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Introducing Texas A&M University’s Next-Generation Small Animal Teaching Hospital

By Jeannie Ralston

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Something was wrong in the dental service at Texas A&M University’s Small Animal Teaching Hospital.

A large golden-colored dog lay on a padded, metal table as a veterinary technician and a student performed a routine teeth cleaning; one handled the brushing device while the other monitored a screen showing the dog’s vital statistics. Two other students looked on, one taking notes. On a screen to one side of the room, a camera displayed a close-up of the dog’s mouth—all pink gums and white strips, jagged like keys.

Directly under the elbow of one of the students sat another technician, concentrating on a computer screen as he typed, trying to block out the hubbub around him.

You see how cramped we are in here? We need something at least twice as big.

Dr. John August

Overseeing the action was Dr. Bert Dodd ’78 ’79, a clinical professor of dentistry in the School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, who bluntly assessed the problem. “You see how cramped we are in here?” Dodd asked, shaking his head. “You put a few more students in here doing rounds, and it gets plain claustrophobic. We need something at least twice as big.”

This was one day in one room of the hospital, the state’s premier animal care facility and one of the country’s best. But it could have played out anywhere in the 40-year-old building on any given day, because it is a known fact that the hospital has long outgrown its home. While this isn’t a problem that impacts the quality of care animals receive or students’ overall education, it is a problem of potential.

“Unfortunately,” said Dr. John August, the Carl B. King Dean of Veterinary Medicine, “our current facility doesn’t reflect the excellence we want the world to see.” That is about to change with the proposed Next-Generation Small Animal Teaching Hospital.

Explore these paws-itively inspiring patient stories:

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Tigger

Tigger, a striking calico cat, often wears a purple bow collar around her neck that matches the purple stroller she sits in when her parents take her outside. Because Tigger is a rescued feral cat, Trish Fetter ’18 and Phillip Tinner ’18 want her to have the chance to be outdoors “but without all the dangers,” Trish said.

But last spring, Tigger’s safe world turned upside down. When Phillip or Trish tried to rub her belly, something she normally loved, she cried out and growled. After a trip to the local emergency veterinary hospital in Houston, they learned that Tigger had a kidney stone lodged in her ureter between her kidneys and bladder. Unable to perform the necessary surgery, the local hospital referred them to the Small Animal Teaching Hospital.

The hospital’s reputation soothed the couple’s nerves a bit, and Texas A&M’s veterinarians did not waste time. The kidney stone’s location called for a complicated surgery in which they cut out the blockage and put in a ureteral stent to help the ureter heal properly.

The surgery was successful, but Tigger took a turn for the worse during recovery. “Afterward, the doctor told us she was afraid Tigger wasn’t going to make it, but they were doing everything they could,” Phillip reported. But happily, Tigger made a miraculous turn-around and was home within a week.

“She’s such a little fighter,” Trish said. “I think her stray instincts came out. Everyone at the hospital was so happy for her and us. It’s obvious how much they care.”

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Sophie

Two weeks after Kristie Ikels ’13 ’21 studied canine nasal tumors in her third year of veterinary school, she woke up to find that her 8-year-old mixed-breed dog, Sophie, was bleeding from her nose. She had learned enough to know this wasn’t good.

“Being very emotional and the vet student I was, I immediately jumped to the worst scenario—cancer,” she shared. Unfortunately, after her local veterinarian referred her to the Texas A&M Small Animal Hospital, a CT scan revealed that she was correct.

“I started sobbing when I got the news,” she said. “Even though I’d known it was probably cancer, it’s hard to hear when it’s your baby.”

Ikels felt even worse when she got the next bit of news. Treatment would be expensive—more expensive than a student could afford. But the hospital staff found a solution.

A grant the oncology service had received from Petco Love covered half the bills, while Ikels worked extra hours at her part-time job and solicited help from her family for the other half. In February 2020, Sophie received an experimental treatment of radiation and surgery, which was repeated later that year when another tumor appeared. The treatment is expected to add four years to her life.

Two years later, Sophie is healthy and rambunctious, and Ikels, who now practices in College Station, believes she may be a better veterinarian for having gone through the experience. “It has made me care about where people are coming from—emotionally and financially. What can I do to help them out? Because I would never want the roles reversed if I can help it.”

