High-tech tools add hope, but also costs
If your golden retriever was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago, you were likely given two options: chemotherapy or compassionate euthanasia. Today, you may have access to a variety of advanced treatments, such as stents that deliver high doses of chemotherapy straight to the cancerous growth, the injection of tiny beads that block the tumor’s blood supply or precise radiation guided by highdefinition imagery. You may even be able to take advantage of what many veterinary oncologists consider the holy grail: new immunotherapies that harness your pet’s immune system to launch an attack on cancerous cells. ¶ “That’s what is so cool about this,” says Dr. John Chretin, head of oncology at VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital. Not only are there more treatment options available, but “nowadays, we’re getting better at predicting which cancers will do better with minimal therapy or if we need to break out the big guns.” ¶ Cancer treatment is one area that has seen a huge transformation — in part because of new imaging techniques that allow veterinarians to know exactly what they’re dealing with. But high-definition imaging has also allowed for the development of minimally invasive procedures used to treat such conditions as kidney stones, collapsed airways, blood clots and broken bones. ¶ High-tech tools that are standard equipment in human medicine, such as MRI machines, CT scanners and specialized scopes, have only recently become more widely used in veterinary medicine. ¶ “We have the same technology available as human medicine; the only limiting factor is the cost,” says Dr. David Proulx, head of radiation oncology at California Veterinary Specialists in Carlsbad. Medical equipment costs the same whether you use it on a person or a poodle. However, as human facilities upgrade to newer, better machines, veterinary hospitals can buy secondhand equipment. ¶ There are far fewer research studies in veterinary medicine than there are in human medicine, Proulx says. Because drug companies don’t make high profits from investing in veterinary treatments and government agencies are focused on human medicine, very little funding goes toward veterinary research. The exception is when animal model studies can be applied to human medicine. ¶ And when new treatments are available, they often come at a high cost — raising difficult questions for pet owners. Few have pet insurance, and those who do have policies may find that they have high deductibles or are reimbursed for only a small percentage of expensive procedures. In the face of lifesaving treatments that may cost upward of $10,000, even those who can afford to foot the bill may struggle with the question of how much their canine companion’s life is worth. ¶ The proliferation of options is what is so exciting, Chretin says. “Now we can say, ‘Your dog has lymphoma.’ We can give standard treatment with medicine. Or we can do antibody therapy in addition to chemotherapy. Or we can go crazy with a [bone marrow] transplant.” ¶ Starting at left, here is a glimpse into some of treatments that might add years to pets’ lives.
DR. NICOLE BUOTE performs laparoscopic surgery on Coach, a year-old Bernese mountain dog, at VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital. Stem cells were also harvested during the procedure.
CARING PAUSE by chief of surgery Nicole Buote helps to comfort a canine patient at VCA West.
FAT from a dog will be used to harvest stem cells that can be used in various treatments.