal come in that had a problem; you address it, and you give them their life back. Now they do everything that they used to. I come home every day and look at Sadie. To me, it’s rewarding that she’s happy. It’s one of those things where I look at her and think things could have been worse. My day could have been worse.”

Dr. Dena Lodato Resurge Veterinary Surgical Specialists and Rehabilitation