Growing number of veterinary specialists means top care for more pets
The other day I noticed one of my dogs had developed that most common of summer ailments, a gooey skin infection commonly known as a hot spot. I shaved the area to get a good look at it, then cleaned and flushed the mess. I knew it was infected enough to require antibiotics, so I called my veterinarian.
"He's on vacation, this week and next," said the cheery receptionist. "Would you like to be seen by someone else?"
Ideally I'd have waited for our veterinarian to come back, but Ben's hot spot was no great stretch to diagnose and treat, and he needed help now; so off we went.
The veterinarian who came in to the exam room was young enough to be the son of our regular doctor. I swear had we not been there for something so minor, I would have asked at the reception desk for a grown-up. But my attitude started to change as I watched the young doctor work with Ben, and I started to feel much better when I asked what he would do if faced with something he hadn't seen before or didn't feel confident in treating.
"You never stop learning," he said. "I would ask for help."
This one, I thought to myself, is going to be a good veterinarian. That's because our regular veterinarian has exactly the same attitude after more than two decades. When he doesn't know, he finds out. And when he thinks a specialist could do better, he refers.
With veterinary medicine growing more complicated by the day, it's nearly impossible for one person to know it all. That, along with the demand for human-quality medicine for animals considered to be family, is good news for the growing number of veterinary specialists. The expertise they bring, in turn, is good news for our animals.
"A veterinarian will come up with a case, something they're having a hard time diagnosing. Or maybe they don't have the facilities for treating something unusual," says Dr. Joe King, who manages the Veterinary Referral Center of North Texas, a Dallas-based veterinary specialty group.
"Sometimes they'll refer the treatment of something they'll see seven-eight cases of a year, but the specialist here will see seven-eight such cases a day."
King says the idea for the Referral Center grew in the mid-90s, when a few of the area's veterinary specialists -- in ophthalmology, dermatology, radiology, internal medicine and surgery -- wanted to work together in a single location.
The center is unusual in that it's not a specialty group practice, but rather five distinct businesses under the same roof. But its founding is indicative of a larger demand for specialized care that has seen specialty practices develop in most urban centers. Before the growth in demand, veterinary specialists were found primarily in schools, colleges of veterinary medicine or in a couple of long-established mega-hospitals such as New York City's world-renowned Animal Medical Center.
King says veterinarians have generally been accepting of specialty care. "They all know their limitations. An ophthalmologist knows more about the eye than a general practitioner. The specialist is an extension of a general practice."
That higher level of care is increasingly what pet lovers demand for their pets, no matter the cost. "A lot of times it's not an economic decision," says Dr. Susan O'Neal, an internal medicine specialist at the Referral Center. "For 90 percent of my clients, the decision is all about quality of life for their pets."
For me, it's 100 percent about quality of life for my pets. Which is why I have on occasion taken my pets to specialists, and why I'm very comfortable with a "primary care" veterinarian who's willing to admit what he doesn't know and will help me find the resources I need to make the right decisions for my animals.
Although Ben's infection certainly didn't require the expertise of a specialist, it did give me the chance to meet the young veterinarian who'll now be the backup to our longtime favorite. I'm glad to find another veterinarian who already knows that it's not what you know that makes you good at your job, but knowing what you don't know, and how to find the answers. With veterinary specialists at the standby, my pets have never been in better hands.
SPECIALISTS WORK HARD FOR EXTRA CREDENTIALS
Veterinary specialists fall into two general categories: Those who specialize in a kind of medicine, such as surgery, and those who specialize in a particular species or related group of species, such as birds.
Among those in the first category are certified specialists in behavior, cardiology, dentistry, dermatology, emergency and critical care, internal medicine, neurology, oncology, ophthalmology and surgery. You can also find veterinarians who specialize in alternative care, such as acupuncture.
Species-specific certified specialists include those certified in avian, feline and combination feline and canine care.
Most specialties require additional years of study and the passing of extremely difficult tests, or boards, hence the origin of the terms "boarded" or "board-certified" in describing a specialist.
Information on all traditional veterinary specialists can be found on the American Veterinary Medical Associations Web site (www.avma.org) by clicking on the link to "Veterinary Specialty Organizations." For alternative veterinary specialists, visit the site of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (www.ahvma.org).
Must-have reference to pet medications
Dr. Debra Eldredge is a veterinarian, dog trainer and writer, with plenty of experience in both caring for animals and in explaining proper care to their owners. Her "Pills for Pets: The A-Z Guide to Drugs and Medications for Your Animal Companion" ($15, Citadel Press) is a no-nonsense, easy-to-use guide to both prescription and over-the-counter medications commonly used in the treatment of dogs, cats, birds, rabbits and more.
The first part of the book covers basic care for all pets, from choosing a veterinarian to recognizing emergencies to understanding the categories of medications. Eldredge's advice on birds, rabbits, pocket pets and exotics is very lean indeed, but she does far better with the more common dogs and cats. Still, there's just not enough room to do such a broad topic as overall pet care justice in so few pages, and pet lovers would be far better served in the veterinary area with a reference specifically on veterinary care for a single species.
The bulk of the book alphabetically breaks down drugs used in veterinary medicine, and here is where "Pills for Pets" shines as a reference. Identified both by their generic and brand names, medications are described by the work they do. Routine doses for various pets are given, along with risk factors and side effects.
Eldredge's writing easily conveys what can at times be complex information with no sense of dumbing down the text or talking down to her readers.
