We Have the Technology

Understanding the Rising Standard of Care of Our Pets

After explaining complicated treatment options to the owner of a sick pet in an exam room, I am often asked, “What would you do if it was your pet?” This is such a difficult question to answer. The main reason being that it isn’t my pet. You two know each other better than anyone. I am the clinician and I often cannot see the forest through trees, since my mind is on remedies and potential medical outcomes. The information I give out must be used to form a customized plan that works best for the human-animal bond that you two share. Deciding what is best for your pet when they are ill can be extremely difficult, and the rising standard of care can make the choice of options that much more difficult. With today's advancements, rarely is there one right or wrong answer.

As you may remember, it wasn’t always this way. Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. I knew because I loved animals and wanted to learn about them and to be around them. Traveling to the vet as a child in the suburbs of Birmingham, Ala., was exciting. Seeing the other dogs and cats in the lobby, and picking up flea shampoos and daily heartworm medicine to give my dog, Sandy, was always a treat. That is, until he developed Cushing’s disease, an illness of the adrenal glands. When the standard treatment didn’t work we were given no other options. There was nothing we could do. 

Today, however, this is not the case. Sandy was likely diagnosed subjectively by a blood panel and symptoms alone. If Sandy came through a veterinary hospital’s doors today, he would have been offered a specific blood test that is sent to a specialty lab to confirm the diagnosis. He would likely have been referred to a radiology specialist for an abdominal ultrasound to visualize the adrenal glands. If this didn’t yield the results needed for a proper diagnosis and more specific treatment, Sandy would have been offered a referral to an internal medicine specialist. The specialist would offer further testing, rule out diagnoses, and prescribe more effective medications. I have no doubt that with today’s technology Sandy would have lived much longer and with a better quality of life. 

Veterinary medicine is advancing at an astonishing rate that closely parallels that of human medicine. A large reason for this is that companion animals make exceptional models for the study of human disease. Many types of canine cancer especially share similar traits with their human counterparts. As studies were performed, treatments discovered, and testing was perfected over the years, the demand to use these scientific achievements to treat our furry friends increased. Now, as pet ownership is becoming more popular and the pet industry grows, veterinary institutions and pharmaceutical companies are scrambling to unlock the mysteries of diseases that affect our beloved pets. 

I often receive giggles when referring pets to specialists. “There is a dog dermatologist?” Yes, and they are often booked weeks in advance. In fact just about any human specialist you can think of has a veterinary counterpart. Veterinary dentists, neurologists, surgeons, cardiologists, and even behaviorists (the equivalent to a dog psychologist) are commonly utilized by owners and primary veterinarians. Specialists typically have a four-year bachelor’s degree followed by four years of vet school, a one year internship, and then a three-year residency, capped off with an extremely difficult board test that can have a failure rate of 30-70 percent. This increased education and experience is an invaluable resource for difficult cases. 

Here on Capitol Hill we are privileged with being surrounded by 24-hour referral hospitals that host a variety of specialties. You name it and the medical specialty you need is likely less than a 30-minute car drive away. When your regular veterinarian, who is often a Jack of all trades, offers referral to a specialist, it increases the efficiency of the medical care by having a master of the field make more skillful decisions about rare conditions. Seeing a specialist comes for a higher price, but early referral often saves money in chronic cases by committing to finding a diagnosis earlier. While not an exact comparison, the model of veterinary medicine is looking more and more like the human medical experience. 

Knowing the dynamics of the rising standard of care in the veterinary industry is important for several reasons. The main benefit is understanding the difficult decision-making that comes with all of the options available to owners today. Not every owner wants his vet to perform a $3,000 MRI on a dog that has a seizure for the first time. Is this medically appropriate? Possibly. This is where communicating with your primary veterinarian about the many options available is key.

Most importantly, providing your pet with a good quality of life should be a veterinarian and pet owner’s primary objective. Whether or not we treat our pets with cutting-edge, human-grade medicine or simply do what is necessary to make sure they are happy and comfortable, being knowledgeable about the decisions we make together can insure the human-animal bond is stronger than ever.

Dr. Chris A. Miller lives on Capitol Hill and is the co-owner of AtlasVet (Atlas District Veterinary Hospital) at 1326 H St. NE. (www.atlasvetdc.com). He is a graduate of Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine and attended the 2013 Iron Bowl. War Eagle!