June 01, 2005


 Aja to strengthen ties among AAHA members

New president's agenda includes focus on welfare

Posted May 15, 2005

Dr. Daniel S. Aja had no ambition of becoming president of the American Animal Hospital Association when he was asked to serve on its Accreditation Standards Committee back in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, he rose through the ranks of the association and was elected its president during the annual conference, held this year in Baltimore, March 19-23.

"I never got involved with AAHA thinking I'd end up in this position. That was never, ever a goal or a plan at all," explained Dr. Aja. The 1982 Michigan State University graduate owns a small animal practice, Cherry Bend Animal Hospital, in Traverse City, Mich., that features a pet behavioral center and puppy daycare.

Dr. Aja does not come to the job with a sweeping agenda. During his term as president and chair of the AAHA board of directors, he will work on reconnecting with members who feel the AAHA leadership has become too "progressive" with its animal welfare policies. Additionally, Dr. Aja plans on reaching out to veterinary technicians—an "overlooked" yet important segment of the profession, he says—and on bettering the relationship between general and specialty practitioners.

Animal welfare is another area Dr. Aja will focus on. He believes veterinarians tend not to be confrontational, but considering the increasingly heated rhetoric over animal welfare laws and regulations, veterinarians must find their voice, and soon. "It's time for veterinarians to stand up and not be afraid to say what they believe on the animal welfare issues," he said.

The AAHA has more than 35,000 members in North America, nearly half of them veterinarians, and some 3,000 accredited practices. When the association introduced its new accreditation standards for veterinary practices two years ago, none of the 907 standards was mandatory. But during the Baltimore meeting, the AAHA board voted to reinstate a series of basic requirements necessary for accreditation, Dr. Aja noted.

The new standards are more rigorous than the old ones, and most of them deal with patient care, he explained. The expectation is that some practices will lose their accreditation as a result of noncompliance. But the AAHA leadership is less concerned with the number of accredited practices than with the delivery of high-quality veterinary care.

"We really feel that either people will step up to the plate or hospitals that were on the edge of accreditation won't be accredited, and that's not a bad thing," Dr. Aja said. "We'd like them to improve, and if not, then maybe they shouldn't be accredited."

Dr. Aja's ascendancy isn't all that surprising considering his commitment to organized veterinary medicine. After chairing the standards committee for five years, he was elected to the AAHA board of directors as secretary. He currently chairs the association's Diagnostic Codes Task Force and is part of the Animal Welfare Task Force.

Additionally, he is the AAHA alternate delegate to the AVMA House of Delegates and served on the recently sunset AVMA Task Force on State Legislative and Regulatory Affairs. Dr. Aja is active in the public arena as a member of the Michigan Board of Veterinary Medicine.

Explaining why he ran for president, Dr. Aja said, "I really enjoyed the people in the association, and AAHA, I thought, was really progressive. If we want to do something, we do it. AAHA's progressive nature is a good fit for me personally because I'm the type of person who likes to be cutting edge, always doing new things."

For instance, Dr. Aja has a longstanding policy against euthanatizing healthy animals brought to his practice. Instead, the practice team will retrain a problem pet and adopt it out. Moreover, neither he nor his associates perform ear-cropping procedures for cosmetic reasons—a policy in place well before the 2003 AAHA position statement opposing cosmetic ear cropping and tail docking of pets. Tail docking at the practice fell by the wayside once the statement was approved.

In fact, Dr. Aja was on the AAHA Animal Welfare and Ethics Task Force that presented the statement to the board, and he himself wrote it. Dr. Aja insists there was no outside pressure on the group to craft the statement. Before it was approved, the statement was sent to every American Kennel Club-approved dog breed club with docking and cropping standards, along with a letter of explanation and a request for feedback. Not one group responded, he added.

Dr. Aja recognizes that some AAHA members found the statement too progressive for their liking. It's these members he plans on reaching out to as AAHA president. "What I want to do is reconnect with our members who maybe thought we were getting a little bit too far ahead of them," he said.

Veterinary technicians are another key group for Dr. Aja. "Veterinary technicians have been kind of an overlooked segment of our profession," he said. "Sometimes they are accidentally ignored in some of the decision making."

In addition, he wants to bridge the divide between general and specialty practitioners. "My own view is the best medicine is practiced when the generalist and the specialist work together as one practice team," Dr. Aja said. "As a profession, we're so small that having the specialists fragmented away tends to fragment our profession even more.

"I want to bridge that gap so the generalist doesn't feel threatened by the specialist and the specialist doesn't feel that the generalist is ignoring them."

As for animal welfare, Dr. Aja empathized with many of the thoughts AVMA President Bonnie V. Beaver expressed in her speech to AVMA House of Delegates last year in Philadelphia. "It's almost exactly what I want to talk about," he said.

Veterinarians have been reluctant to engage animal rights and protection organizations in debates about the humane treatment of animals, he added. As a result, the public, media, and legislators don't necessarily see veterinarians as experts on animal welfare. For the sake of the animals and the profession things have to change. "We've earned that right to speak as experts and we need to be heard," Dr. Aja said.

Dr. Aja has always held animals in high regard. Growing up in Traverse City, Dr. Aja knew at a young age he wanted to be a veterinarian, which he considers a calling. In eighth grade, he was hired by Dr. Richard Kratochvil to clean cages at his veterinary practice. He continued working there through high school and during summers while enrolled in veterinary college.

After graduation, Dr. Aja interned at Louisiana State University College of Veterinary Medicine, where he became interested in orthopedic surgery. There, he met his future wife, Rhonda, and together they moved to south Florida, where Dr. Aja went to work at Hollywood Animal Hospital, a large referral service owned by past AAHA president, Dr. Larry Dee.

Later, in 1987, Dr. and Mrs. Aja moved to Traverse City to start Cherry Bend Animal Hospital, and they've been there ever since. His former boss, Dr. Kratochvil, even worked at the practice for several years. Mrs. Aja is the hospital manager, allowing Dr. Aja to focus on what he does best.

"I love veterinary medicine," he said. "I love going into work every day. I enjoy my staff, and I enjoy my clients. The best days are when I have enough time I can sit and visit with people. I'm a firm believer of each day choosing your attitude and making work fun."