"Willis. Willis. Hey, Willis, hey, boy." The yellow Lab raises his head just a little. It's enough. Just 24 hours earlier, Willis was in critical condition after being hit by a truck and dragged, his chest cavity leaking so much fluid and air that he was near death.
Now his bandaged head and swollen eye give him the look of a boxer--the Muhammed Ali kind. "You shoulda seen the other fella" he seems to be saying as the doctor calls his name again. Plastic tubing inserted into his abdomen is draining the fluid and air. An EKG overhead keeps up an insistent beep, and a board-certified canine ophthalmologist has already examined the 4-year-old's eye to make sure it suffered no permanent damage.
This is the intensive care unit in the small animal hospital at N.C. State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. On any given day a dozen pets--or companion animals, in more p.c. terms--will be here, recuperating from surgery and traumatic injuries or undergoing treatment for life-threatening diseases. Down the halls are machines for sonograms, CT scans and even an animal MRI.
As Willis holds his head up, a German shepherd next door who hails from Virginia Beach is sitting up and looking pretty darned perky just a day after heart surgery. Across the room is a tabby cat with chronic lung disease in an oxygen tent. Some animals have IV drips; one dog is being fed through a tube directly into his abdomen.
"They come here from all over the country," says Dr. Steve Marks, a veterinary internist and the director of emergency services for the small animal hospital. "Animals are flown here. They arrive on helicopter. People are willing to go to great lengths for their pets."
The hospital and its emergency services--available to the public--are part of the growing trend of Americans spending more on their pets, particularly on medical services. According to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, consumer spending on pets more than doubled to an estimated $38 billion this year, a figure that includes $9.4 billion for veterinary care.
"In many ways, companion animals are treated as family members," Marks says. "People are willing to expend more resources."
For veterinarians, that means presenting clients with an array of options for medical care that didn't exist in the past, like chemotherapy for a pet with cancer. And it's why the College of Veterinary Medicine's hospital has begun to offer more and more specialties, rivaling the Animal Medical Center, a seven-story specialties teaching hospital in Manhattan. Just call the main number. "For oncology, press one," the automated voice says. There's also neurology, pain management, dermatology, cardiology and more.
The hospital--adjacent to the large animal hospital where cattle and horses are treated--is near the center of the bucolic 180-acre vet school campus next to the State Fairgrounds on Hillsborough Street. Out front, Black Angus graze or cluster near a barn. Inside, it looks like a real--that is to say, human--hospital, with wide hallways and interns in white coats walking through swinging doors. Bags of tartar-control dog food are stacked on the floor in one hallway; on the doors of the rounds room, where the doctors discuss the cases, the sign says "No four-legged animals beyond this point."
Because it's a teaching hospital, those four-legged patients get a lot of attention from staff. There are the faculty members, the fourth-year veterinary school students, and the residents who are training in a specialty. A full-service on-site pharmacy is open 24 hours.
A few years ago, Maggie might not have been getting an echocardiogram. But there she is, a 5-month-old Jack Russell terrier in the arms of Dr. Allison Adams, a resident cardiologist. "Now you're going to be good and hold still," Adams says, looking into Maggie's eyes. Maggie licks the doctor's face in response. Maggie has a heart murmur and a liver problem, and her docs want to make sure she's in shape for a procedure to insert a shunt from her liver to a vein. Moments later, Adams watches Maggie's heartbeat on a sonogram machine while an EKG is clipped to one tiny paw.
All this costs money, of course. The vet school receives some state subsidies, but it pays its operating costs out of client fees. "All veterinarians draw up financial plans for their clients, outlining treatments available and their costs--something that doesn't happen in human medicine," Marks said. Pets in ICU quickly rack up bills costing thousands of dollars.
A cardiology diagnostic workup that includes an echocardiogram like Maggie's costs between $600 and $900, hospital officials say. An internal medicine diagnostic workup will set a pet owner back $1,000 to $1,500 (that includes an endoscopy). Radiation for pets with cancer is $4,000 to $5,000, and a kidney transplant for your cat costs up to $10,000.
"I treat every dog like it was my own. I treat the hound dog that lives chained to a tree in the backyard the same way I treat the bloodhound that flies to London every month," Marks says.
Except for after-hours emergency cases, the animals in the hospital have all been referred by veterinarians. "The dogs and cats that come in here, they've all been looked at by another professional who either could not figure out what was wrong or couldn't treat it," Marks says. Last year, nearly 17,000 animals were treated at the hospital.
Private practice vets are also increasingly opening up specialty practices. New specialties beginning to emerge include dentistry, pain management and animal behavior. Dogs and cats on antidepressants are becoming more common. "There are more and more specialty practices opening up," says Mollie Rasor, executive director of the N.C. Veterinary Medical Association. "Pets are treated so much more as a member of the family than they used to be. And there are more options."
It's safe to say most of the pets admitted to the vet school's hospital have owners with means--or perhaps, pet health insurance. But there have been times when a client couldn't pay the bill.
Mickey, a dark-haired dachshund with silky eyes whose back legs are paralyzed, needed surgery, but his owners couldn't afford it. "So they donated him," says a nurse in the neurology unit as she straps Mickey into a special carriage to keep his hindquarters off the floor while his front legs do what comes naturally. Today, 12-year-old Mickey is kind of a demonstration dog, used to teach students how to empty the bladder of a paralyzed pup.
"And to show them that dogs can get along great in carts," Marks says. "We call him our head of security," the nurse says as Mickey runs joyfully around the room near a black Lab awaiting a diagnostic test.
The endings aren't always happy, of course. Marks recalls being called in at 4 a.m. to minister to a pet in respiratory distress that didn't make it. Sometimes the ventilators are put in place, the big guns in medicine are called out, and the owners decide it's time to let go.
As difficult as that is, being part of that process is also part of what makes the job fulfilling, says Liz Bolton, a fourth-year vet school student who is an intern at the hospital. "It takes, like, a year to get over the loss of a pet," she says, holding a tiny gray toy poodle named Sissy wearing a pink hooded sweatshirt. "I'm there to say, 'It's OK to grieve.'"
Back at the ICU, Willis is doing better. "He'll be home this weekend," Marks says. And he was.
For more information, visit the NCSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital Web site at www.cvm.ncsu.edu/vth.
Sylvia Adcock is a freelance writer who lives in Raleigh with her husband, two kids and a 15-year-old tabby cat named Caroline.