House pets get medicine's best

Health: Owners go the extra mile, and dollar, for cutting-edge care of animal companions.

March 09, 2003|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

When her cat Lily's kidneys began to fail, Maura Hall never imagined she'd be spending $10,000 to save her. But that was before Hall's veterinarian tipped her off to a sophisticated surgery once available only to humans: an organ transplant.

Hall, who lives in Laurel, raced up Interstate 95 to the University of Pennsylvania last month and had her cat admitted to one of the few feline transplant centers in the country.

"People say, `How could you spend so much on an animal?' " says Hall, who makes about $36,000 a year at an Elkridge motorcycle parts supplier. "But I'm not buying a toy; I'm paying for a life."

Welcome to the new world of pet medicine. From Prozac to pacemakers, CAT scans to chemotherapy, health care for the nation's house pets is starting to rival that of their human caretakers.

Driven by demanding pet owners, veterinarians have adopted many diagnostic tools and surgical techniques from their human counterparts. A growing number of pet owners endure long waiting lists and hefty bills for organ transplants, open-heart surgery, hip replacements and more.

"People used to think that was crazy. Now they say, `Do it!'" says Dr. Chick Weisse, a veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania.

Even cosmetic surgery has gone from Hollywood beauties to the beasts.

Shar-Peis and other wrinkle-ridden breeds, for example, undergo brow or jowl lifts to prevent eye and skin infections. Animals with cockeyed bites get braces. A dog that loses an eye to glaucoma can have it swapped for a fake orb.

Then there's the delicate subject of implants. Some pooches strut their stuff with the help of silicone- faux testicles to replace the ones they lost when they were castrated.

"I just wanted it so nobody would know the difference," explains Jeff Mills, a Cambridge florist who paid $600 for implants for each of his 50-pound English bulldogs.

As animal medicine grows more sophisticated, so have the ethical and emotional issues facing veterinarians and pet owners. Just because vets have the tools to prolong or save a life, does it mean they should?

"If you're going to make them sick for six months and they're only going to live seven months, you haven't done much good," says Dr. Ronald O. Schueler, vice president of the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association. "Where do we stop? This brings in a whole new quandary."

Devoted pet owners, however, increasingly are willing to do whatever it takes. "This is something between me, my God and my dog," says Cindy Norris, a high school teacher in San Antonio who paid $7,000 to correct a heart defect that would have killed her golden retriever, Luke.

Examined conscience

Norris says that before she decided to go ahead with the surgery at Texas A&M University, whose open-heart program is just gearing up, she grilled veterinarians - and her conscience - about what kind of life her dog would have afterward.

"If the odds were not good, I wouldn't have wanted him to live," she says.

Norris says she doesn't regret her decision to have the expensive procedure performed, especially now that two years later Luke is again playing Frisbee and jogging with her. But she's still paying the bill. Like most pet owners, Norris didn't have medical coverage for Luke.

Such coverage is a growth industry, however. Veterinary Pet Insurance, one of the nation's largest carriers, wrote more than 310,000 policies last year, 39 percent more than it wrote the year before. The average annual premium is $225 for dogs and about $200 for cats.

Transplants and other exotic remedies are being offered only at veterinary schools, but many complicated tests and treatments - including cancer therapy, transfusion medicine and cosmetic surgery - are filtering down to the neighborhood vet.

The increasing demand for advanced animal care has caused blood shortages at animal hospitals and blood banks - yes, there are such things - across the country. Some banks report backlogs as long as two months.

"There's just almost no keeping up," says Patrick Lee, chief operating officer of Eastern Veterinary Blood Bank in Annapolis, which last year supplied 25,000 units of canine blood to veterinarians worldwide.

Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine, which maintains an animal blood bank and bloodmobile, is one of a handful of centers around the country offering feline kidney transplants.

The vets there perform as many as four surgeries a month and have a waiting list of several weeks, said Dr. Lillian Aronson, who heads the program.

The surgery - first tested in dogs, then applied to humans and now offered as therapy to cats - can take as long as six hours and requires three surgeons, Aronson says.

The donor kidney comes from another cat, which the recipient's owner must adopt. In most cases, the cat is a laboratory animal or from a local shelter. Without becoming a donor, the animal would have been euthanized eventually.

"The owners are really saving the lives of two cats," says Aronson.

Not ready to go

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