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Costly Creatures : Where 'the Sun Rises and Sets' on Rover's Health, the Vet Becomes a Vital Specialist

January 22, 1988|STEVE EMMONS | Times Staff Writer

In the really old days when Bowser or Tabby or Polly got sick, it was easy. They either got better or they didn't.

Then in more recent old days, there might have been a veterinarian in town who could treat your pet. You either could afford it or you couldn't.

Nowadays, it's much more complicated. Should Fido go to the family-practice vet or to the internist, the surgeon, the dermatologist or the ophthalmologist? You'd take Fido straight to the exotic-animals vet if Fido is a python.

And increasingly nowadays, the word afford does not figure into it.

"Because of the area we're in and the clients we have, we're privileged to treat cases where people want to do everything they can," said Dr. Jeffrey S. Cohen, a veterinary internist in Newport Beach.

"A lot will say, 'My life revolves around this kid' (yes, "kid") or 'The sun rises and sets on my dog.' Most of the time we're treating a pet that's a member of the family. They've invested a lot of time and emotion in what they may see as a child.

"Even if they're not wealthy, cost is no object when it comes to their pet. They may postpone their own doctor's appointments. I'm sure if we charged 10 times what we do, some owners wouldn't care."

This has resulted in pacemaker implants, heart surgery and brain surgery for animals, sometimes performed by medical rather than veterinary doctors. Some veterinary clinics have ultrasonic sound equipment for internal examinations and laser equipment for surgery. Wealthy and not-so-wealthy pet owners have inquired about organ transplants and prosthetic eyes.

That sort of devotion may be good for vets and for pets, but sometimes it can go to extremes.

One woman called a county vet to ask whether she could breast-feed her cockatiel. ("She'd need plastic surgery if she tried it," said the technician who got the call.)

One dog owner, about as upscale as you get in Southern California, told a county vet to disregard cost when it came to treating his sick Great Dane. He said he wouldn't let his sons near his Rolls-Royce for fear they might scratch it but gave his dog free rein in the back seat--where the dog tore the leather upholstery to shreds.

"They are so devoted because the pet enriches their lives so much," Cohen said.

"I can remember a case when I was an intern. I was working in emergency one night, and a lady comes running in with a dog in her arms and her husband with her. She'd left her 6-month-old child alone at home.

"The dog died on the table right then. She said--her husband's standing next to her--'I've lost the only thing that ever mattered to me.' Now you want to worry about something like that."

Maybe, but maybe not, said Dr. Steven Potkin, professor of psychiatry and director of research for the UC Irvine Medical School's department of psychiatry.

"We all have a need for emotional closeness, and sometimes it's easier to be close to a pet than to another person who makes demands and all sorts of other things," Potkin said.

"A pet is adoring and loving and doesn't have divided loyalties and doesn't place demands that the owner can't meet. Essentially, it's a relationship one can control much better.

"It can augment human relationships. The problem is when a person gives undue emphasis to the pet relationship to the exclusion of relationships with other people and the person begins to attribute to pets human emotions, feelings and thoughts."

At one county veterinary clinic, a family brought in their sick bird, and day after day they visited it there. "They literally had prayer meetings and Bible sessions with the bird," said one of the clinic workers. "They'd read, then wait for the bird to read its paragraph. They anointed it with holy oil."

The bird bounced back--and so did the family's check. They had stopped payment. "They told us God had cured the bird, not us," the worker said.

For most veterinary clinics, such extremes are unusual. Dr. Craig E. Griffin, a veterinary dermatologist who practices in Garden Grove, typically treats dogs and cats whose allergies are causing skin problems. He said the owners are dedicated indeed: "My average client is spending $20 a month on drugs and bathing his animal once or twice a week, maybe daily, for the rest of the animal's life."

The willingness to do this seems to be an urban trait, and only in certain urban regions, he said.

"You seem to get this attitude in metropolitan centers. Most of the private practices (in dermatology) are in Southern and Northern California, Boston and New York.

"You can't have a successful practice in most Midwest cities; I know that for a fact. I worked in Missouri, and there's a different attitude toward pets. If you're from a farm background, animals are very important and you develop a bond, but there's still the attitude that they're disposable."

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