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Animal Survivors Beat the Odds

When threatened by cancer or other catastrophic illness, seeing a specialist can save a pet's life.

Sixteen years ago, our Greyhound, Savanna, was diagnosed with bone cancer. Her oncologist recommended amputation of her right rear leg, followed by chemotherapy. We were unsure that putting a 10.5-year-old dog through that was the right thing to do, but Savanna was otherwise healthy and was pretty tough (except when it came to having her nails trimmed).

I know a lot of people probably wondered why we would “put our dog through that,” but the results spoke for themselves. After a few weeks of a rocky recovery, Savanna was back to her old self and got around just fine on three legs, including going up and down our stairs. She lived another two and a half years, dying at 13 of old age.

That question, “Why would you put a pet through that?” is often heard by pet owners whose animals are facing cancer or other diseases or injuries that require specialized and sometimes difficult treatment. To answer it, the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine presents the stories of animal survivors at its annual conference. I was in New Orleans last week at the ACVIM conference and had a chance to meet some of this year’s survivors.

Angel, a Carolina dog, was treated for lymphoma, the most common cancer seen in dogs; Bailey, a Mastiff, lost a front leg to bone cancer; and Penny, a Labrador Retriever, nearly died from a gastric ulcer that perforated and caused septic peritonitis. Camille, a cat, developed hepatic lipidosis after suffering starvation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

All of them now lead happy, healthy lives because their general-practice veterinarians referred their owners to veterinary specialists who were able to treat the problems with the latest and greatest in veterinary treatments and technology.

Stories about the rising cost of veterinary care have been in the news lately and come around every few years. That’s because veterinary care is keeping pace with human medicine; pets can benefit from almost every diagnostic, surgical and pharmaceutical advance available to humans. That’s not cheap.

But it didn’t stop Angel’s owners, a young couple who opted to try a new therapy, a bone marrow transplant, that was available at North Carolina State University. They had pet health insurance for Angel, but no cancer rider, so they had to pay most of the costs themselves.

“We were broke to start with,” Angel’s owner Kristie Sullens said. But they held fund-raising events to help cover the cost of the transplant and chemotherapy.

Bailey the Mastiff is what her owner Martha Rawls calls a “feel-good dog.” That’s how she describes Bailey’s therapy dog visits to people. She noticed one day at a nursing home that Bailey didn’t want to put down her left front foot. She took Bailey to the veterinarian, who referred them to an oncologist right away. There was concern about removing the front leg of such a large dog, but Bailey’s temperament persuaded everyone that she was up to the challenge.

“She can run, she can play, she can jump and lunge onto the couch,” her owner says. So far Bailey has survived for 19 months.

Ralls says: “We have so many people say, ‘Why did you do this?’ To save her life, pure and simple, and what a life she has. She has an awesome life.”

When Penny the Labrador wasn’t able to keep food down, it was discovered that she had a gastric ulcer that had perforated, unleashing a severe abdominal infection. She needed round-the-clock care with aggressive fluid and antibiotic therapy in the intensive care unit at Louisiana State University’s Veterinary Medical Center. She’s still receiving medication to resolve the inflammation, but she’s back to normal and has great quality of life.

Camille is one of the many cats that became homeless after Hurricane Katrina. When she was found, a month after the storm, she was starving and had developed a condition called hepatic lipidosis, which decreases the liver’s function. Camille had to be tube-fed for three weeks before her bloodwork began to return to normal. She was adopted by Christy Mataya, a veterinary technician at the clinic where she was cared for.

The common thread through these stories is how well the animals do with treatment and how great they look today.

Referral to a specialist is not always about treatment, says ACVIM spokeswoman Sandy Willis, DVM, but it is about getting a prognosis and options so that you can make an informed decision about treatment. And oftentimes, the sooner the patient is seen, the less the cost may be, if treatment begins before the condition gets too serious.

“It’s important that pet owners understand that they can ask their veterinarian for a referral to a specialist,” Willis says.

Pet of the Week 

Meet Delta, a cute little black and tan Chihuahua mix. He's 1 year old and has a short, easy-care coat. Go see him at Orange County Animal Care, 561 The City Dr. S., in Orange. His ID number is A1172095, and he's in kennel 239.

Kim Campbell Thornton June 12, 2012 at 04:57 PM
Why do you think that caring for pets precludes caring for people as well?
Gina Warren June 12, 2012 at 05:24 PM
See Deuteronomy 15:11 - if that verse holds true (which it does) there is no excuse to spend money, which will always be needed for humans, on animals.
Sarah de Crescenzo June 12, 2012 at 07:05 PM
@Gina, how does that verse you cite square with your own pet ownership? I assume you buy food, maybe a collar, etc. for your corgi.
Gina Warren June 12, 2012 at 07:22 PM
God never said to give all your money to charity. But of the charities you do give to, help people out before you help out animals. My pet ownership is a personal expenditure, not a charitable one.
Katherine Pierce October 16, 2012 at 07:20 PM
Why is everyone mad about helping animals? My amazing 16 year old cat Tansy is having her 2 year cancer survivor anniversary this week because she's been seeing an oncologist & accupuncturist. This December I am leaving on my annual medical mission trip to southeast Asia that I go on every year. Treating my cat & participating in med trip both cost me quite a bit if moola. Why does caring about animals mean you dont care about people or vice- versa?

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