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COVER STORY : In the Name of Puppy Love : Animals: Local residents willingly spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on veterinary specialists and high-tech treatments for their pets, from teeth-cleaning to delicate surgeries.


Rumi, ailing from pancreatitis, rests on her back as a doctor uses ultrasound to scan her inflamed pancreas and liver. Max, suffering from inexplicable fainting spells, sits in an examining bay with a 24-hour electrocardiogram halter strapped to his chest and back.

And Spice, racked by fits of reverse sneezing, has a fiber-endoscope snaked down her throat to her gastrointestinal tract.

In this age of high-tech medicine, there is nothing unusual about this array of imposing, state-of-the art diagnostic equipment--except that these patients are pets. The three animals at this West Los Angeles veterinary center, all dogs, protest only with an intermittent bark or yowl as specialists give them care akin to what their owners expect from high-priced doctors.

"We're concerned about this dog," said specialist David G. Feldman, viewing Rumi's pancreas on the ultrasound monitor. "She went into a coma and almost died, got better and then had a relapse. . . . Now we just keep her on an IV and medication and see if she can heal herself."

As medical treatment for humans has advanced in recent decades, so has veterinary medicine. The trend has been fueled by pet owners able and willing to part with hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to prolong the lives of their beloved animals. Such pet owners--and the advanced veterinary practices that serve them--are found in particularly high concentrations in upscale communities such as those on the Westside.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 4, 1994 Home Edition Westside Part J Page 3 Zones Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Pet doctors--David G. Feldman, the subject of the July 31 cover photo, works for California Animal Hospital. His employer was misidentified in a caption.

"It's safe to say that Southern California and New York City are the leading areas for the cutting edge of veterinary medicine," said Stephen J. Ettinger, a specialist widely known among veterinarians as the father of veterinary cardiology.

Small wonder, then, that the Westside has veterinary specialists in surgery, dentistry, dermatology, cardiology, internal medicine--even oncology. Unlike general veterinarians, specialists receive about eight years of veterinary education and must pass both the standard veterinary exams and board certification tests before they are formal experts.

Southland veterinarians unable to treat or diagnose complex diseases or congenital problems will refer patients to these specialists, many of whom also perform general veterinary services to keep their practices busy.

Additionally, the Westside is home to the California Animal Hospital, a center that houses about $1 million dollars worth of medical equipment. The hospital, which treated Rumi, Max and Spice, has been likened to UC Davis' world-renowned veterinary school.

The L.A. hospital and UC Davis own the state's only two veterinary "colorflow" Doppler ultrasound machines, a high-tech tool that shows internal organs and blood flow, yielding information that can be critical, for instance, in the diagnosis of heart problems. For about a third of what the human procedures cost, the veterinarians install pacemakers, repair faulty heart valves and do kidney dialysis.

Although no one has exact figures, Richard Holden, executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Assn., says the Westside has more veterinary specialists than any other region in the state.

"This area really allows us to practice the kind of medicine we were trained to do," said Robert B. Olds, a veterinary surgeon since 1975 who began practicing when there were only three such specialists on the Westside. "The population is well-educated, their pets are part of the family. They really put a lot of demand on us. People can afford it too. In a rural area, you would not see that kind of thing."

Driving the demand are pet owners such as George Sarandos of Valencia, a middle school principal who spent about $2,700 to cure Spice, one of his three dogs, of her sneezing.

"People criticize and talk about the starving in Rwanda and the homeless in Santa Monica that I could give money to," Sarandos said. "But I say (pets) are a gift from God, and he has given me enough money to care for them, and I can choose to do what I want with that money. She's my baby. I'd mortgage my house to get that dog well. When I adopt a dog, it's like a marriage, for better or worse."

Suffice it to say that Sarandos and love-struck pet owners like him keep specialists in business.

Kafka, a caramel-colored stray dog, might well have gotten the "Old Yeller" treatment (a walk behind the barn and a bullet) if he'd been in a rural community. But Kafka, who has been temporarily adopted by one of Olds' employees until she can find it a home, is the recipient of a $1,000 surgery to reconstruct a broken pelvis.

In the operating room, an out-cold Kafka, dwarfed by mammoth surgical lights overhead, is stretched out on the table and hooked up to a respirator, electrocardiogram and an IV of anesthesia. Olds slices through the hip muscle, cauterizing blood vessels as he goes.

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