Veterinary medicine makes big advances -- with big price tags

New procedures could save your pet's life... but break the bankVeterinary medicine has made extraordinary strides over the last few years; a New York Times piece  describes several innovative procedures used to save the lives of beloved pets that wouldn't have been possible a decade ago.

But reporter William Grimes also notes the prohibitively high cost of these procedures. The tale of Tina, a 10-year-old Chow with lymphoma who benefited from a bone-marrow transplant thanks to Dr. Steven Suter and the equipment he borrowed from the Mayo Clinic, has a happy ending – and it's promising that contemporary vet science now has a chance to catch and treat a "long list of cancers, urinary-tract disorders, kidney ailments, joint failures and even canine dementia," Grimes notes,

These improvements are reflected in a rise in consumer spending nationwide; the American Pet Products Association reports that money spent in this sector has gone from a "mere" $9.2 billion in 2006 to $13.4 billion last year. Unfortunately, these improvements may not be something many families can afford. Grimes relates that Tina's owner, Mike Otworth, spent $10,000 on the marrow treatment, and $25,000 on Tina's lymphoma battle all told, including chemotherapy and office-visit costs. Another couple, Patti and Dave Halberslaben, spent ten grand on courses of radiation for their Maltese-poodle mix, Chip, whose inoperable brain tumor seemed to leave them no other medical choice.

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But the Halberslabens have a second child starting college next year; would they make the same decision again? Patti says that they "did not hesitate" to spend the money at the time, but "in the future, I'm not sure we can handle a bill like that" – understandable, with many people around the country living paycheck to paycheck and skipping annual-wellness visits to their vets to save money. Folks with pet insurance can avoid some of these charges – but according to the American Animal Hospital Association, less than 3 percent of Americans carry such coverage.

There's also the question of whether a costly treatment that extends Fido's life also improves it – and unless our pets learn to speak English, that leaves us to wrestle with whether spending a few thousand dollars on a treatment is the right thing for the animal. Grimes quotes Otworth as wondering if he'd gone through with the transplant "for selfish reasons"; he's undergone cancer treatment of his own, and had to put himself in his dog's paws to figure out what Tina would want. Even if money is no object, is chemotherapy – difficult and exhausting, at best, for most humans – a solution that causes more problems than it solves? (Or a solution to only one problem. Tina developed liver cancer after her transplant, and died just nine months later.)

Vets wrestle with the issue as well – whether to recommend treatments with high price tags, or to steer clients away from them if they don't improve an animal's life. Dr. Ernie Ward, founder and chief of staff at Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C. and regular contributor to, is very proud of the progress veterinary medicine has made in his twenty years as a practitioner, but remarks that each case contains "many variables," and that "just because a treatment or a procedure is available doesn't necessarily mean it's right for that patient." Ward always outlines the best and most complete treatment – but takes care not to judge a client if he or she can't afford to pursue it: "There are times when the price tag becomes really a bit much for me." A higher cost doesn't always add up to an increase in quality of life (although Ward recommends "taking away those dollar signs from the conversation" by investing in pet insurance).

Much of the progress in vet science isn't just exciting and expensive; many newly-available procedures are less invasive for the pets, and can mean shorter hospital stays (and therefore lower bills for owners). Drug company Merial has developed a vaccine for oral melanoma, a common canine cancer; endoscopy can allow stents to be inserted to clear blockages in, say, a feline urethra, saving the cat's life and sending him home that same day; and arterial-dosage chemotherapies that prevent the chemo's poison from affecting the rest of the animal's body.

Whatever the approach, pet owners will continue to face some of the same tough choices about the price, financial and emotional, of pet healthcare as we have in the past. Ward encourages clients to develop long-term relationships with their vets – and to ask those vets what THEY would choose in a similar situation, a question he welcomes: "It's my job to help you feel comfortable with wherever YOU choose to draw that line." 

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