Madison Heights

Utopia Animal Hospital takes an enlightened approach to pet care

Randi Marx first visited Utopia Animal Hospital in 2008, over the declining state of her 11-year-old chow, Kyoko.

“The first time we went to Utopia, we were in a panic. She was a rescue from Memphis Humane Society. We got her when she was just six months old. She was my heart,” said Marx.

Kyoto began to act differently. They took her to several clinics, but they couldn’t nail down the problem. Nothing worked. Testing eventually revealed Kyoko had diabetes.

Dr. Jen Clay, owner and veterinarian of Utopia, worked out a treatment plan and coached Marx on how to administer an insulin shot. They were also directed to a canine ophthalmologist for cataract surgery. Kyoko lived to be a few months short of 16.

“I had never visited such a kind-hearted, caring vet. She sat on the floor with Kyoko, who responded to her right away. She sat with us. Talked without rush,” said Marx.                 

In the subsequent years, Utopia has provided care or advice for an additional four chows, three rabbits, two hamsters, and even a lion-head goldfish for Marx and her family.

“When we first went to Utopia with Kyoko, her practice there was new. She was just gaining patients, and it was so easy to get in. Now? You have to get an appointment. She better not even move or I just might move, too,” said Marx.

Utopia Animal Hospital's office manager, Carla Pittman, answers phones and greets customers. Utopia is located at 1157 Madison Avenue in Madison Heights. (Cole Bradley)

Marx was one of Utopia’s first clients. The veterinary clinic opened in 2008 when other businesses in the Madison Heights neighborhood were doing just the opposite.

“When we first opened the economy was tanking. Financial hardships were a reality for a lot of people,” said Clay. “Historically, people have taken care of their pets well during recession. Of course, this was a lot worse than any of us had ever seen.”

After finishing her education at the University of California, Clay and here new husband decided to relocate to his hometown of Memphis. Once settled, they found the perfect 1,900-square-foot location at 1157 Madison Avenue, formerly a prosthetics business. They now co-own the business. 

“We liked the location because we live in Midtown and thought it would be really nice to work in Midtown but also to serve this community. We wanted to be close to the medical center and people working in Downtown and Midtown,” said Clay.

To some, Madison Heights might not have seemed like an ideal location for a startup. The area was experiencing a decline with longtime businesses closing and little new economic activity coming into the neighborhood, which encompasses the intersection of Madison Avenue and Cleveland Street and the real estate between McNeil Street and Interstate-240 east-west and Poplar and Union avenues north-south.

Related: "What's in a name? People of Madison Heights talk labels and identity"

Twig, Utopia Animal Hospital's resident clinic cat, keeps watch over the surgery preparation and recovery room and demands her share of attention between patients. (Cole Bradley)

Getting to know their neighbors in Madison Heights during the financial crisis allowed the co-owners insight into some of the struggles they faced. The clinic approached its new practice with the financial needs of its clientele in mind, dispensing free advice and low-cost and sometimes creative alternatives to expensive treatments and medications.

“What we’ve tried to do from the beginning is take sort of an individualized approach with every patient. That takes into account the relationship the owners or the caregivers have with them and the finances that are available,” said Clay.

While economic times have improved, the practice of working within customers’ limitations remains a part of the clinic’s core.

One of the things in particular that Clay sees a lot in her practice are large dogs with arthritis. Caregivers could easily spend upwards of $100 or more a month on certain brands.

“That is a lot of money to spend every month on medicine. So, I try to use a lot of generics where I can, or if there are human generics we can use, to try and save people money. If it is something you know you are going to be on long term then I try and make it as affordable as possible,” said Clay.

Many pets in Memphis are rescues that have basic health needs when first adopted or found. These could include a battery of shots or treatment for heartworm as well as a checkup. To manage costs, Utopia often addresses the most critical issues first and then follows through with other necessary treatments or medications if needed.

Dr. Jen Clay, owner and veterinarian at Utopia Animal Hospital administers a round of vaccines to puppy, Belle. (Cole Bradley)

As business has grown over the past ten years, the animal hospital has expanded from two full-time and one part-time employees to take on several technicians, nurses and vets. They now have a staff of eight full-time and one part-time workers with plans to add another full-time employee soon.

As the business has carved out its niche in the neighborhood over the years, the prospects of Madison Heights are also improving. In addition to the businesses that weathered the economic storm, the area has attracted new businesses like Phillip Ashley Chocolates and Riko's Kickin Chicken.

Related: "Riko's Kickin Chicken brings the heat to Madison Heights"

“It makes me really excited with new businesses moving in all over in Downtown and Midtown. I just love seeing local things open up and interacting with the community that is already here,” said Clay.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.