Vet works his magic to help another kind of vet


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Subhead: Dr. Spinazzola receives award for caring for veteran’s service dog Houdini

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Staff Writer

SAYREVILLE — A local veterinarian has been recognized for his efforts in caring for a veteran’s service dog — at no cost to the veteran.

In 2009, U.S. Army Sgt. Heriberto Vidro, a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, received a service dog named Houdini as a result of fundraising efforts by the Animal Rights Club and the Operation HART (Helping And Remembering Troops) club at Fair Lawn High School, which is located in Bergen County.

The clubs worked together to raise more than $10,000 for the Canines for Combat Veterans Program through NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services) in Princeton, Massachusetts, according to Dena DeSantis of the guidance department at Fair Lawn High School.

In figuring out how Vidro a disabled veteran who suffered back injuries, hearing loss, shoulder issues and a deformed hand while spending more than a year in Kuwait and Iraq – would provide for the care of his service dog, DeSantis set about making calls to veterinarians in the Sayreville area, where Vidro and Houdini reside.

Her first call was to Dr. Joseph Spinazzola, the owner of the Animal Hospital of Sayreville on Oak Street in South Amboy.

“I explained about Sgt. Vidro’s service to our country and his need for a service dog as a result of the injuries he sustained in combat. I inquired whether or not he would be willing to provide services to Sgt. Vidro and Houdini at a discounted rate. Dr. Spinazzola told me that he could not provide services at a discounted rate — he explained to me that he would only be able to provide services for Houdini free of charge for the life of the service dog. Dr. Spinazzola has been true to his word, and then some,” DeSantis said.

In late 2016, Houdini’s retina became detached and, after consultation with a specialist, it was determined that the eye could not be saved. Spinazzola provided Houdini’s surgery at no cost.

“He has, many times over the years, gone over and above all reasonable expectations of his promise. He has continued to support the service dogs of other soldiers as well, including Houdini’s best friend, Gunner,” DeSantis said.

Spinazzola was presented with the highest commendation available through Rotary International, the Service Above Self Award, by the South Amboy-Sayreville Rotary Club on Feb. 21.

“Never once has Dr. Spinazzola sought out thanks or recognition for his efforts,” DeSantis said. “It has been several years since the Rotary Club of South Amboy/Sayreville has presented the Service Above Self Award and, upon learning of Dr. Spinazzola’s important contributions, immediately decided that it was time to name a new recipient of this distinguished award.”

Spinazzola himself was humbled by the award, saying that he felt compelled to help Vidro and Houdini “because they had been through some rough times.”

“It’s because of the service he did for us and for our country,” said the veterinarian, who bought his practice in 2006.

He first met the yellow Labrador in 2009, and over the years has removed several cancerous tumors, tended to him when he got hit by a car and removed his eye due to glaucoma.

“It’s significant for me because I started getting mailings from all over the country … thanking us for saving his life,” Spinazzola said. “You don’t realize the connection he has to other people. … It’s not about recognition, it’s about the personal satisfaction of knowing I can help someone through this.”

Vidro could not be more grateful, especially since Houdini has helped him learn how to walk, open drawers, retrieve 10 items at a time by name from the refrigerator, turn on lights and open doors.

“‘Houdini is incredible. He’s done a lot for me. … We help each other incredibly,” Vidro said.

“I don’t think there are words for [Dr. Spinazzola]. He takes care of us both,” he continued. “Dr. Spin has been an angel with the way he treats Houdini. He’s been a blessing.”

Contact Jennifer Amato at

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