Pet owners would have a new veterinarian to go to in Damascus, pending county approval of Melissa Birken's application to open an animal hospital in the Damascus Centre shopping center.
Birken, who lives in Damascus, is asking for a special exception — which is allowed by zoning but requires a hearing — to occupy two spaces in the center as the Paws and Claws Animal Hospital.
Birken, who is trained to do surgery on small animals, said she also plans to provide neutering services, routine exams, shots, grooming and dental services. Most of her clients are likely to be dogs and cats, but she is also able to treat reptiles, including iguanas.
“I want to treat animals, no matter what their needs are,” she said.
The county Planning Board granted Birken unanimous support with conditions for the project on Thursday. Her next step is to go before the county hearing examiner on July 26 in Rockville.
Pending approvals and construction, she plans to open in late December or January.
“People I've talked to say they drive out of the area [to places such as Germantown, Olney and Mount Airy], and sometimes there are delays of a few days to get appointments,” she said.
Birken said she fell in love with animal medicine while growing up in New Jersey next to a veterinarian.
“I was about 6 years old when our neighbor showed me that my guinea pig was pregnant,” she said. “I was so amazed by it, because I didn't realize [the ones I had] were male and female.”
A doctor of veterinary medicine who graduated from Oklahoma State University, Birken said she has most recently been working in emergency medicine in Hagerstown.
“About 70 to 80 percent of trauma patients are dogs or cats that have been hit by cars,” Birken said. She will be equipped to remove tumors and treat pets for conditions such as cancer, pancreatitis and diabetes.
The clinic would have the capacity to keep recovering animals overnight, but if an animal needed intensive care, she would refer its owners to specialty centers in Gaithersburg, Frederick or Leesburg, Va., she said.
Paws and Claws also would carry prescription shampoos, diet products and other specialty items for animals, but not the full array of pet supplies offered by retail stores, she said.
According to the Planning Board, hours would be limited to 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday. Birken said hours within that range would vary slightly depending on the demand for services.
She said as the business grows, she plans to add two veterinarians, vet assistants and receptionists, but to stay within the Planning Board's limit of 10 employees.
Birken said barking will not be a problem for neighboring businesses, because the walls of the facility will be insulated for sound.
The facility also will not be allowed to board animals or operate outdoor runs. The only outdoor use might be taking a leashed dog outside to a grassy area owned by the shopping center to relieve itself, she said.
Any waste would be disposed of by the vet assistant, and waste from the facility will be picked up regularly.
Birken said she is designing the facility to be “modern, tranquil and relaxing” for both the pets and their human owners.
“The animals are like another part of the family,” she said.