Dr. Darin Hisanaga wearing a doctor's smock and stethoscope holds a white and gold puppy in a veterinary hospital exam room.

Jan. 26, 2024
Words by Jens Odegaard. Photos courtesy of Dr. Darin Hisanaga 

Dr. Darin Hisanaga is allergic to dogs and cats. He’s also a very successful veterinarian. “I must've been meant to be a veterinarian because even with all of those allergies and itching eyes and runny nose and sneezing and all those other things, I still wanted to be a veterinarian,” Hisanaga said. “I got into it because I really like helping people, and it gave me the opportunity to help people through their pets.”

That’s not to say Hisanaga isn’t also fond of pets. He grew up on a small property in Pearl City, Hawaii, an unincorporated community on the north shore of Pearl Harbor. “My father always loved animals, and he introduced me to it. And I've always been an animal lover,” Hisanaga said. “We had birds, and we had fish, and we had dogs and all kinds of craziness.”

Hisanaga’s first dog was a red miniature dachshund named Olive. “It must have stuck with me,” he said. To this day, he and wife Ann breed and show miniature dachshunds, and he has a special interest in canine reproduction. 

But it really was the idea of helping people that attracted Hisanaga to veterinary medicine. That and the ability to be “my own boss,” hesaid. “It was all part of the puzzle: I could help people, I could help pets, and at the same time, I'd have the opportunity to be an entrepreneur as well.”

Putting this puzzle together has kept Hisanaga passionate about veterinary medicine for the last 30-plus years. 

He graduated from the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine in 1991 at the age of 24 and returned to Pearl City to join a small, local practice co-owned by two veterinarians in their early 60s. In addition to the two doctors, the practice only had two support staff, both in office admin roles. So, there was plenty of opportunity for Hisanaga to pitch in. “They were older guys, so they didn't practice really modern medicine, but boy they knew the ins and outs of day-to-day practice,” he said. “And they were really good about taking me under their wings and showing me the ropes. So I was very fortunate.” 

But after a year, “I started to get antsy, and I wanted to open a practice,” Hisanaga said. One of the partners was contemplating retirement, so “I pestered the other guy” with questions about getting a small business loan, how to start a practice, and “blah, blah, blah,” Hisanaga recalled with a laugh. “Finally he got fed up and just said ‘You’re going to be a partner here.’” 

Hisanaga started out with a 10% stake in the business. “But he was nice enough to turn the reins over to me managerially,” Hisanaga said. “I made my share of mistakes, but I really grew that practice.” 

From that first practice, Hisanaga has built Pet Hospitals of Hawaii. Today his company operates five pet hospitals with more than 30 veterinarians and 150 support staff. “Starting off initially doing what I did as a practitioner, my job was to help people and their pets. And now what's it's evolved to is helping our people and our staff and creating opportunity for them. To learn, to mature, to become managers, supervisors, to maybe own or run their own practices, and that’s a big motivation for me,” Hisanaga said. “And I’ve been more motivated to try and give back to the profession and help young veterinarians in that we all know that there's issues with the profession. The big one is obviously suicide and people leaving the profession.”

Hisanaga’s approach to mentoring is to prepare young veterinarians, as well as pre-vet and veterinary students with the realities of the profession. “Whether it's through resilience training, whether it's through giving them the correct expectations, whether it's core value prioritization, whether it’s economics. It goes well beyond just the exposure to the day-to-day of being a veterinarian,” he said. “They've got to know what to expect. They've got to know what their lives are going to be like and to plan their lives accordingly.”

Hisanaga sees helping folks clearly articulate their core values – what they want from life – as key to their success. By knowing that, they can determine what kind of veterinary career and employment opportunities to pursue that will set them up for success rather than disenchantment and burnout.

In addition to giving back to the profession through clear-eyed mentorship, Hisanaga and Ann have been increasingly motivated to give back to the profession in other ways. In their home state they’ve partnered with a variety of community groups to provide educational support and resources in local schools. They’ve also provided financial support to the Hawaii Humane Society, including relief funds for the recent Maui wildfire response and recovery. 

The Hisanaga family.

The Hisanagas have also started directly supporting veterinary students and education at his alma mater.  

At a Western Veterinary Conference a few years back, Hisanaga met Susan Tornquist, Lois Bates Acheson Dean of the OSU Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine. He credits her as the biggest reason he wanted to give back, because he was blown away by her humility despite her professional success. 

“She runs a college of veterinary medicine, you know! She’s it; she’s a big deal,” Hisanaga said. “But to see a person who has that understanding where it's not about me, but my life is about making the profession greater and lifting up a whole profession and hundreds and thousands of people and making it better. I mean, that's inspiring to be really, really honest. 

“She’s helping the students, and I want to be able to help her help the students.” 

Last year, Hisanaga reached out to Tornquist about making a contribution to the college through the Oregon State University Foundation. She identified new anesthesia machines for student teaching as a key area of need. “I’m like, that’s great! It’s something objective, it’s not just money going in a pot, but there’s something specific,” Hisanaga said. 

Veterinary school is a four-year process, and in their third year at OSU, students start putting the book learning into practice. 

The new machines were installed in the fall. "In OSU's small animal surgery lab, third-year veterinary students work with board certified anesthesiologists and surgeons to provide a valuable public service, by spaying and neutering rescue/low-income dogs and cats. Our anesthesia machines were from the 1980s and desperately needed replacing,” said Dr. Jen Warnock, associate professor of small animal surgery. 

“We went from archaic to state-of-the-art anesthesia machines,” added Dr. Andy Claude, associate professor of anesthesiology.

Chloe Letsinger is a third-year veterinary student and co-president of the Class of 2025. “The gift of new anesthesia machines has made a huge difference in our surgery labs; we were in desperate need of newer equipment, and it means so much to know that alumni are still thinking about us long after their time with the CCVM,” she said. “We are excited to be able to use this new technology in our remaining time at OSU and know it will continue to benefit the students and our patients for years to come. Thank you Dr. Hisanaga!”

The veterinary class of 2025 loves the new anesthesia machines! Photo by Jens Odegaard. 

For Hisanaga, the gift of equipment is not about the technology per se, but how it will help students grow in confidence and preparation. “Not only is it about education, but as we prepare them to come into the profession, and to hopefully stay in the profession, a big piece in that is confidence. The better the equipment is, the smoother anesthesia runs, the more confident they become. And confidence is a big piece,” he said. “It’s another step in their development.” 

Throughout his career, Hisanaga has embraced his own development to continue finding joy in the veterinary profession. As a young veterinarian, he dove into learning his new career and how best to care for pets and their people. He then embraced the journey of practice ownership and entrepreneurship in growing a network of pet hospitals. Through that he found passion in making a difference in the lives of the people he worked with and helping them achieve their dreams.

“Now what I enjoy and find most rewarding is watching my impact to the community, whether it's my professional community or whether it’s my overall community that I live in, and the impact that we can have,” Hisanaga said. “I never realized how rewarding it would be for my wife and I to contribute to a veterinary school. The process isn't just for the school. It's actually taught me a lot as well: the good that we can bring about, but at the same time, how it’s made me grow as a person.”