Store turns focus to health needs of disabled dogs
By Sabina Mollot
On First Avenue, one small pharmacy is going to the dogs — but in its owners’ defense, it’s just a response to neighborhood demographics.
The shop is across the street from Stuyvesant Town, where at last official count, there were close to 1,100 dogs, and in response, Nature’s First pharmacy is now focused on Fido, carrying canine medical supplies from wheelchairs to harnesses for giving lift to weak hind legs. Additionally, soon the store will be carrying dog meds that typically are only carried at veterinarians’ offices.
In the past three years the shop’s been open, co-owner and pharmacist Alex Burlak has been focused on holistic health products, stocking items like essential oils, herbs and organic teas. However, he recently noticed there seemed to be a need in the area for pet medical supplies.
“I really think it’s going to explode,” he said.
“I have no doubt because of the demographics here. In Stuy Town there are a million dogs.”
Additionally, there aren’t any distributors of such products within a 100-mile radius, Burlak said. The idea however, actually came from the store’s manager, Ralph Perez, who bought a wheelchair for his dachshund, Woodstock, a few years ago after the dog lost the use of his hind legs.
The problems started one day when Woodstock was playing with his brother, Snoopy, at home. It was a typical day, only this time the play wound up getting a little too rough and the next day, Perez noticed the dog was whimpering and listless. Woodstock clearly wanted to play but was unable to.
The next day he was dragging his hind legs, and by the next morning, he couldn’t move them at all.
A veterinarian recommended surgery at a cost of $10,000, while suggesting it had a 50/50 chance of working.
Instead, Perez decide to get Woodstock a wheelchair. “My first thought was that I wanted to run to the nearest store and buy it,” he said.
But he soon found that no stores had one, except a store he found online called handicappedpets.com. He ended up ordering a Walkin’ Wheels wheelchair, which, said Perez, once again enabled Woodstock to get around and even play again with his alpha dog brother. Maintaining Woodstock’s mobility requires daily work by Perez, who massages the dog’s legs and gives him baths for water therapy, but the dog doesn’t seem to be in pain or in need of any medication. Perez also keeps Woodstock caged when he’s not home, for his own protection.
The wheelchairs cost around $250 for smaller dogs, $350 for larger ones, and fittings are now offered onsite at Nature’s First.
Burlak, whose store is just a couple of blocks away from two pharmacy chains, said he’s always tried to carry products the big guys don’t.
“We’re very nichey,” he said, conceding the expansion to pet health is “the niche-iest thing ever.
“But,” he added, “something about New York City is it forces you to stand out from the herd.”
Since deciding to branch out to non-human clients, Burlak has been researching what related health products to carry. Soon, he said, Nature’s First will also focus on alternative therapies like nutraceuticals and compounds as well as prescription medications for dogs.
Burlak, who’s actually allergic to most dogs, cats and birds, admitted he doesn’t consider himself an expert on animals. But he’s happy to learn, having already sold two dog wheelchairs without doing any marketing other than putting a display in the window.
Interestingly, the first sale the store made was by an Argentinian family visiting relatives in Long Island. They’d ended up in front of the pharmacy after getting off at the wrong bus stop on First Avenue, only to do a double take after seeing the Walkin’ Wheels wheelchair in the window. It turned out the family’s French bulldog was disabled but its owners had been unable to find a wheelchair for him. After going into the store, and providing information about the size of the dog and making a few adjustments to the wheelchair’s dimensions, they ordered one.
After leaving the store, recalled Burlak, “They came back with a bouquet of roses and champagne. They were so appreciative.”
Nature’s First Pharmacy is located at 313 First Avenue at 18th Street. Burlak is one of four owners of the location, which is independently owned and run, although there are five other Nature’s First pharmacies in New York.