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Werner

Andrea Streicher knew that Texas A&M’s mascot was a dog and that several kids in her Austin neighborhood attended college there, but that was the extent of her knowledge about Aggies until Werner, her beloved 2-year-old “double doodle”—half goldendoodle and half labradoodle—started having seizures in 2018. After an MRI showed Werner had a rare skull bone tumor, her local veterinarian suggested he be put down.

When Streicher contacted Texas A&M, she intended to give his body to the college for study. She received a surprise instead. Having never seen this type of cancer in a young dog, doctors said, “We’re going to try to take it out.”

“That’s the thing about Texas A&M vets—their first answer is yes and not no,” Streicher said.

During a 12-hour surgery, doctors successfully removed the tumor, but with it they had to take out a large part of Werner’s skull, including one eye. To fill the gap, a replacement skull—created by a 3D printer—was implanted. For two years, Werner thrived.

When an infection later required the artificial skull to be removed, Streicher and her doctor came up with another idea while Werner was being treated with antibiotics—a helmet that he could wear externally to protect his brain, rather than put him through surgery again to insert another implant. Texas A&M veterinarians fitted a custom 3D-printed helmet to fit his head securely that he now comfortably wears during the day. At night, Streicher removes it.

Through social media and in-person appearances, Werner (now nicknamed “Werner the Wonder Dog”) has become an inspiration and comfort to others with disabilities, particularly people who must wear helmets due to head injuries. “Maybe these kids who have to wear a helmet see Werner and think, ‘If that’s a wonder dog, maybe I’m a wonder kid,” Streicher said. Besides taking Werner to schools, they also visit her mother at an assisted living facility twice weekly. “He goes up to everybody in their wheelchairs and puts his head on their laps,” she said. “He has great empathy. But he wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Texas A&M not giving up.”

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Molly & Cadbury

Molly and Cadbury are both 10-year-old rescued Labrador retrievers, but they have strikingly different personalities, according to their parents, Linda and Dennis Clark ’68. Molly, a yellow lab, is a princess. “The joke around the house is that Molly gets up every morning and puts on her tutu and crown,” Linda said. On the other hand, Cadbury, a chocolate lab, has the temperament of an old professor. “He loves to lie under a tree in the yard and study the birds.”

What the dogs have in common, besides their parents’ devotion, is undergoing tibial plateau leveling osteotomy surgery at the Small Animal Teaching Hospital (twice for Molly). Dennis described the surgery as “basically the canine version of a knee replacement.”

Though the Clarks live north of Fort Worth, they didn’t hesitate to bring their dogs to College Station. They are enthusiastic fans of the veterinary school, so much so that they’ve endowed two faculty chairs at the school. One is in the equine department, while the other is held by Dr. Brian Saunders ’98 ’01 ’05, an associate professor and orthopedic surgeon at the Small Animal Teaching Hospital.

Fittingly, it was Saunders who operated on both dogs. “It was exciting to get to know Brian through the surgeries,” Dennis said. “What you’ve got at Texas A&M are very qualified individuals at every level and people who actually help develop some of the techniques in modern animal care.”

The Clarks are thrilled that a new hospital will allow more people to benefit from the school’s expertise. “The school directly and positively impacts all family members’ quality of life,” Dennis added. “The hospital and the people who work there are excellent ambassadors for Texas A&M.”

The Original

When it opened in 1981, the current Small Animal Teaching Hospital was considered state-of-the-art and plenty spacious. “One of my favorite stories about this facility is from Phil Hobson, a former chief of small animal surgery, who was largely responsible for this building,” shared Dr. Stacy Eckman ’01, associate dean for hospital operations. She stood in a hallway lined with a piece of operating equipment under a tarp, a cart of clean scrubs, a file cabinet and a step stool. “He said that he was roundly criticized for how big it was.”

Since then, much has changed in veterinary medicine and at the school. All over the country, demand for veterinary medicine is booming, with pet care expenditures expected to triple by 2030. Procedures and treatments have become more precise and complex, requiring more sophisticated equipment, training and staff.

