Veterinarians Perform Sophisticated Procedures

July 28, 2008
Veterinarians perform pricey procedures

Sarah Netter and Ernie Garcia
The Journal News

The scar on Edie’s belly may be tiny, but it represents something big. Earlier this year, the 11-month-old French bulldog was spayed – but the very common procedure was done in a not-so-common way.

Edie was among the first of several at Animal Medical of New City to have the surgery laparoscopically, with her reproductive organs removed using a thin, lighted scope rather than through a traditional, much larger incision.

“She recuperated so fast,” said owner Maria Kasser of West Nyack. “I couldn’t believe how quickly she bounced back.”

Faster recovery is one of the major benefits to laparoscopic surgery and other advances in veterinary medicine.

Veterinarians are now performing procedures on pets once reserved for humans, including vision correction, fertility treatments, orthodontics and kidney transplants. Even cosmetic surgery isn’t out of the question.

Local veterinarians say today’s pet owners are usually more than willing to pay the often-hefty price tags that comes with these procedures.

Dr. Howard Gittelman, director of Animal Medical of New City where Edie was spayed, said veterinary medicine originated as an agricultural profession, but has completely shifted in another direction

“These are family members, and (owners) are willing and want to seek out the best care possible,” he said.

Gittelman, who also spays all of Hi-Tor Animal Care Center’s female dogs this way, said laparoscopy takes less time and less anesthesia.

“We’re talking about a hole that’s 11 millimeters in diameter,” he said.

The Animal Specialty Center in Yonkers opened Jan. 30 and its 100 employees perform only complex medical procedures that local veterinarians are not equipped to perform. Most of their referrals are from local veterinarians.

“We don’t do general care, so we aren’t stepping on their toes,” said Dr. Jason Berg, one of Animal Specialty Center’s co-owners.

Berg, 38, of Tarrytown and his business partner, Dr. Richard J. Joseph, 52, of Katonah, formerly worked at the County Animal Clinic in Yonkers and, before that, in New York City.

On the morning of July 2, the hospital’s staff was busy with sick animals. Staffers sedated a dog in an MRI machine while another was being prepared for breast surgery.

A physical therapist worked with a German shepherd named Jake, 7, who had just had back surgery to repair a ruptured spinal disc and was relearning to walk on a treadmill inside a water-filled tank.

“Some of the discs are like a generic tire. They don’t last that long,” Joseph said of Jake’s back problems.

Other animals come to the hospital to undergo radiation therapy in a machine called a CyberKnife, the only such machine in the country used for performing brain surgery to kill tumors in animals. There are about 80 CyberKnifes in the country used on adults.

Dr. Sarah C. Charney, a radiation oncologist, has performed 41 surgeries since the hospital opened, mostly on tumors in the brain, limbs and nasal cavities.

Charney said that the CyberKnife’s advantage over traditional radiation therapy is that an animal only needs three sessions, compared with the 15 sessions that might be needed in other radiation treatments.

Another field in which animals routinely get a similar quality of care as their human counterparts is ophthalmology.

Dr. Cory Mosunic has been with the Katonah Bedford Veterinary Center for three years. She is the only board-certified canine ophthalmologist in Rockland, Westchester and Putnam counties.

She does one or two cataract surgeries per week, as well as retinal and corneal procedures and eyelid reconstruction, which she jokingly referred to as “face-lifts.”

Canine cataract surgery has really evolved in the past five years or so. The next step, Mosunic said, is to measure a dog’s prescription so vision can be restored as accurately as possible.

She sees about 10 to 15 patients a day and keeps an eye chart in the office as a joke.

“People think, ‘Do they really have to read that?’ ” she said.

While animals are receiving better medical care, the costs can hit the owners hard in the wallet.

At the Animal Specialty Center, Berg estimated that the surgery for Jake cost $6,000, with extra fees for the rehabilitation. Berg estimated that the average bill for a procedure is $900 and a consultation costs $165.

Cataract surgery at the Katonah Bedford Veterinary Center costs about $2,000 for both eyes, not including fees for anesthesia, hospitalization and pre-op testing.

The laparoscopic spay at Animal Medical of New City can cost a couple of hundred dollars more than traditional surgery.

Despite the high costs for these procedures, Berg said many of his customers are not wealthy.

“Most are not wealthy. They are definitely middle-class people who have kids and a family pet, so they want to do everything for their pet,” Berg said. “They really spend a lot of time with their pet.”

Some advances, however, are purely cosmetic.

Missouri-based entrepreneur Gregg Miller has sold about 250,000 pairs of Neuticles – testicular implants for animals whose owners are less than enthused about the look of neutered males.

The Neuticles, which come in different textures and sizes, help dogs maintain their identity and self-esteem, Miller said, noting that a handful of hospitals in the lower Hudson Valley have used his products.

Miller said most of the Neuticles he sells are for dogs and cats, but he’s fashioned them for everything from a prairie dog to a water buffalo.

“We’ve accepted the emasculation of our pets as being completely normal,” he said.

But as some of the Lower Hudson Valley vets pointed out, just because they can do something doesn’t mean they should.

Veterinarians now practice geriatric care, Gittelman said, but too often owners try to keep their pets alive when it’s time for them to go.

“Do we do a kidney transplant just because we can?” he said. “Because we can’t separate or deal with the inevitable loss of the pet?”

But he understands these feelings come from love.

Of course, some people just want their pets to look the best they can.

Gittelman said that while he has done orthodontics on animals for medical reasons, he also has been asked to put on braces for cosmetic reasons.

He said no.

Kasser said she would do whatever it took to ensure her dogs’ quality of life.

“I took the dog on as a life, the same way I took a kid on,” she said. “I don’t believe that you get a pet to discard it if it becomes too much trouble.”

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