BOSTON – Michael Pavletic has taken a butcher’s knife from a dog’s stomach. He’s removed tumors from tiny mice. And he’s performed plastic surgery on injured hawks.

But he draws the line at giving canines body piercings or fat cats liposuction. “That’s just not what I do,” said the longtime head of surgery at Boston’s Angell Animal Medical Center.

The 58-year-old Pavletic is known as a pioneer in reconstructive animal surgery and is so skilled at saving severely sick and injured animals he is sought out by worried pet owners from around the world. As a surgeon, Pavletic has cared for thousands of animals, including a dog that swallowed an engagement ring right before a wedding, a cat needing a face reattached and a gorilla hard up for reconstructive surgery on a finger.

He’s cared for puppies needing bullets removed, wolves seeking dental work and even snakes with throat problems.

“I’ve been doing surgery for 30 years and there are very few things I haven’t seen,” Pavletic said right before going into surgery to remove stones from a cat’s bladder.

In the past, animals with very serious injuries may have simply been euthanized to avoid life long pain and because surgical techniques on some injuries had yet to be developed. But Pavletic said advancements in medicine coupled with pets becoming more part of families have increased the demand for serious animal surgeries.

“If it wasn’t for him, my cat wouldn’t be alive,” said Kristin Gagnon of Hanson.

Four years ago, Gagnon’s Siamese kitten, Max, burned his palate to the bone after chewing an electrical cord. Pavletic reconstructed Max’s palate by taking a graft from the inside of cat’s lip. “What a fantastic job he did,” Gagnon said. “He’s the only surgeon who could have done this.”

For Pavletic, his love for animals started with sick birds and a terrier mutt named Tiger.

As a 6-year-old in Illinois, Pavletic tried to save injured wild birds by giving them water, food and a little attention, but it rarely worked. And he was inseparable from his grandparents’ terrier until the dog was later killed by a neighbor’s car.

But he began his journey specifically into animal surgery right after finishing veterinary school at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1974. As an intern at Angell, Pavletic came across a cat named John Glenn who had a tumor on his face.

At the time, veterinarians couldn’t remove such tumors from animals while also closing the wound using conventional methods. So, Pavletic turned to an older human reconstructive surgery textbook that suggested a simple skin flap might do the trick. He took what was a routine technique in human surgery, tailored the procedure for a cat and it worked.

“My interest in surgery grew from there,” said Pavletic.

After his early stint at Angell, Pavletic took teaching positions at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La., and Tufts University in North Grafton, Mass. Over the years, he developed more than 40 surgical techniques and eventually wrote an animal surgery textbook that is about to go into its third edition.

Pavletic returned to Angell in 1988 to his current position of head of surgery. That’s when the fun, Pavletic said, really started as his reputation grew as a healer of the strangest injuries and the hospital began seeing oddball cases.

Once, he recalled, there was a dog that was having severe stomach pains. A surgery by Pavletic’s team found that the dog had swallowed a pair of red panties. The main problem: they weren’t those of the dog’s female owner.

“I don’t know what happened to that marriage,” said Pavletic.

Another time a family brought in their recently passed goldfish. They wanted Pavletic’s team to perform an MRI on why it died.

Then there was a case of a Labrador retriever who suddenly stopped urinating midway. After various tests, Pavletic discovered that the dog had a pellet stuck in its penis. The bullet had somehow moved down from its bladder after the dog was shot by an unknown assailant. Pavletic surgically removed it – delicately.

And while the injuries Pavletic sees may seem a bit weird, Pavletic said so are requests by some pet owners who confuse animal reconstructive surgery with superficial cosmetic plastic surgery. Over the years, Pavletic has fielded inquiries about dogs getting diamond studs in ears and cats getting liposuction.

“I tell them no,” Pavletic said.

Nick Trout, an Angell surgeon and the author of “Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon,” said Pavletic has been a “great mentor” to many aspiring animal surgeons and has always been accessible to veterinary students.

“We see a lot of people who come here specifically to hang out with him and learn from him,” Trout said.

Trout credited Pavletic for influencing him into getting into animal surgery.

But Trout also said Pavletic is known for his practical jokes. For example, after Trout’s book was released a reporter and photographer from Readers’ Digest came to interview him. While Trout was speaking to the reporter, Pavletic repeatedly passed behind Trout with his own textbook, “Atlas of Small Animal Reconstructive Surgery,” in hand.

“He kept trying to push his book in the photographs,” said Trout laughing. “It was pretty pathetic.”

Pavletic said laughter is key to any animal surgeon’s health, especially when you come across cases of animals that have been purposely injured by humans.

“You have to keep a sense of humor in this business,” said Pavletic. “If you don’t, you’ll either leave it or go insane.”


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