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Many pet owners willing to pay for advanced veterinary care

/ Source: The Associated Press

Brute, a German shepherd, lay anesthetized on an operating table, his hairy chest under a plastic cover and his powerful paws taped immobile.

"Here comes the wire up the artery!" said Dr. Chick Weisse, who infused the dog's cancerous liver with chemotherapy via a catheter at the century-old Animal Medical Center in Manhattan in an effort to "buy him some time."

Brute was home in days, the cancer at bay a while longer — perhaps eight months. The cost: $2,000.

Around the nation, veterinarians are practicing ever more advanced medicine on the nation's 77 million dogs, 90 million cats and a myriad other animals — treatments that vie with the best of human medicine. The driving force is "the changing role of the pet in our society," said Dr. Patty Khuly, a veterinarian at Miami's Sunset Animal Clinic.

The bottom line for many people, she said, is that investing in a pet's life "improves the quality of a human life immeasurably more than, say, buying a luxury car."

In a radiation suite at The Animal Medical Center, a black cat named Muka was undergoing a CT scan for a lung problem. A medical team hovered over the tranquilized animal, injecting contrast dye and poring over digital readouts to diagnose the problem: chronic pleural fibrosis.

The new, half-million-dollar Toshiba Aquilion — one of the latest, fastest 3-D imaging scanners — was a gift from an owner whose pet was saved at The AMC, a not-for-profit research and teaching facility. The AMC offers 24-hour emergency care using once-unthinkable procedures like heart surgeries, MRIs and ultrasounds. It has a staff of 81 vets, including 27 certified in fields such as radiology, endoscopy, neurology, cardiology and oncology.

They train 18 interns and 24 residents, including two from Italy and one from Croatia this year.

Khuly, who has an MBA and a veterinary degree from the University of Pennsylvania, says more people have come to believe that investing in their pets' health enriches their own lives. And that, she says, has prompted young vets to enter specialty medicine.

Cutting-edge care

The result is the kind of cutting-edge care The AMC gives to a mammoth Bernese mountain dog named Alpha for his lumbo-sacral disease, marked by excruciating back pain. He receives electrical neuromuscular stimulation via a light laser, is exercised on an underwater treadmill and lies under a heat pack.

Alpha comes in twice a week with his owner, Dr. Paul Greengard, winner of a 2000 Nobel Prize for research on the human nervous system.

Though many Americans don't get the kind of care their pets do, there are often no limits to what they'll do to save the animals — spending $12 billion last year paying veterinary bills, according to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. That's about double what owners spent a decade earlier.

"In terms of priorities, some might find it unusual that we might spend thousands for animals and yet millions of Americans are uninsured," said David Magnus, director of Stanford University's Center for Biomedical Ethics. "Realistically, the amounts spent are vastly less for animals. It's a lot and it is increasing, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to the amount spent on health care for humans."

He added that with medical breakthroughs, veterinarians are now having discussions about quality-of-life issues involving pets. "There's a whole discussion about whether you want an animal's miseries prolonged at the end of life," he said.

"It's apples and oranges," Dr. Dianne Dunning, associate professor and director of the Animal Welfare, Ethics and Public Policy program at North Carolina State University, said of comparisons to the amount spent to relieve human suffering. "It's an individual's judgment call to spend what they feel is appropriate. If we stopped spending on our pets, would that decrease human suffering in the world? I don't think so."

In some cases, advanced medicine perfected on pets leads to procedures then applied to humans.

The AMC says animals' painful arthritic joints are now being healed with stem cell transplants not yet approved for humans. The cost: $4,000.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, a new surgical technique to repair torn knee ligaments in dogs was so successful that it's now being used on NFL players, said Dr. William Gengler, director of Wisconsin's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.

Wisconsin also pioneered treating cancers in animals with TomoTherapy — image-guided radiation that targets only the tumor, sparing surrounding tissue. That's achieved by pinpointing the diseased tissue with a 360-degree CT scanner, then opening radiation windows precisely at the needed location, Gengler said.

TomoTherapy is now state-of-the-art treatment for people, with several hundred such machines being used worldwide on human cancers.

Among the recent pet beneficiaries was Scout, a Wheaten terrier that belongs to a family in Mequon, Wis.

The cost of saving a life

Kathy Hrkac and her husband had bought the dog for their two daughters, "and he was a family member, full of life and love," she said — until suddenly, about two years ago, blood started dripping from the 5-year-old terrier's nose and he had a hard time breathing.

The diagnosis: a quickly spreading nose cancer that left him with about one month to live.

"It was heart-wrenching," Hrkac said in a telephone interview from her home.

Scout underwent TomoTherapy about a year and a half ago and it spared his mouth and eyes, which likely would have been damaged by conventional radiation, Gengler said.

The Wisconsin veterinary school at first shared a TomoTherapy machine with the university's medical school. Private donations have funded a $3 million unit opening in January — the first in a U.S. veterinary facility, Gengler said.

He said a treatment like that for the Wisconsin terrier would now cost at least $6,000. But at this veterinary hospital supported by academic grant money, the Hrkac family paid $3,000.

In New York, The Animal Medical Center sees about 40,000 patients each year, from dogs and cats to lambs, iguanas and a ring-tailed lemur, a primate native to Madagascar.

Some end up in the ICU, with a soundtrack of beeping monitors surrounding stainless steel cages crisscrossed with tubes and wires. Plexiglas cubicles are for creatures needing emergency oxygen.

Khuly said such sophisticated medicine is within reach thanks to pet insurance, payment plans offered by hospitals like AMC and interest-free credit cards for veterinary bills.

AMC also raises funds for owners whose animals might otherwise die because they can't afford pricey treatments.

The most advanced pet medicine involves "high-tech procedures with highly qualified people performing them — and it's expensive," said Jennifer Fearing, chief economist for the nonprofit Humane Society of the United States in Washington, the world's largest animal advocacy organization.

She said she doesn't feel pioneering veterinarians are overcharging for reaching to the edge of medical science.

Until such treatments become mainstream, with supporting insurance, says Fearing, owners can opt for effective, more affordable care that still saves lives.