The New Health Care for Pets

We held our breath as the doctor listened to our little guy’s heart with an ultrasound device. We had waited three long weeks for an appointment with this cardiologist, hoping against hope that it would come in time to help us fight whatever was sapping away a precious life. We were not prepared, after having consulted two other doctors, for what we heard.

“Your dog has a perfectly healthy heart for his size and age.”

Relief was momentary, because obviously there was something seriously wrong. Plus we didn’t think we had another 3 weeks to wait for another specialist. So we were relieved to fine we could bring him back the next day to see an internist.

Neither of us was prepared for that either. Who knew there were internists for dogs? But we were quickly ushered back to the waiting room as a steady stream of technicians, vet assistants, and veterinarians paced up and down the halls past rooms humming with the drone of sophisticated equipment. White coated attendants retrieved files, answered telephones, and reassured anxious pet owners. A pleasant woman made an appointment for us for the next day, and we were off toward home.

This was out first experience with advanced medicine for dogs and cats. Previously, we took our pets to the vet for check-ups and that was that. There was never anything seriously wrong. But when Gumpers started losing weight and acting listless, we knew something wasn’t right. As his condition progressed to bowel incontinence, we worked with our own vet to find an answer, which was how we wound up in a state-of-the-art animal hospital in another state.

Over a couple of weeks, we brought our dog for a biopsy and a battery of tests to diagnose the problem. After the scary day a vet told us she suspected cancer, the real problem was found to be Intestinal Bowel Disease, similar to Irritable Bowel Syndrome in humans. It was a serious case – the worst the new vet had ever seen, but we were cautiously optimistic. After a few months and several trips to the animal hospital along with countless tests, a blood transfusion, and medical trials, we began to see positive results. In the end, Gumpers lived another 6 years, to the ripe old age of 16.

Not too long ago, Gumpers’ amazing “cure” would not have been possible. Healthcare options for pet owners have now expanded so that almost every serious canine and feline illness, such as diabetes and cancer, can be treated. While not available in every town, most communities are within driving distance of clinics that provide anything from canine ophthalmology to cardiac and skin care. Yet veterinarians report that visits and check ups continue to decrease.

Why aren’t more pet owners taking their companion animals to the vet now that so many care options are available? Well, the reasons are complex. For one thing, the idea of spending time and money on a pet seems silly to some people. We knew that from experience.

Twenty years ago, our 13-year-old dog Frodo started losing his eyesight. The poor guy was bumping into things and not happy. We already took him to get his teeth cleaned every year because the vet said it would lengthen his life, so taking him to an eye doctor didn’t seem like much of a stretch. We piled the kids in the car and drove about two hours to a canine ophthalmologist who examined him and announced that he had cataracts. We talked about cataract surgery. The ophthalmologist even posited the possibility of little strap-on eye glasses, but ultimately we decided on surgery. Even we were not prepared for a dog with glasses, and ultimately the surgery allowed Frodo to see a lot better.

We soon learned that other people think you’re nuts if you take your dog to an eye doctor. The idea was, it seemed, that whatever health issues occurred to your pet were just a part of life. Friends and acquaintances would smile and ask, “How much did you pay? And how much would it cost for a new dog?” We weren’t rich, but those weren’t questions we asked ourselves. To us, it was a matter of quality of life for a member of our family. It still is. In 2012, visually impaired dogs have the option of lens implants. Given that choice, I know we would have spent the money so Frodo could see again.

The lengths we went to with Gumpers also caused comment, but by this time we didn’t care what people thought. We were excited by the scope of health services available and the ways the doctors could help. And we liked the fact that the vets at the clinic were corresponding with other vets across the country, comparing notes and exchanging ideas. In fact, a doctor in the Midwest corresponded with our vet at the clinic, and the somewhat experimental drug trial that saved Gumpers was tried on other dogs.

The atmosphere at the clinic was identical to that of a hospital. Attendants, technicians, and vets walked in and out in their neatly pressed uniforms, holding clipboards and moving with purpose. We loved the calm friendliness our vet’s office provided for our regular visits, but this was a new experience. We figured that if anyone could help our dog, these people could.

So with all this in mind, it’s hard to understand why people are taking their pets to the vet less than they did 10 years ago. After all, as of 2002, spending on veterinary care was expected to rise, given the current trends and the advances in care. But since 2008, the U.S. has experienced great economic hardships. Record numbers of people have lost their jobs and their homes. So it may not be surprising to discover that folks don’t have money in their budgets for companion animal care.

The Internet plays into this as well. Many people believe they can diagnose their pet’s conditions themselves because of all the information available online. Online pet meds also save money and don’t require a trip to the vet. Pet owners believe they are covering the bases by providing meds such as heartworm medication, and if companion animals don’t appear ill, there doesn’t seem to be a need for professional medical assessment.

Also on the list of reasons people don’t like to visit the vet, according to a study described in Veterinary Practice News, is resistance. Our cat Felix yowls all the way to the vet’s office and all the way back. Once we get there, it’s a chore to get him to come out of his crate, and he is less than cooperative during the entire examination. Since the visit is so unpleasant for the animal and the owner, many people put it off.

Yet another possible cause for the decline in vet visits is the availability of free check-ups and vaccinations at pet stores and pet adoption venues. These make it possible for people without means to get some needed shots for their pets, and some companion animal owners who might otherwise take their cats and dogs to the vet may be using these services to save money.

Interestingly, while veterinary visits decrease, the amount of money spent on pet accessories continues to grow. Over $30 billion is spent annually on leashes, sweaters, toys, and anything designed to delight pets and their owners. The reason for this disparity could be that unlike health care, the purchase of a toy or an article of clothing involves a small amount of money. As we found out with Gumpers, the costs of care can continue to climb. We were committed to getting him the help he needed as long as good quality of life seemed possible. Yet this decision required a lot of financial sacrifice and a lot of time. In addition, he needed expensive prescription medicine and special food until the end of his life.

In addition, when embarking on a course of treatment with uncertain results, there are points along the way when the question of whether continuing the process or euthanasia is the right thing to do. This is a difficult question at any time, and having to go through that process more than once is hard to bear. Some people choose euthanasia to spare their companion animal the pain and indignity of aggressive treatment.

But as more and more people take advantage of new treatments for our canine and feline friends, options are bound to increase. This will also change the way we look at health care for companion animals. Indeed, the entire spectrum of pet care, from nutrition to well care to pain management is changing, and the outlook for our companion animals as a result is rosy.