- Associated Press - Sunday, July 25, 2010

NEW YORK | 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 awhile longer — perhaps eight months. The cost: $2,000.

Across the nation, veterinarians are practicing ever more advanced medicine on the nation’s 77 million dogs, 90 million cats and 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 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 (AMC), 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 veterinarians, 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.

Dr. Khuly, who has a master’s degree in business administration and a veterinary degree from the University of Pennsylvania, says more people have come to think that investing in their pets’ health enriches their own lives. And that, she says, has prompted young veterinarians to enter specialty medicine.

The result is the kind of cutting-edge care the AMC gives to a mammoth Bernese mountain dog named Alpha for his lumbosacral 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, 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,” 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 William Gengler, director of Wisconsin’s Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.

Wisconsin also pioneered cancer treatment 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, Mr. Gengler said.

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

The AMC 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 intensive care unit, with a soundtrack of beeping monitors surrounding stainless steel cages crisscrossed with tubes and wires. Plexiglas cubicles are for creatures needing emergency oxygen.

Ms. 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 otherwise might die because they can’t afford pricey treatments.

AP writer Frank Eltman contributed to this report.

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