Facelifts, tummy tucks, nose jobs, breast reductions, testicular implants and cosmetic dentistry — it sounds like the line-up for an extreme-makeover reality TV show. Well, get ready for a fresh dose of reality: those going under the knife to be nipped and tucked are not people but pets.
“Pets are no longer considered property, but family members," says Dr. Alan Schulman, a board-certified orthopedic veterinary surgeon who performs plastic surgery and also sees general practice cases at the Animal Medical Center of Southern California in Los Angeles. "With the evolution of this emotional bond, people with a discretionary income are taking advantage of technology and veterinary expertise to give their animals medically indicated reconstructive surgery resulting in a better quality of life.”
But are these procedures really medically necessary or are pets undergoing surgery simply to appease their owners' vanity? Dubbed in Hollywood as the "Veterinarian to the Stars," Schulman sees many pets belonging to celebrities and says he gets his fair share of requests to perform unnecessary cosmetic procedures.
“I gently explain that unless there is a real medical reason for me to do some touch-up work, I won’t recommend it or proceed," says Schulman. Liposuction for pets is not an option, he adds.
There are, however, many bona fide medical instances, especially among certain dog breeds, that necessitate reconstructive procedures that amount to an eyelift, full facelift, rhinoplasty or abdominoplasty. The costs are about $1,000 per procedure and the pet is usually hospitalized overnight in order to be properly monitored after anesthesia.
The most common concerns are skin-fold problems, particularly around the eyes, lips, tail and vaginal area.
“It’s not uncommon to have skin folds surgically reduced in size or eliminated in order to help the animal from chronic discomfort and infection," says Schulman.
In some cases, a dog's skin folds can become prone to bacterial infections because it’s difficult for the owner to keep the areas between the folds clean, he explains.
“Bulldogs have a trademark wrinkle over the nose and below their eyes. Sometimes, it is so deep and recessed, it also becomes difficult to manage. Topical antibiotics don’t always work to fight bacteria,” Schulman adds.
Nose jobs and chin lifts
Pugs, bulldogs and Boston terriers are frequently candidates for nose jobs to alleviate breathing problems. And eyelifts are a very common reconstructive procedure in breeds like the sharpei and the chow to correct a congenital defect that causes the eyelids to roll inwards and the eyelashes to rub against the cornea.
A chin lift is often performed to curb excessive drooling problems in big dogs like mastiffs, bloodhounds and Newfoundlands. While droopy lips are normal in these breeds, excessive drooling can cause chronic mouth infections, which can lead to further complications in the kidneys and liver, and even cause heart-valve infections.
Orthodontics for dogs
When it comes to a pronounced overbite, veterinary dental specialists have a full array of techniques to combat the problem, including orthodontic braces, bands and retainers. (There are, however, no elastic-band color choices for Fido.)
Dental work can also be required as a result of an injury to the mouth.
“Fractured teeth, caused by dogs chewing on horse and cow hoofs, tennis balls and even ice, are a big problem and often result in a dog having root canal treatment and a crown fitted," says Dr. Jan Bellows of the All Pets Dental Clinic in Weston, Fla., one of only about 70 certified veterinary dentists worldwide.
“The costs are the same as in humans,” says Bellows. “I find the average pet owner is prepared to spend money to ensure their pet is not in pain. Pet dental insurance is always a good idea. Also, patients should never be shy to ask if their vet has an easy payment plan. Many do.”
Cats don’t seem to require the array of reconstructive surgical or dental work that dogs do, but Bellows has performed root canal treatments on ferrets.
While most cosmetic procedures performed on pets are medically necessary, there are some that aren't. Take "Neuticles," for instance. Invented nearly 10 years ago by Gregg Miller, an innovator in cosmetic devices for pets, Neuticles are testicular implants designed to give neutered pets a more "masculine," unneutered look.
To date, about 148,000 implants have been fitted worldwide. The recipients are mainly dogs, but Miller now has three implants available that range in softness and size to fit cats as well as horses and bulls. Prices range from $79 to $400 a pair.
“The implants are FDA approved and are inserted at the time of neutering. It’s like changing a light bulb; it takes less than three minutes," says Miller. Veterinarians usually charge around $60 in addition to the neutering operation, he adds.
“The animal doesn’t know anything is missing or changed and the owner has a pet that retains his identity and self-esteem in the dog park. ... Every day I get e-mails ... from people claiming they would not have neutered their pet if not for Neuticles. Consequently, I feel I am helping control the pet population,” says Miller.
Other cosmetic implants designed by Miller include a silicone eye implant for animals that have lost an eye and would otherwise have a sunken or lopsided face, and his latest development, a micro-thin silicone ear implant for pets with drooping or sagging ears.
“I take my cues from consumer demand,” he adds.
And there does appear to be demand, at least for Neuticles. Wendy Ryan of Annapolis, Md., wanted to neuter her Italian greyhound named Pony so that she could get a female puppy. But her husband, John, would only agree if the dog had Neuticles implanted.
“He licks them like they’re real, and I can tell he would rather have them than nothing,” says Ryan. “I would have removed them if the dog was in pain. But it's like nothing changed.”
And is her husband pleased with the results? “Yes. Definitely. But he would have preferred a bigger size,” says Ryan.
Many veterinarians like Schulman are skeptical of the need for such implants and urge owners to consider whether they're projecting their own anthropomorphic concerns onto their pet at the animal's expense.
“I don’t ever recollect working with a dog that felt less male because he was neutered," says Schulman. And, he adds, "This is such a politically correct country, what about the female canine population? We have totally dismissed any female feelings with regards to them being ‘fully female.' Is it a case of out of sight, out of mind? Why aren’t there Ovacles?”
Sandy Robins is a freelance writer and columnist based in Irvine Calif. Her work has appeared in numerous publications in the United States and internationally.