When Joe Rossi was in the sixth grade, he tried to get help for a chicken who’d been attacked by a raccoon and badly injured. But he couldn’t find a veterinarian who would agree to treat it.
So with the help of his mom, he sewed up the chicken’s wounds — and saved its life.
“Ever since then, I said, ‘You know what? I’ll see anybody’s animal at any time,’” Rossi, 59, told TODAY.
That lifelong love of animals is one reason why tonight at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, Rossi will accept the inaugural Veterinarian of the Year Award. As part of the prize, Westminster and pet insurance company Trupanion will donate $10,000 in his honor to MightyVet, a nonprofit that promotes wellness for veterinary professionals.
Rossi graduated from Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine on the island of St. Kitts in 1987 and went on to found North Penn Animal Hospital in Landsdale, Pennsylvania, in 1996. He credits the “amazing” team at his practice — which is both accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association and a certified Cat Friendly Practice — as the reason why he won the award.
Veterinary medicine isn’t my profession — it’s my life.
Dr. Joe Rossi Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show's first Veterinarian of the year
“Veterinary medicine isn’t my profession — it’s my life. Everything we do revolves around animals. At our practice, with my employees, it’s the same way,” he said. “Animals are their lives.”
It’s no exaggeration to say animals are his life. He and his wife, Jill, care for more than 60 pets on their farm, including seven dogs, five cats, donkeys, horses, sheep, Scottish Highland cattle and — naturally — rescued chickens.
The first and last thing they do every day is feed, water and spend time with their pets.
“We don’t even know how to turn on the TV,” he said with a laugh. “Our life is animals. We look forward to our animals. I guess that’s what God put us on this Earth for.”
The hardest part of having so many animals was realizing he couldn’t cure everything. For instance, their 35-year-old donkey, Elaine, was born with a clubfoot. (She’s named for a client who happens to be a podiatrist.)
“I’m just keeping her comfortable,” he said. “I can’t fix everything.”
It’s fitting that he’s winning an award from the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show since some of his patients have won in the past. His own Norwich terrier, Doloris, won best in breed at the competition in 2020.
At home, Doloris pals around with her grandmother, Louise, and daughter, Loretta, as well as other dogs like an Irish wolfhound named Big Al, a Jack Russell Terrier dubbed Heidi Klum, and a Spinone Italiano called Tony the Spinone.
No matter the breed or species, each beloved pet has its own personality, according to Rossi.
“They’re all important,” he said.
Rossi hopes the award and the donation to MightyVet help shine a light on the dedication of veterinarians to helping animals — and the challenges they face.
You look into (the animal’s) eyes and they get into your heart. And when it doesn’t go well, it’s horrible for the owner, but it’s horrible on us, too. We take it personally. We cry ourselves.
A 2019 study found veterinarians are more than twice as likely to die by suicide than the general population. Issues like exhaustion, high student debt, stress and burnout were already prevalent before the pandemic led to increased staffing shortages, longer wait times with curbside protocols and stressed — and sometimes abusive — clients.
“We’re human, too,” Rossi said. “We all do the best we can. But it’s not like fixing a car. You look into (the animal’s) eyes and they get into your heart. And when it doesn’t go well, it’s horrible for the owner, but it’s horrible on us, too. We take it personally. We cry ourselves.”
While Rossi understands that people have to advocate for their pets since animals can’t talk, he also wants them to be kind to veterinary professionals. He said if veterinarians were motivated by money, they’d work in human medicine or other professions.
Instead, they’ve chosen a labor of love.
“Every veterinarian I know out there is out to help the animals,” he said. “That’s our oath. We’re here for you and your animals.”