When Whezer Thompson suffered a herniated disk in his back two years ago, he went from feeling out of sorts to hiding in the bedroom to completely paralyzed in just three days. And if you’ve ever had back problems you know the pain.
Whezer, by the way, is a dachshund and the long-backed dog breed is prone to spinal problems. Years ago, the only option for disabled dogs like Whezer was euthanasia. But today, spinal microsurgery and other pricey medical procedures once reserved for humans are trickling down into the animal health care world. It is all around us in vet clinics and hospitals across the county.
At a veterinary specialist, Whezer’s spine was repaired and his owner, Kathy Thompson said he was playing ball and hopping up on the ottoman again within a month. The surgery cost $4,000, much of which Thompson was able to borrow from family. And despite the cost, she has no regrets. “When you get a pet, it’s a commitment. We love our pets like we love our kids,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of people tells us we’re crazy and they can’t believe we spent that kind of money on our dog, but if something else happened, we’d do what we have to do to fix it.”
Among the many services available at animal hospitals are pacemaker implants, cancer treatment, respiration treatment and emotional counseling. And local vets say well-heeled pet owners are lining up to use the new services, no matter what the cost.
Getting ready for a procedure, a 1-year-old English Labrador retriever named Beau relaxes on a floor pillow while his owner, Deanne slips a pair of safety goggles over his eyes. Beau was born with dwarfism. His short legs struggle to carry his naturally husky frame, and he has a torn cruciate ligament in his right knee.
To try to heal Beau’s injury and ease the pain in his joints, the vet treated him with the hospital’s 3-month-old companion therapy laser. Just like the laser therapy machines used for years in sports medicine, the device (shaped like a microphone and rolled gently over Beau’s joints for three to five minutes) sends a red beam of laser light deep into the tissues to stimulate cell growth and reduce inflammation from arthritis and other injuries.
The vet said that she treats about three to four dogs a day with laser therapy and the number is growing. The service is $340 for eight sessions. “People are more than happy to pay for this,” she said. “For our clients, their pets are very important to them and relieving their pain is huge.”She went on to say that there is a cultural shift under way and pampered pets are the beneficiaries.”We are seeing extreme demand from people who want the best thing for their pets and these days, people who aren’t having children want the very best for their animals.”
In fact clinics are offering house calls and dental X-rays as well as laparoscopic spays and neutering. Because the surgery is minimally invasive, pain is dramatically reduced and recovery is quicker. At the hospitals that offer the service since it was introduced most clients have chosen the option which runs $650 to $700, about $200 more than traditional spays. There are pet owners that go to a clinic specifically because of it,” a hospital administrator said. “If people are looking for low-cost spays, they usually go somewhere else. But it’s still a ridiculously cheap surgery for the technology that we’re using.”
Local veterinarians said pet owners can expect to see many more technological advances in the future. Predictions are that 90 percent of spays will be done laparoscopically in 10 years. And vets are already seeing see stem cell therapy for the treatment of pet arthritis and other conditions coming.
But state-of-the-art technology comes with a high price tag that not every pet owner can afford.
Deanne-whose dog Beau is facing a lifetime of high vet bills because of his dwarfism-said she adores the sweet-natured Lab, but the cost of caring for his long-term needs is daunting. Surgery to repair Beau’s torn ligament would cost a prohibitive $4,500, so instead she’s hoping the lower-cost laser therapy will work.
Like 90 percent of American pet owners, Deanne does not have pet insurance to cover Beau’s treatment, and she can’t buy a policy now because of his pre-existing condition. Pet policies run $15 to $30 a month and can be purchased easily online, but the coverage can be limited and often has lifetime caps. There are animal charities, that provide limited funds to pet owners who can’t afford medical care for their pets. And many vets will cut their prices, offer payment plans or do pro bono work.