Best friends, big bucks
Dave Scott has a University of Washington diploma and season football tickets at Husky Stadium.
But lately, a lot of his time and money have gone to a certain cross-state rival.
“I always had a hard time understanding why parents would send their kids to WSU until we got embroiled in this situation,” Scott said.
The situation: a canine emergency that started last summer while Scott and his wife, Eddylee, were boating in Alaska. After discovering a lump on their dog’s head, the couple quit the trip early and motored down the Inside Passage to their home in Anacortes, Wash.
Within days, their hometown veterinarian had arranged for MRIs and exploratory surgery for Cassie at the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, followed by removal of the tumor. Then came 20 days of radiation treatments, prompting the Scotts to cancel a European vacation and stay on the Palouse.
The treatments ended Oct. 3, and 8-year-old Cassie soon was chasing rabbits. But the vet bill will top $11,000 – for a dog that already had endured three surgeries for leg injuries.
“She truly defines the word ‘golden’ retriever,” said Scott, who is a retired Navy pilot, insurance broker and West Coast representative for a boat manufacturer. “We’re not wealthy people. … Thank goodness we have the ability to pay for something like this but also have the time to devote to it.”
As with treatments for humans, veterinary medicine is making huge strides, leading to longer lives for pets and bigger-than-ever bills for their owners. Americans spent $23 billion on vet bills in 2006, a more than threefold increase in 15 years, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“There are lots of families that are very middle-class paying $3,000 to $5,000 or more to treat their dogs with chemotherapy,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bryan, a WSU veterinary oncologist.
And it’s not just cancer treatments, although more than half of all mature dogs eventually develop cancer. Pacemakers, lens implants and hip replacements are among other high-end options available to owners who in generations past would have watched their pets die, sometimes by having them euthanized. In 2003, WSU officials were asked by the manufacturer not to show details of the defibrillator they’d put in a boxer dog named Honus because it was just like the one in Vice President Dick Cheney’s chest.
The next development: Working with a company that’s providing the necessary equipment, WSU plans to offer bone-marrow transplants for dogs with lymphoma, possibly starting by Thanksgiving. The procedure, which may eventually be available for $5,000 or less, will initially cost about $20,000, Bryan said.
Finding clients willing to pay that price should not be a problem. At WSU, people regularly sign up their pets for treatments that result in five-figure bills, said Charlie Powell, longtime spokesman for the veterinary college.
Some are valuable livestock or racehorses. But most are beloved animals that will never earn a dollar for their families – dogs and cats, mostly, although the list of those receiving radiation treatments recently included a pet rat named Bear.
One of WSU’s patients last year was Punkin, a 12-year-old Siamese cat with cancer. Punkin spent five days in intensive care after a surgeon removed about seven inches of colon. Punkin’s owner, Boise attorney Craig Marcus, said he was surprised the bill wasn’t more than about $1,500.
“If it had cost $50,000, I would have spent it because that’s my baby, that’s my little kitty, and she relies on me for everything,” Marcus said.
That attitude represents the changing role of pets in people’s lives, said Dr. James Cook, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“When I was growing up … dogs normally were not indoor house pets,” Cook said. “Dogs now come in the house and they’re just part of the family.”
In fact, a 2006 survey by the association determined that only 2 percent of dog and cat owners consider their pets “property.” Instead, those surveyed selected the word “family” to describe their pet, or “companion.”
So when it comes to medical care, “for a lot of people the decision on how much to spend is an emotional one and not an economic one,” said Dr. Warwick Bayly, dean of the WSU vet college. “Just as is the case for family members.”
Comet leads the way
From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, hundreds of dogs were given bone marrow transplants at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
“We started a program of soliciting for dogs with lymphoma, which is very common,” said Dr. Rainer Storb, a pioneer in the work.
But the goal was to perfect the procedure for humans, work for which Storb’s colleague, Dr. Donnall Thomas, won a Nobel Prize. “The Hutch” now performs about 500 bone-marrow transplants a year – all of them on people.
The work on dogs was largely forgotten.
Then, in 2004, a Bellingham veterinarian worked with the center to perform a bone-marrow transplant on a golden retriever. It was a favor for the dog’s owners, a pair of Seattle attorneys, one of whom had defended the cancer center against a lawsuit, Storb said.
Without the procedure, Comet likely would have died within six months, said the dog’s vet, Dr. Edmond Sullivan. Instead, he lasted four years, dying in April.
Comet’s owners were widely criticized for spending $45,000 to prolong the life of their dog and have become media-shy, Sullivan said. They were even the butt of a joke on “Saturday Night Live,” he said.
But others found hope in the story of Comet, and Sullivan began receiving calls from frantic dog owners from as far away as Malaysia. Sullivan has worked with WSU to perform transplants on five dogs since Comet, including a pit bull from New York, a beagle from Seattle and Annabelle, a golden retriever from Texas. Sullivan said the cost has been “trickling downward,” but typically exceeds $20,000.
With WSU going into the bone-marrow transplant business, Sullivan will lose access to the Pullman lab. So he plans to invest about $800,000 outfitting his own clinic, with equipment that also can be used for other procedures.
Sullivan won’t be WSU’s only competitor. North Carolina State University announced last month that it too will begin offering bone-marrow transplants for dogs.
Mortgaging the house
Dr. John Winters knows there’s a veterinary specialist near his clinic ready to tackle any medical challenge. Cardiologists, dermatologists, ophthalmologists, neurologists, oncologists – Beverly Hills has them all, and more.
Many of his clients – you’d recognize some of their names – can pay a $30,000 vet bill without wincing if it means extending the lives of their pets.
“It’s rather staggering when you think about it,” said Winters, a WSU graduate. “In Great Falls, where I’m from, you generally would just say goodbye to the dog or cat.”
But not all his clients are rich; he’s seen some take out second mortgages to pay vet bills. Others forgo the expensive veterinary care, knowing that in the case of cancer, it could mean losing a dog in a few months, rather than a few years.
Retired vet Stephen Lindsay saw customers in Las Vegas who would pay any amount necessary to keep an animal alive if it didn’t cause suffering. But when he moved his practice to Coeur d’Alene in 1994, Lindsay saw more customers for whom a vet bill of even a few hundred dollars was out of reach.
Lindsay would tell them there was no need to feel guilty.
“A pet is something we add to our life for the enrichment of family,” he said. “Nobody should go into extreme debt and jeopardize their own quality of life” to extend the life of a dog or cat.
Instead, he would tell clients that euthanasia was “a very humane alternative.”
“We have this wonderful opportunity with pets to be able to put them to death, either when there’s nothing more we can do, or we just can’t afford to do more,” he said.
Those who spend large amounts of money extending the lives of their pets often find their decision questioned. Wouldn’t the money be better spent on humanitarian causes?
It’s a moot point with most of WSU’s highest-paying clients, Bryan said.
“I know for sure that most of those people are donating a great deal toward alleviating human and animal suffering besides taking care of their pets,” he said.
Typically, he said, the money is discretionary income that would have been used to buy a car or for some other luxury. Comet’s owners opted not to remodel their kitchen, using the money to pay for the bone marrow transplant that added four years to his life.
“Ethically,” Bryan said, “it’s pretty defensible, really.”
Contact Dan Hansen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (509) 459-3938.