By Kim Campbell Thornton
The advances in veterinary medicine in just the last couple of decades have been dramatic, and these days many of the same lifesaving options in human medicine are also available to pets, often through skilled veterinary specialists.
Still, the idea that advanced treatments for cancer and other diseases or injuries are too much "to put a pet through" remains a common one, says Dr. Sandy Willis, a veterinarian who specializes in internal medicine.
But Josh, Tessa, Missy and Emma would surely beg to differ. The three dogs and one cat bore mute testimony to the power of veterinary medicine and an owner's love at the 2010 conference of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, held recently in Anaheim, Calif.
The pets are all survivors -- three of cancer, and one of a rare disease called leishmaniasis -- thanks to their owners' observations and perseverance in seeking care, as well as to the treatment they received after being referred to veterinary specialists.
Josh is a perfect example of how far specialty care has come. Just 17 hours after his first surgery to remove a large abdominal mass, the 8-year-old Golden Retriever was running enthusiastically to greet his owner. Josh has since had three more surgeries, plus chemotherapy, and every time it is all the vet techs can do to restrain him so he can recover safely. Dr. Brenda Phillips, a veterinary oncologist, says she has never known a patient who recovered faster than Josh.
Then there's Emma, whose problems began in 2002 with frequent sneezing and progressed to a bloody nose and other symptoms. A rhinoscopy showed that the 6-year-old cat had nasal lymphoma. Her oncologist, Dr. Mona Rosenberg, told owner Sharon Golding that the average life span after diagnosis of this disease is eight to 10 months, but her longest surviving patient lasted nine years. Golding chose to start Emma on chemotherapy, a regimen that lasted for three years.
Emma is now 14 and has been cancer-free for eight years. Golding has a goal: "We're going to beat Dr. Rosenberg's record."
Linda Hettich can barely hold back Tessa until the signal comes for the dock-diving black Labrador retriever to go airborne. Diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, Tessa had her tumor removed surgically by Dr. Rosenberg and began radiation treatment.
Two weeks after the first treatment, Tessa competed in a dock-diving event and jumped 23 feet, two inches, a personal best. Today, she's the only Iron Dog -- a dock diver that competes in all three divisions of the sport -- who is a cancer survivor, and as a therapy dog she is an inspiration to patients at the cancer center where she visits. "Her determination is like none I've ever seen," Hettich says.
Finally, there's Missy the mystery. If human, her case would probably inspire the writers of the television drama "House," in which diagnosticians face a new medical puzzle each week. Veterinary internal medicine specialist Dr. Steve Hill says Missy's mystery ended with a shocking diagnosis: Missy had leishmaniasis, a disease caused by a protozoan organism and most commonly seen in the Mediterranean. It's so rare in the U.S. that the Centers for Disease Control became involved after the diagnosis was made. There's no cure, but Missy has responded well to treatment.
"I think you can tell from all the owners who have spoken today how important the partnership is between the primary care vet, the specialty vets and the owners," says Joy Koda, one of Missy's owners, along with Jon Rosen. The extent of Missy's problems didn't deter either of them.
"We got Missy from the pound when she was probably 2 to 3 years old," Koda says. "She has enriched our lives incredibly. When it came to taking care of her, we were committed to that."
While it used to be that veterinary specialists -- including internists such as oncologists and cardiologists, and other board-certified veterinarians such as surgeons and dermatologists -- were found only at schools and colleges of veterinary medicine, these days most urban centers have specialty groups as well.
Ask your primary care veterinarian if a referral to a specialist can best help your pet.
(Kim Campbell Thornton is a experienced pet-care journalist and member of the PetConnection team. She also writes a regular feature for MSNBC.com.)
Spay kitty mommas
just after weaning
Q: I have a kitten who's pushing 7 months old or thereabouts. We were a little slow in getting her spayed, and now I think maybe she's pregnant. What should I do? -- G.T., via e-mail
A: Start lining up some responsible new homes now for those kittens, most likely. (Make sure they're the kind of people who'll be ready to spay and neuter as soon as their veterinarian recommends it.)
If you suspect your young cat is pregnant, and she had access to the outdoors, she probably is indeed expecting. Your own veterinarian can give you advice specific to your cat, so be sure to check in there for the best advice.
We're in full stride on kitten season now, which means we're getting questions about feline pregnancy from people who often had no idea they'd be midwife to pets who are not much more than kittens themselves.
Typical questions include: How long does a cat pregnancy last? (On average, 66 days.) Do I need to help my pregnant cat with delivery? (Yes, usually by leaving her alone.) How do I know if she's close to delivering? (Watch for enlarged nipples and the secretion of a tiny amount of milk.)
The question we're asked least often is the most important of all: How soon after my cat gives birth can she be spayed? (As soon as the babies are weaned, the sooner the better!)
Studies show that 80 percent of the cats and dogs in the United States and Canada are spayed or neutered. If your cat is not among them, she should be, and soon. -- Gina Spadafori
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. B's image and our text in this left-hand column
have long tradition
-- How did chocolate bunnies come to be linked to Easter? For the same reason candy corn was introduced for Halloween: to make money for the candy industry. Chocolate bunnies date back to the 1850s in Germany. Along with bunnies, merchants sold chocolate eggs and chickens. Switzerland, France and other European chocolate producers followed soon after that, with the U.S. and Canada not far behind.
The chocolate companies said that the bunnies symbolized renewal and rejuvenation, and were introduced to symbolize Spring, not strictly Easter -- although that's likely the time when you'll find them in most grocery baskets, along with an incredible array of marshmallow Peeps. The House Rabbit Society, which notes a spike in real bunnies needing homes after Easter, has used the popular candy as part of an educational campaign, suggesting that impulse bun-buyers "make mine chocolate," instead of buying a baby rabbit they're not prepared to care for.
-- The world's largest ant colony stretches from Italy to Portugal, some 3,700 miles. Compared to that, colonies of ants -- Tapinoma sessile, also known as the odorous house ant -- in parts of the U.S. have colonies that stretch a mere city block, according to NPR.
-- Besides humans and other primates, only some whales (including dolphins), elephants and European magpies are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. (Most children can't until they're about 18 months old.) -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon.
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.