Pets 2012: Sit. Stay. Heal.

From cancer treatments to acupuncture, pets are benefiting from medical advances once reserved just for their human owners.


EVERY OTHER THURSDAY, 5-YEAR-OLD BARKLEY plunges into a heated swimming pool for hydrotherapy, a water-based massage that soothes his aching limbs, rebuilds muscle tissue and helps compensate for his missing leg.
The golden-haired Labrador lost a hind leg to cancer last August. Ever since, his owner, Susan Kaminski, has made the hour-plus drive from The Villages to the University of Florida’s small-animal hospital in Gainesville so Barkley can undergo rehabilitative treatment.
“Does he like it?” she asks, surprised at the question. “He’s a Lab.  He’s in the pool immediately. He cries as we get nearer the hospital. It’s hard to get his life vest on, he’s so excited.”
Each session lasts 20 minutes and costs about $200 for 5 weeks, according to Kaminski. Her pet insurance bears most of the expense, she says, because Barkley is a trained service dog who helps keep tabs on her sugar levels because of Kaminski’s diabetes. But it’s obvious he’s far more than that. “He’s not only my service dog; he’s my love,” she says simply. 
Barkley’s post-operative care to alleviate pain and keep him active represents just one medical advance now available to dogs, cats and other small animals. Many treatment options for pets today mirror those of their human companions, from hydrotherapy, acupuncture and cold-laser therapy, to hip replacements, sophisticated cancer treatments and new vaccines. University of Florida veterinarians from the College of Veterinary Medicine, who often treat the sickest and most severely injured animals, concede  that price at times can be prohibitive. But, as one says, “we can always do something to allay a pet’s suffering” at a reasonable cost. The following is a partial list of what they view as important breakthroughs in care:
*MINIMALLY INVASIVE SURGERY Although surgical procedures for animals lag about a decade behind those in humans, mostly due to fewer resources and cost, says Dr. Stanley Kim, assistant professor of small-animal surgery, more pets are benefiting from the same minimally invasive operations as their owners—performed through thin tubes or “scopes” and tiny keyhole incisions. Among the most common, especially in dogs: hip replacements, which can cost $4,500 to $5,000, Kim says, but may mean shorter hospital stays, fewer post-operative complications and less pain. UF veterinarians reported the first successful canine knee replacement last year, and eventually, Kim says, elbow replacements in his specialty, orthopedics, may be possible as well.
*HIGH-END CANCER TREATMENTS “Virtually every treatment for humans is now available for animals,” says Dr. Rowan Milner, an oncology specialist and chair of the department of small-animal clinical sciences. Not only can dogs, cats and other animals get high-end radiation therapy that targets tumors with great precision, he says, they also can receive many of the same chemotherapy regimens as their owners, with the caveat that, in humans, “the goal is cure, while in animals, we tend to use chemo in lower doses to maintain quality of life.” Even genetic testing to customize treatments for abnormalities found in two common cancers in dogs is possible today, Milner says. And in 2007, the first canine melanoma vaccine became commercially available, with UF researchers still testing their own experimental vaccine against this aggressive skin cancer. No vaccine yet exists for humans.
*LASER THERAPY Lacking enough “evidence-based” proof that this therapy works, some vets shy away from using lasers after surgery for rehabilitation, concedes Dr. Tom Schubert, professor of small-animal neurology. But, in a just-published study he headed, researchers gave 17 paralyzed dogs low-intensity laser therapy post-operatively while 17 dogs went without. The dogs given laser treatment were up and walking in six days, Schubert says, a full week ahead of the dogs that did not get the therapy—clearly “a big benefit.” Moreover, given the shorter hospital stays, which can cost up to $150 a day, it was cheaper and less stressful for his four-legged patients as well as their owners, he says. Among the laser’s growing uses, beyond well-established surgical procedures: pain management, wound healing, arthritis and even depression.
*ACUPUNCTURE Veterinarians use acupuncture frequently today, often to control surgical or cancer pain and to alleviate severe itching, says Dr. Carolina Medina, clinical assistant professor in acupuncture and rehabilitation. Sessions typically last 45 minutes to an hour, depending on what’s wrong, and can cost $50 to $150 a session, some of which may be paid for by pet insurance. “Basically it’s a very calming procedure” done without anesthesia, she says.  While some cats do tolerate acupuncture, dogs come in more frequently for these treatments and generally do better. Medina prefers acupuncture to the laser, she says, because it provides better pain control, even though the laser costs less, at $30 to $60 per session, and is being heavily marketed by the industry.
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