Sat, Apr 07, 2012 - Page 16 News List

For pet owners, medical advances raise hopes and questions

New technology and better surgical techniques and drugs make it easier than ever to extend or save an animal’s life — but such treatments come at a cost

By William Grimes  /  NY Times News Service, New York

A veterinarian checks on the condition of Midnight, a domestic short-hair cat suffering from renal failure.

Photo: Bloomberg

Two years ago, Mike Otworth’s 10-year-old chow, Tina, was given a diagnosis of lymphoma. The prospects were grim. Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes that commonly develops in older dogs, can be put into remission through chemotherapy, but tumors almost inevitably reappear within a year, and death quickly follows.

Otworth seized on a new option. After a local veterinarian near his home in Indialantic, Florida, administered chemotherapy treatments to Tina, he drove her to North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she became one of the first dogs to receive a bone-marrow transplant at its college of veterinary medicine.

Using equipment donated by the Mayo Clinic, the doctor who established the college’s Canine Bone Marrow Transplant Unit in March 2009, Steven Suter, harvested healthy stem cells from Tina’s blood and introduced them into her marrow, after radiating it to eliminate cancerous cells. After two weeks of painless treatment, and a US$15,000 bill, Tina returned to Florida, unsteady on her feet but cancer-free.

Older pets like Tina are benefiting from advances in veterinary medicine that have accelerated in the last two to three years, raising not only the hopes of pet owners but also tough new questions about extending or saving an animal’s life, and how much to spend in doing so.

A long list of cancers, urinary-tract disorders, kidney ailments, joint failures and even canine dementia can now be diagnosed and treated, with the prospect of a cure or greatly improved health, thanks to the latest imaging technology, better drugs, new surgical techniques and holistic approaches like acupuncture and herbal medicine.

“What’s new is the sheer number of approaches to treat problems that, not too long ago, would have meant the end of the line,” said Julie Meadows, a specialist in feline geriatric medicine at the veterinary medical teaching hospital at the University of California.

The Animal Medical Center in New York, which performed 34 stent procedures on dogs and cats in 2005, usually to open up clogged passages in the bladder or kidney, created a clinic about two years ago to accommodate rising demand for minimally invasive surgery. Last year, it performed 630 stent procedures.

Suter, at North Carolina State, has done bone-marrow transplants on 65 dogs, with 10 more currently on the waiting list. Many veterinarians now offer hospice care, too, mapping out a treatment plan that lets a pet spend the remainder of its life at home, its pain eased through palliative care.

Treatment like this comes at a price, both monetary and emotional. Improved veterinary care for all pets has boosted consumer spending in this area to US$13.4 billion last year from US$9.2 billion in 2006, according to the American Pet Products Association.

Pet insurance rarely comes to the rescue, since fewer than 3 percent of Americans carry it, according to the American Animal Hospital Association. Those who do can expect reimbursement, according to their level of coverage, from a few hundred US dollars to several thousand US dollars, but bills for the most advanced forms of treatment far outpace even the most comprehensive plans.

Otworth paid about US$25,000, all told, for Tina’s treatment at his local veterinary clinic and at North Carolina State. He also wrestled with the tough questions that pet owners face in deciding whether to go ahead with late-life treatment: Will the pet suffer unduly? Will treatment give it a good quality of life, or merely extend it?

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