Since the hospital’s opening, the number of services offered has expanded from two to 16, including ophthalmology and cardiology. The caseload has jumped from 6,000 per year in 1981 to more than 23,000 annually today. In the same timeframe, the class size has increased from 73 to 180, the number of first-year veterinary students who entered in fall 2022. Clinical and research trials have grown as well. The only things that seemingly haven’t increased are the size and sophistication of the space.

Still, the school’s reputation continues to soar, ranking fourth in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.

“In the end, it’s the people who make the difference. Through their expertise and compassion, they work miracles in a facility that is not 100% of what we would expect,” said August. “But the new hospital will round out the reputation of our school. We have faculty, staff and students who work extraordinarily hard and deserve to have the very best facility in which to do their great work.”

We have faculty, staff and students who work extraordinarily hard and deserve to have the very best facility in which to do their great work.

Dr. John August

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The building will match the abilities of the people within it.

Dr. Karen Cornell

The Vision

What should a top-tier small animal teaching hospital look like? That’s the question the school’s leaders have been seriously contemplating ever since Texas A&M and the state legislature put funds and encouragement behind a $200 million project for a new hospital.

Plans are being drawn up now with input from faculty and staff, with construction expected to break ground in 24 to 36 months. The school’s priorities will help shape the design, layout and amenities. First and foremost, the facility is a teaching hospital; therefore, the building will be designed to create the best environment for learning. It will be a place where innovation blends with compassionate patient care. The school’s administration envisions a facility that promotes a “one health” approach to veterinary medicine since much of its research is translatable to human beings. That approach also nurtures interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues in other schools and colleges on campus, as well as with academic medical research facilities in Texas and beyond.

In essence, the physical representation of the college will align more closely with its national reputation. Or as Dr. Karen Cornell, associate dean for the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Professional Program, put it: “The building will match the abilities of the people within it.”

Six key design features will solve salient problems that the current space presents.

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No Breathing Room

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"Aaaaah!"

“This is our neurology surgical area,” said Dr. Jonathan Levine, professor and holder of the Helen McWhorther Chair in Small Animal Clinical Sciences, pointing into a room dominated by a light green machine with an arcing arm. “It’s packed with equipment because they need a surgical microscope, an infrared unit and certain aspirators for brain surgery, but you can hardly fit any people.”

The current hospital’s size, or lack thereof, is a source of much frustration. It measures 84,000 square feet—40% smaller than small animal hospitals at peer institutions across the country. “We’ve made use of every nook and cranny we possibly can,” said Eckman, who dreams of something closer to 60 exam rooms compared to the current 15.

The hospital’s new design is not set, so square footage is still being determined. But there will be spacious areas for surgery, radiology, rehabilitation and rounds rooms (where students gather and discuss) incorporated into spaces for specialties ranging from dermatology to oncology. The emergency room will be expanded from what Eckman called “a strip of real estate” that sees about a fifth of the cases that come through the hospital daily to something more suitable for the traffic flow.

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Inflexibility

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a Design That Keeps up With Technology

Importantly, size is only one factor in the overall design considerations. “It’s not just a matter of building a bigger version of our hospital,” August said. “We need a building design that can change with time because we just don’t know what veterinary medicine will look like 30 years from now.”

The current hospital has been notably resistant to remodeling. “We’ve tried to modify and make better use of the space we have,” Eckman said. “But there’s only so much you can do with this footprint.” The rooms that once housed the radiology department exemplify the building’s constraints. “They were still hand-processing x-rays when they built this,” Eckman said. “These are lead-lined walls. You can’t just knock them down.”

The staff and administration anticipate that surgical robots are the future of medicine, which means operating rooms must be large enough to accommodate state-of-the-art equipment. The dean hopes the new teaching hospital will be the country’s first to house computer-integrated interventional medicine. “And so,” he said, “we need to make sure we think about space assignments for those kinds of things.”

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a Less-Than-Ideal Teaching Environment

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Room for Real-World Learning

Students in the veterinary school get a first-class education, there’s no doubt. But clearly, it’s not as smooth as it could be. “There aren’t enough learning areas, computers and break rooms,” reported Vanessa Wilkins ’23, a fourth-year student who will receive her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in May. “Oftentimes, there are lines for computers or sitting areas if we bring our own computer, and staff break areas are doubling as student areas and rounds rooms.” Wilkins emphasized, however, that patient care is never compromised.

