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October 31, 2010

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Doggie carts and costly care for crippled pets

WHEN Beverly Tucker's dog Tobi ruptured a disc in his back, the veterinarian gave her a stark choice: expensive surgery with little chance of success, or euthanasia.

Like a growing number of pet owners, 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," Tucker 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 healthy counterparts, but their futures are no longer as grim as before. An industry catering to owners of disabled pets has sprung up, offering remedies from carts to chiropractors who specialize 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 US$41.2 billion in 2007 to an estimated US$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 industry consultant Pawsible Marketing. "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 have seen a growing willingness in the American public to adopt or care for pets with ailments that once would have met with certain euthanization.

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 doggy physical therapists. The only options offered by the vet were US$5,000 back surgery with a 50-50 shot at recovery - or immediate euthanasia.

Instead, Ed 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 Massachusetts, and now 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," Leslie Grinnell said. "It's just the culture didn't support the view that this is an important member of the family."

That isolation the Grinnells felt was similar to what Joyce Darrell and her husband, Mike Dickerson, experienced when their dog Duke severed his spinal cord in an accident in 1999. Instead of euthanizing Duke, the Grinnells got him a wheeled cart. They have since adopted another dog with paralyzed legs.

Those adoptions have grown into a full-time rescue operation called Pets With Disabilities, which Darrell runs from her home in the US state of Maryland. The program rescues between 50 and 70 dogs a year and finds permanent homes for most.

He said disabled dogs often bond tighter with people than with able-bodied dogs "because they need humans for more things." Still, there are more hardships involved in caring for disabled animals, including higher medical costs.

"Folks typically shy away from animals that are going to require medical care, and cost is usually the No. 1 issue," said Gail Buchwald at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Adoptions Center in New York.

Mary Dow, a volunteer with Independent Animal Rescue in Durham, North Carolina, rescued a cat named Daisy and paid US$2,300 for surgery on its broken leg. She raised more than US$1,800 to offset the tab.

"These animals don't feel sorry for themselves one little bit," she said. "They really have a lot to teach us."


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