When Dr. Dale Graber treated an injured monkey in his own home for months - as well as a menagerie of dogs, cats, and snakes - he did much more for his veterinary business than build a satisfied clientele.
Two of his four children got so interested in the work that they became partners in Graber's Animal Hospital. The business operated by Dr. Steven Graber and his sister, Dr. Cathy Graber, is far larger and can do far more for animals than the hospital their father opened in 1952.
“He had days where sometimes there would be two or three clients who came in,” Steven Graber said of his father's early days when he worked alone. Today, the animal hospital has 10,000 clients on active rolls and employs six veterinarians in a former convenience store on West Laskey Road.
Because of advances in science, the hospital has more choices of medications and treatments to help sick animals than Dale Graber, who retired in the mid-1990s, “wouldn't even have dreamed of using,” his son said.
That's meant animals have stayed on the hospital's rolls much longer.
“We didn't used to see geriatric animals,” Steven Graber said. “If your animal lived to be 8 or 9, that was an old dog or cat. Now, cats sometimes live to be 18 or 20.”
That has been good for the business, which has grown steadily in five years. The economy, however, plays a factor. Steven Graber expects revenues of $950,000 this year, which is 5 percent less than the hospital's record sales of $1 million three years ago.
Animal lovers still take their pets to veterinarians when times are tough. But in a shaky economy, they're less likely to try a third or fourth alternative if the first treatments don't cure the problem, Steven Graber said.
Soon after Steven Graber graduated from veterinary college in the mid-1980s, he started orthopedic and neurosurgery at the hospital, making it one of the first in the area to take on such specialized work. But he suffered back problems and gave up that part of the practice in the late 1990s.
The hospital has always focused on pets. In its early days, Dale Graber treated horses, but not farm livestock. Now, dogs are 60 percent of the hospital's business and cats account for most of the rest.
After-hours clients are usually referred to an emergency clinic, but the Graber veterinarians take calls in the middle of the night for post-surgical complications.
The hospital finds most of its clients through word-of-mouth and keeps them by convincing them that the staff of 16 loves animals as much as they do.
June Lengel heard about Graber's when she was a crime victim and the policeman who took her report suggested that a dog would help deter future attacks. Graber's, he had told her, would provide good advice in selecting and caring for a dog.
Once, Dale Graber recommended a daily treatment for her dog that she was too “chicken” to do at home herself. Dr. Graber had said, “Well, you come over here every day, and I'll take care of him.” She made the drive from her Old West End home to the hospital without thinking twice.
“When it's someone you have faith in, distance doesn't enter into it,” Mrs. Lengel said.
Kay Pflum, who years ago baby-sat Dale Graber's four children, said she has been comforted by the way the hospital handles one of the hardest decisions for pet owners: putting a dog or cat in great pain to sleep. Veterinarians have helped her weigh the decision and then allowed her to decide if she wanted to hold the animal while it was injected. Afterward, she has received sympathy cards at her Washington Township home from the facility.
Such service is not cheap. When Steven Graber did surgeries, the typical procedure and hospitalization cost $1,500 to $1,800. Some of the newest medications for large dogs run $15 a day.
To Mrs. Lengel, some bills seem as expensive as medical care for a child. “But when you're satisfied with the service you get, then you're happy,” she said.
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