Sat, Nov 10, 2012 - Page 9 News List

How surgery for pets can benefit humans

Many devoted pet owners are happy to spend thousands on brain surgery for their cats and dogs — and these operations may help save human lives, too

By Jon Henley  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Tania Chou

If he could see himself now, Harry would be horrified. Slack-mouthed, out for the count, he has got drips going into him, tubes coming out of him, wires and sensors everywhere you look. And now the final indignity: Someone is taking the clippers to that rich, golden fur.

“Poor thing,” a nurse says. “He isn’t half going to look weird.”

There is worse to come. A neurosurgeon called Patrick Kenny is about to insert two stainless-steel pins into Harry’s skull. To these he will fit a clamp, immobilizing Harry’s head. His jaws will be wedged open. Then Kenny will cut a tiny hole through the back of the roof of Harry’s mouth and, in an operation that will last more than four hours, set about removing a pea-sized tumor from a vital gland at the base of his brain.

Harry is a cat. A 12-year-old maine coon. He is a big old fella, as maine coons generally are, but Harry is considerably bigger than he should be, because the tumor on his pituitary gland is causing it to produce far more growth hormone than it should, a condition known as acromegaly. This has led to one of the disease’s most common complications — uncontrolled diabetes, as the excess hormone counters the effects of insulin.

So Harry has needed insulin injections, and lots of them: 12 units, morning and night. It is miserable and according to Harry’s owners, Richard and Tracy Mills, it is not making any appreciable difference. The options are not plentiful, says Stijn Niessen, a lecturer in internal medicine at the Royal Veterinary College’s Queen Mother Hospital for Animals (QMHA) near Potters Bar, England.

“You can continue controlling the diabetes with insulin, but that’s a bit like mopping the floor with the tap turned on,” Niessen says, as eight vets and nurses in surgical scrubs busy themselves purposefully around Harry, flat out on the table. “The tumor continues to grow slowly — but there will eventually be a neurological impact.”

There is radiation therapy, but that is long and tough: between five and 10 sessions, each requiring a general anesthetic and with no guarantee of success. There are also drugs called somatostatins, which inhibit the growth hormone, “but they’re not generally very useful, at least not in cats.”

Or there’s this operation: “Which is, well ... rather new.”

In fact, it has been done a bare handful of times and only once before in Britain — at the QMHA. The risk, Niessen says, is very real: Harry could die.

“But the owners were of the opinion that it was better to attempt it,” he says. “Not doing so would mean the tumor getting worse, Harry continuing to live with uncontrollable diabetes and his quality of life being very poor — and deteriorating. And that’s what it’s about: quality of life for the animal. That’s why we do this. That’s why we’re here.”

Some people, of course, will question whether it is right for a shining, state-of-the-art institution like the QMHA, perhaps the finest of its kind in the world — open round the clock, 365 days a year, employing 200-plus highly qualified staff, with spacious consulting rooms, cutting-edge operating theaters, the latest in ECG, CT and MRI equipment, a hydrotherapy tank and even a blood donor program — to be devoted to treating pet cats and dogs (“companion animals” is now the preferred term).

The QMHA treats up to 8,000 patients a year, most referred by their vets, for every conceivable condition: from acute heart failure to advanced neuromuscular disorders, malignant tumors to gastrointestinal disease, joint replacements to epilepsy. The array of disciplines offered here is as complete as anyone could want: anesthesia, cardiology, dermatology, emergency and critical care, internal medicine, neurology, oncology, opthalmology, orthopaedics, soft-tissue surgery, says Holger Volk, genial head of the hospital’s small animal group.

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