Archive for Sunday, March 16, 2003

Owners treat pets to best health care

Acupuncture, MRIs becoming more common

March 16, 2003


— Fudgie, a 12-year-old rottweiler whose rear legs are paralyzed, gets a water therapy in a warm bath tub.

Think you have problems with your aging parents? How about with your senior pet?

Just like humans, a growing population of geriatric pets is eating better, receiving more sophisticated medical care and living longer. Gone are the days when old dogs and cats were automatically given injections and sent to animal heaven.

Consider Fudgie Muffin. Six days a week, Fudgie is dropped off at day care, where she socializes with her buddies, eats several small meals and relaxes till her best friend, Ellen Fairhall, comes to take her home. Once a week, she goes in for acupuncture and hydrotherapy treatment for her shot nerves.

Fudgie is a 12-year-old Rottweiler with a degenerative nerve disease, and Fairhall spends several thousand dollars a year making sure her dog gets the best care possible in her golden years.

Willing to pay

In 2001, Americans spent $18.2 billion on veterinary care for dogs and cats.

Pet owners are demanding high-quality medical services, and are willing to pay for it. "We are providing a level of care to pets not available to a huge number of humans on this planet," said Dr. Ed Feldman, professor of small-animal medicine at the University of California-Davis and associate director of the school's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.

Just like people, pets can get CAT scans and MRIs to detect cancer, radiation and chemotherapy to treat their tumors. They can have custom-built wheelchairs and ramps to get around when their rear legs give out, and their owners can choose from a whole range of traditional and alternative medical treatments to ease their pets' sore backs and aching, arthritic knees.

"Kidney transplants for cats are on the verge of becoming routine at UC-Davis, and hip-replacement surgery for dogs is routine throughout Northern California," said Feldman, who's no longer surprised when pet owners say, "Do whatever it takes."

But that can mean suffering the same sticker shock with your pet's medical bill as you do with your own.

A kidney transplant can cost $8,000 to $12,000 for a dog and $6,000 to $9,000 for a cat -- a bargain compared with a year of dialysis for $50,000 -- and the pet owner is required to adopt the donor dog or cat. Radiation therapy for Fido can cost $2,000 to $4,000, and orthopedic surgery to fix ruptured knee ligaments in senior dogs costs $2,800 to $3,400.

Technical services

All of that sophisticated care, combined with better nutrition, is making a difference. Just over 15 percent of the 61 million pet dogs in the United States are 11 or older, up from 13.7 percent in 1996, according to the most recent figures available from the American Veterinary Medical Association. Nearly 17 percent of the 70 million pet cats are 11 or older, about 3 percent more than in 1996.

"The public is pushing the veterinary profession to offer new and more highly technical services," said Dr. Gary Brown, owner of the Veterinary Orthopedic and Surgery Service in Fremont, Calif.

"They see people getting these kinds of things, and they're pushing us to get the same kind of treatment for their pets."

Like Fudgie's mom, Fairhall, who lives in Santa Cruz.

Fudgie had already overcome a bout with cancer when she was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy 14 months ago, which left her rear legs too weak for her to walk. Fairhall turned to the Internet for anything she could find about the disease and came across Doggon' Wheels in Montana, which makes custom wheelchairs and carts for dogs, cats and rabbits.

Fudgie now could move around, but she still needed help going to the bathroom. Fairhall realized that she could no longer leave her beloved pet home alone.

Enter the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Veterinary Hospital, which started a program called Assisted Living for Senior Pets. It amounts to doggie day care for animals like Fudgie with special medical needs.

Six days a week, Fairhall drops Fudgie off at the animal hospital at 6:15 a.m. and picks her up at the end of day, after Fairhall gets back from her job as a Spanish teacher at Watsonville High School.

"She has a lot of life in her and a really young spirit," said Diego Alvarado, a ward nurse at the hospital who has been Fudgie's main caretaker there for the past seven months.

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