Pets Don’t Go Gently
Spurred by a long-flush economy and scientific developments, treatments that used to be reserved for ailing humans â€” such as the ultrasound â€” are now showing up regularly in veterinary offices to treat geriatric pets.
The willingness of owners to spring for such treatments is fueling an explosion in veterinary care spending, which grew from $6.9 billion in 1991 to more than $11 billion in 2002, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“When I started out years and years ago, the veterinarian would say, ‘We have heart problems, we have liver problems, the most humane thing would be to put the dog down,’ ” said Ray Emerson, a veterinarian with Emerson Animal Hospital in Waco. “(Now,) you do not just put them to sleep.”
Instead, the treatments available to older pets seem limited only by the imagination, and perhaps the pocketbook.
Many older pets
According to a recent study from the veterinary medical association, 16.8 percent of of the 70 million pet cats in the United States are 11 years old or older, up from 13.3 percent five years ago. The percentage of dogs over the age of 11 has increased at a similar rate.
What makes a pet geriatric depends on what kind of animal it is. Old age comes more quickly for large breed dogs than for small ones, while cats and horses can hope to live into their 20s.
“The smaller the dog, the longer the lifespan,” said Tracy Kelly, a veterinarian with the Ramsgate Veterinary Clinic. She estimates that a cat or small dog becomes older when it hits age 7 or 8. Large breed dogs hit their later years around 4 or 5, and a horse enters its golden years around the age of 15. Like most things,the older an animal gets, the more things go wrong. Cats and dogs lose their hearing or develop cataracts. A cat’s kidney’s can fail, and horses have been known to develop cancer.
Pet birds can develop problems with feather picking, as well as gastrointestinal and respiratory problems. keeping pets around longer for their loving owners â€” for a price.
For acute kidney distress â€” and only in a few places in the country â€” a cat can have hemodialysis, a procedure in which the blood is cleaned outside the body, just as in human dialysis. At the Animal Veterinary Clinic in Manhattan, the treatment costs about $10,000 to $15,000 for the first three or four weeks. At this same center, if a cat is eligible, it can have a kidney transplant for around $8,000, plus $3,000 to $4,000 each year in medical maintenance.
According to the Wall Street Journal , about 20 veterinarians around the country are operating on pet fish, which runs between $350 and $1,000.
Some pet owners are opting for less drastic but still-unusual treatments. In Dallas, dogs undergoing physical therapy at the Dallas Veterinary Referral Center can can use an underwater treadmill to redevelop muscle strength.
Hearing aids are even available for hearing-impaired Himalayans and Huskies.
Owners of older horses, too, have to deal with specific problems as their animals age.
“We have a big problem with older horses maintaining their weight,” Kelly said.
Part of keeping a horse’s weight up is keeping its teeth in good shape. Since a horse’s teeth never stop growing, they have to be filed once a year. If the teeth aren’t taken care of, the horse can have trouble eating, Kelly said.
Just like humans seeking medical care, pets seeking treatment can also visit a specialist, such as a cardiologist or oncologist. There is currently no board specialization in veterinary geratic medicine in Texas.
To provide for this level of medical care, some animal-owners are opting for pet insurance. Some 220,000 pets are covered by the Veterinary Pet Insurance company alone, with most of their policies sold in the states of New York, New Jersey, California and Florida. Michelle Desai, the marketing and public relations coordinator for the insurance company, said a policy for a 12-year-old cat could be covered with a $38 monthly premium.
Pets ‘like family members’
With all of this money changing hands, even a noncynical person might ask, “Why?”
“People consider pets their family members,” Desai said.
Kathie Robnett, president of Fuzzy Friends Animal Rescue in Waco, said the unconditional love pets provide is the most important factor in the relationship with their owners. This love is especially important for older people who may not have anyone else in their life, she said. Paula Wash, 57, of Waco, said her 11-year-old Shitz Tsu, Dolly, is like one of her children.
“She just has a personality that fits into our family,” she said. “And you take care of your children.”
So far, Wash has taken care of Dolly through a liver ailment, skin problems and a small ulcer on her eye. Dolly even went to the vet last week for glaucoma test to make sure she didn’t have the eye disease.
“Dolly has had a lot of money spent on her,” said Wash, after describing Dolly’s different ailments.
Dr. Charles Oswalt also lives with an older pet he considers special, a healthy 14-year-old labrador named Saber. Oswalt got Saber as a young, fully trained hunting dog. He regularly gets ear infections, and he has a tick-bourne chronic infection that is treated on and off. While he hasn’t had to pursue of the more unusual treatments, he would be willing to do so.
“I think it’d be a good idea, and that would give me an opportunity to find out what’s wrong,” he said.