"Pills for Pets" should not be the only reference on a pet lover's shelf, but it certainly deserves to be one of a handful of basic books in a reference library that will help keep any pet in good shape, while saving time and money for pet lovers.
Q: I would like your input to pass on to a friend who recently told me she was planning to get a puppy for her almost 3-year-old son. Her son, who is adorable and sweet, is quite rambunctious with her cat, not to mention that the puppy would be regularly left home alone for up to 10 hours each day.
I tried to encourage her to adopt an adult dog from our local SPCA, one that is already house-trained and good with kids. -- P.W.
Your instincts are right on the money: Very few working parents with rambunctious 3-year-olds are in any position to take on the added responsibility of raising a puppy. Too many people think there's nothing cuter than a baby animal for their young child, but the shelters are full of the results of such bad decision-making.
While your idea of her finding a sensible older dog is a good one if she insists on getting another pet now, I'd prefer to see her wait until her son is older. Too often, very young children are rough on pets, not understanding that their "rambunctious" behavior hurts their pets. When they get to be 7, 8 or older, they are more capable of handling pets respectfully and carefully -- and of helping with the animals' care.
Also, please tell your friend that at the age her son is now, all the responsibility for pet care will be hers. By waiting a few years, she will be able to count on her son to help, although the final responsibility for pet care always remains with the parent.
Q: Cataracts have consumed my 10-year-old dog. Although it affects her, she stills sees well enough to get around at home. What is your experience with dogs having cataract surgery? I am concerned about anesthesia at her age, and I wonder if it will improve her quality of life. -- R.O.
A: Anesthesia for older pets is much safer than it used to be, as long as you take your veterinarian's advice on presurgical screening such as blood work and a chest radiograph. These tests will help your veterinarian to spot (and possibly correct) any health issues before surgery.
As for the quality of life your dog will have with improved vision ... it's difficult to say. I have known more than a few blind dogs, and I know that they do very well without vision. After all, dogs don't need to drive or read the mail. As long as their owners look out for them, keep them on leash, don't move the furniture, etc., most blind dogs adapt quickly and are as happy as they've ever been.
On the other hand, I've known people who have opted for surgery for their pets and been extremely happy with the outcome. Talk to a specialist about pros, cons and expectations. With all the information in hand, you will be able to make the decision that's right for your dog.
Q: I have a great, loving dog. She's a German shepherd/golden retriever mix, 9-years-old, who sheds a lot. It's becoming a problem because she's an indoor dog. Any advice? -- H.N.
A: Pre-emptive grooming! You have a combination of two high-shedding breeds, so it's no surprise your dog drops coat like a Christmas tree drops needles after New Year. A vigorous going-over with a shedding blade -- a grooming tool that's a loop of steel with teeth, attached to a handle -- once or twice a day will strip out most of the ready-to-be-shed coat before it can fall in your house. Follow with a softer brush to catch the remainder and sweep up the mess before you and your dog go back inside.
ON THE WEB
Help in picking a purebred
Michele Welton is the author of one of my favorite breed-selection books, "Your Purebred Puppy: A Buyer's Guide" ($16, Owl Books), now in a revised second edition. I like the book because it's brutally honest about what's not flattering about the breeds, helping anyone who's considering a purebred dog to get beyond the pretty face.
Welton has a Web site, too, Your Purebred Puppy: Advice You Can Trust (www.yourpurebredpuppy.com), with information on 188 breeds, as well as sections on how to choose a reputable breeder (a must if you're shopping for a purebred) and on why a mixed-breed dog may in fact be as good a choice (if not better).
Most of her Web pages try to steer you into purchasing her latest electronic books, but even with the tiresome sales pitches the site offers plenty of free information that will be of great help if you're in the market for a dog.
The green, green grass of home
My husband and I are big NASCAR fans, so when the series came to Infineon we knew we had to be there. There was no way were we going to leave behind Muffin, our 4-pound Maltese, though.
We decided to rent an RV, tow our car behind it and camp out at the track. Once there, we discovered a problem: Muffin wouldn't do her business in the dead grass where we were camping. She'd used nice green grass her whole life, and she wasn't about to change that now.
After a while we decided we'd have to take her to find some live grass. So we got in the car and headed to nearby Sonoma, Calif., where we found a patch of green grass that was to her liking. Problem solved for now, but we didn't want to be heading into town all weekend long so Muffin could go potty.
Then it hit us: We could buy a roll of sod! We went to the home-improvement center and spent a couple of bucks on fresh green sod. Once back at the RV, we unrolled it on the dead grass just outside the door.
Finally, Muffin had a potty zone she found acceptable. It looked pretty strange, a long rectangle of green against the yellow-brown field, but it worked just fine.
When we rolled for home, we left the sod behind on the ground. It had served its purpose, and it wasn't litter -- it was biodegradable! -- S.K., Sacramento, Calif.
(BEGIN ITAL)Do you have a pet story or tip to share? Send it to email@example.com, along with a digital image if you have one (jpeg preferred). We reserve the right to edit for length and style, and in sending us your story and/or image, you automatically grant Universal Press the rights to use your words and pictures in all Pet Connection subscriber newspapers and Web sites.(END ITAL)
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
In a 2002 survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assoc., fish-keepers came up with plenty of reasons why they loved their finned friends. (Multiple answers were allowed.)
Fun to watch 87
Stress relief 72
Conversation piece 47
Easy to maintain 45
Good for children 34
Good for my health 22
Enjoy designing tank systems 12
Breed for money 5
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600