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September 26, 2010

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High-tech offers best care for furry friends

BRUTE, a German Shepherd, lay anesthetized on an operating table, his hairy chest under a plastic cover and his powerful paws taped immobile. "Here comes the wire up the artery!" said Dr Chick Weisse, who infused the dog's cancerous liver with chemotherapy via a catheter at the century-old Animal Medical Center in Manhattan in an effort to "buy him some time."

Brute was home in days, the cancer at bay a while longer -- perhaps eight months. The cost: US$2,000.

Around the United States, veterinarians are practicing ever more advanced medicine on America's 77 million dogs, 90 million cats and a myriad other animals, treatments that vie with the best of human medicine. The driving force is "the changing role of the pet in our society," said Dr Patty Khuly, a veterinarian at Miami's Sunset Animal Clinic.

The bottom line for many people, she said, is that investing in a pet's life "improves the quality of a human life immeasurably more than, say, buying a luxury car."

In a radiation suite at the Animal Medical Center, a black cat named Muka was undergoing a CT scan for a lung problem. A medical team hovered over the tranquilized animal, injecting contrast dye and poring over digital readouts to diagnose the problem: chronic pleural fibrosis.

The new, half-million-dollar Toshiba Aquilion, one of the latest, fastest 3D imaging scanners, was a gift from an owner whose pet was saved at the AMC, a not-for-profit research and teaching facility. The AMC offers 24-hour emergency care using once-unthinkable procedures like heart surgeries, MRIs and ultrasounds. It has a staff of 81 veterinarians, including 27 certified in fields such as radiology, endoscopy, neurology, cardiology and oncology.

They train 18 interns and 24 residents, including two from Italy and one from Croatia this year.

Khuly, who has an MBA and a veterinary degree from the University of Pennsylvania, says more people have come to believe that investing in their pets' health enriches their own lives. And that, she says, has prompted young vets to enter specialty medicine.

The result is the kind of cutting-edge care the AMC gives to a mammoth Bernese mountain dog named Alpha for his lumbo-sacral disease, marked by excruciating back pain. He receives electrical neuromuscular stimulation via a light laser, is exercised on an underwater treadmill and lies under a heat pack.

Alpha comes in twice a week with his owner, Dr Paul Greengard, winner of a 2000 Nobel Prize for research on the human nervous system.

Though many Americans do not get the kind of care their pets do, there are often no limits to what they will do to save the animals. Americans spent US$12 billion last year paying veterinary bills, according to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. That is about double what owners spent a decade earlier.

In some cases, advanced medicine perfected on pets leads to procedures then applied to humans.

The AMC says animals' painful arthritic joints are now being healed with stem cell transplants not yet approved for humans. The cost: US$4,000.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, a new surgical technique to repair torn knee ligaments in dogs was so successful that it is now being used on professional football players, said Dr William Gengler, director of Wisconsin's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.

Wisconsin also pioneered treating cancers in animals with TomoTherapy, image-guided radiation that targets only the tumor and spares surrounding tissue. That is achieved by pinpointing the diseased tissue with a 360-degree CT scanner, then opening radiation windows precisely at the needed location, Gengler said.

TomoTherapy is now state-of-the-art treatment for people, with several hundred such machines being used worldwide on human cancers.


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