- Associated Press - Monday, October 18, 2010

RALEIGH, N.C. | When Beverly Tucker’s dog Tobi ruptured a disk in his back, the veterinarian gave Ms. Tobi a stark choice: expensive surgery with little chance of success, or euthanasia.

Like a growing number of pet owners, Ms. Tucker opted for a third choice, thanks to medical advances and shifting attitudes about animal care. She bought a wheeled cart specially fitted for Tobi’s hind legs, restoring mobility to her paralyzed pooch.

“I would never have my dog put down,” the owner said. “Our option was the wheels, and we’re going strong ever since.”

Pets with disabilities ranging from spinal injuries to deafness still struggle more than their healthy counterparts, but their futures are no longer as grim as before. An industry catering to owners of disabled pets has sprung up, offering everything from carts to chiropractors specializing in canine spines.

Even in an economic slump, people are willing to pamper their pets.

Total spending on pets has grown each year since the recession began, rising from $41.2 billion in 2007 to an estimated $47.7 billion this year, according to the American Pet Products Association.

“The pet business has evolved greatly, especially over the last five years,” said Leslie May, founder of Pawsible Marketing, an industry consultant. “When people think of pets as family members, they look for resources to meet their pets’ needs.”

Animal health specialists, rescue volunteers and medical supply makers all say they’ve seen a growing willingness in the American public to adopt or care for pets with ailments that once would have met with certain euthanization.

Dr. Dianne Dunning, director of the Animal Welfare, Ethics and Public Policy Program at North Carolina State University, said that shift has shadowed breakthroughs in veterinary medicine.

“You’re seeing in many cases now that pets are equivalent in status to children within a family,” she said.

It was much different 21 years ago, when Buddha, a Doberman owned by Ed and Leslie Grinnell, awoke one morning unable to use her hind legs.

There were no online support groups, no canine physical therapists. The only options offered by the vet were $5,000 back surgery with a 50-50 shot at recovery — or immediate euthanasia.

Instead, Mr. Grinnell put his skills to work as a mechanical engineer and designed a wheeled cart for Buddha, who lived three more years. Ten years later, vets were referring so many people to the Grinnells that they went into canine-cart manufacturing full time.

Since 1999, Eddie’s Wheels has expanded to 14 workers at their facility in Shelburne Falls, Mass., and ships its carts worldwide for dogs, cats, bunnies, goats, sheep — even alpacas.

“I don’t think people felt any differently about their animals 20 or 30 years ago,” Mrs. Grinnell said. “It’s just the culture didn’t support the view that this is an important member of the family.”

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