Weighing pet medicine

Veterinary medicine today allows pet owners the option of relying on various kinds of sophisticated operating techniques and sophisticated medications for their beloved companion animals.

But with these advances come questions that trouble many, including the most devoted pet lovers. They wonder: Is it necessarily the right choice to apply advanced medical technology to animals? Is it really the best option for the animal involved? And is it always the right choice for the pet owner, who might in some cases accrue staggering veterinary bills?

John Caperton of San Francisco knows how hard such choices can be. His big black dog, Crash, became ill around age 14. Mr. Caperton had to decide whether to ask his vet to proceed with invasive surgery - an operation not guaranteed to be successful.

After consulting many friends who knew and loved the dog, Caperton authorized the surgery.

After the operation, Crash couldn't climb stairs for two weeks and hobbled gingerly for two months. But Caperton later felt it had all been worth it when Crash got some of his swagger back and for 10 more happy months lived up to his nickname of "The Big Smooch."

Stories of such dilemmas are becoming commonplace.

With growing availability of pain killers, microsurgeries, pet insurance, and even programs like Pawspice - which offers home-based hospice-style care for pets - pet owners increasingly have one or more options to procure extensive medical care for a creature that is also a dearly cherished friend.

Americans today spend about $34 billion on their companion animals each year, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association. The group estimates that about half of that spending is for veterinary care and drugs.

Medical treatment for pets today can include organ transplants, cataract surgery, and chemotherapy.

But there are those who ask: Just because it can be done, does that mean it should be?

Pet owners sometimes find themselves unsure if the options they are being offered genuinely serve the good of their animals.

Choices can be difficult, especially for people whose animals provide a precious buffer against loneliness. In the case of older pets, owners sometimes find themselves balancing their own desires with considerations about what's best for their pets.

"You need to ask, 'Is there a joy in their life, or are you really keeping them alive because technology allows you to?'" says Daphna Nachminovitch, director of the domestic animal division at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Va. "People who are dedicated to an animal will do what's best for the animal."

Determining what's best can be tricky, because it involves knowing the feelings of a creature who can't talk.

"Every animal has certain desires that should be recognized and respected," says Alice Villalobos, a pet oncologist in Los Angeles.

As the number of types of treatments for pets have become more varied, the number of trips the average American takes to the vet - and the amount of money spent there - has increased as well.

American cat owners took their pet to the vet an average of 2.3 times in 2002, compared with 1.6 times in 2000, according to a study by Pet Business. Dog owners spent $263 on average trip to the vet in 2002, compared with $196 in 2000.

But expense is often the last thing on the mind of a devoted pet owner. According to a survey done in 2003 by The American Animal Hospital Association, 71 percent of pet owners say they would go into debt to provide for their pet's well-being.

Industry estimates suggest that only 1-2 percent of Americans have pet insurance, despite the increasing array of expensive medical options for animals. An organ transplant for a cat, for instance, can cost as much as $7,500.

Still, as advances in medical technology increase an owner's options, ethical considerations can likewise increase in complexity. Bonnie Singer of Coral Springs, Florida felt that strain last year when her 17-year-old cat began to experience some uncomfortable conditions associated with aging.

"Do you put this 17-year-old cat into surgery, which she may not survive and is expensive?" Ms. Singer asks. "At what point do you prolong the cat's life, and at what point does it stop making sense for her and for you?"

In the end Singer opted for euthanasia at the suggestion of her veterinarian. Letting go felt "like losing a child," she says, but her rationale was ultimately the same as when she lost another cat 20 years earlier: "I was not going to allow her to suffer just because I wanted her around longer."

Some pet owners must also ask themselves at what point heavy spending on a pet's health no longer makes sense for themselves or for the animal involved.

For his part, Caperton says, he continues to be glad he authorized the operation for Crash. "I figured it was worthwhile as long as his recovery wasn't going to be longer than his time being well was going to be," he says.

Despite the difficulties that can come with pet ownership, Caperton says he plans to get another dog within a few years. "As painful as loving can be, it's ultimately worth it."

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