The new facility will aim to make real-world, hands-on learning more accessible. For example, taking the place of space-starved operating rooms designed in the ’70s will be modern operating theaters that will allow students to witness the full scope of procedures rather than needing to crane necks or stand on tiptoes.

While the hospital is renowned for its innovations in specialty fields, the new facility will ensure that students are truly prepared to be general practitioners, which is the field most graduates pursue. “We want to create an environment where students can develop skills they need to enter private practice,” August said. “This should be a place where we can carefully and holistically assess student competencies.”

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Thwarted Growth

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Space for Important Initiatives

The wish list is long and includes kidney dialysis, 3D printed prostheses and other advancements in biomedical engineering. These are specialties, technologies and services the hospital would like to formally offer but hasn’t been able to.

“We’re at a ceiling as far as some of the services we want to offer,” said Eckman, “because we would need more people to expand into them, and you have to have the place to put them.”

The proposed facility will showcase new developments in veterinary medicine and allow the college to address other priorities. For instance, August would like the hospital to focus on telehealth. “I’m interested in how we can utilize telehealth to help veterinarians who don’t have convenient access to specialists, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley.”

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Added Stress

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Calmness and Healing

Hospitals are inherently stressful places, whether they serve human beings or animals. Life and death are often on the line, and staff and clients are subject to a wide range of emotions, from anxiety and grief to hope and joy. The current facility does little to alleviate that kind of stress. “It’s an impersonal space that provides few comforts for people who work here,” August shared. “The new facility will be designed to promote well-being and wellness. It’s imperative that it create a calming effect for stressed patients, employees and students in a busy place.”

“I’m looking forward to what the new building does for morale,” Cornell added. “It will be so much better than coming to work in a cinderblock building.”

August hopes a healing garden can also be worked into the design. Mostly, he wants clients who bring their animals to College Station to know the hospital is a caring facility. “We understand that pets are part of the family and people are going to be worried when they come here,” he said, “and we want to ensure they feel welcome.”

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Ho-Hum First Impression

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Face of the University

The new hospital's features will make it a prestigious and welcoming part of campus.

“It will be wonderful for us because of its prominence,” said August. “We’ll be one of the main features people see when entering the university.”

Because the hospital offers a public-facing service, it is often the primary interaction those outside the Aggie community have with Texas A&M. New clients come to the hospital from all over the state and country, often on referral from their local veterinarians. Many of these clients come from state-of-the-art hospitals—some of which may resemble spas, a staff member pointed out—and expect much more from a top-rated animal hospital.

“We’ve had a variety of visitors from the outside comment on the facilities,” said Levine. “People come here, and they’re a little shocked.”

First impressions matter, and not just for clients. “The new facility will allow us to continue to recruit the best faculty and students,” Cornell added. The next-generation hospital will attract the people who will keep the school at the top of the rankings and continue to make innovations in veterinary medicine.

Once the new hospital is built, it will be more than just a physical gateway to Aggieland. As one of the university’s most prestigious and well-known schools, it will symbolize the sense of service and warmth ingrained in the Aggie character. “Our hospital of the future,” August said, “will provide the world a window into Texas A&M.”

Vet students with a dog on a table Doctor looking through a microscope Vet students gathered around a dog on a table Three students with a dog on a table Vet students with a cat on a table Vet student with a dog on a table

You can support the school’s mission through endowed funds for research, faculty and student scholarships.

Additionally, naming opportunities starting at $25,000 abound in the new facility, and spaces can be named in memory or honor of a special person or pet. If you'd like to be part of pushing veterinary medicine to new heights at Texas A&M, contact Larry Walker '97, senior director of development, at the bottom of this page.

You can also support construction of the Small Animal Hospital with gifts of $25 or more online.

GIVE NOW
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Contact
  • Larry Walker '97

  • Senior Director of Development
  • School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences
  • Call: 979.458.4032

Make Your Impact

Your gift to support construction of the Next-Generation Small Animal Teaching Hospital will help Texas A&M veterinarians provide the best care possible to countless pets.