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A Special Pet Section

High-Tech Ways to Cure What Ails

Vets borrow from human doctors to alter behavior, do transplants and cure cancer.

May 03, 1999|ROSIE MESTEL | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Imagine if the late British author James Herriot were writing his stories about veterinary practice today. You'd still have the animals, of course: faithful old Fluffy, the arthritic golden retriever, creaking painfully to his feet; or Lolita, the lovable Lhasa apso, apt to shred curtains to tatters and deposit malodorous gifts on the rug when her mistress leaves the house. And you'd still have vets and owners who care deeply about their furred and whiskered charges.

But you'd have many other things too. Scores of human drugs adopted for use in pets--some developed especially for those pets. Pacemakers for dicey doggy hearts. Transplants for clapped-out kitty kidneys. Orthodontics, hip replacements, plastic surgery--little round implants, even, for neutered dogs whose owners prefer that "natural" look. To say nothing of items a trifle large for a roving veterinarian's medicine bag: behemoth brain scanners, and dialysis and radiation therapy machines.

Never have owners been able to do so much for their four-legged family members, or spend so much. Never has pet medicine been so high tech, so similar to human medicine. Here's a look at some of the latest advances--and a look, too, at what may be lurking just around the corner.

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Barney the boxer dog enjoyed one of the new fruits of veterinary medicine recently. Aches from an old back injury--plus a touch of arthritis--had him taking forever-and-again to get up from sitting down. And growling, too, at his younger playmates when they eagerly approached him for roughhousing. That just wasn't Barney, says owner Wendie Thompson of San Juan Capistrano.

Barney's vet gave Thompson something new: Rimadyl, a pain-killing drug from Pfizer Animal Health in Exton, Pa., approved for dogs by the Food and Drug Administration in December 1996. Thompson slipped the pills into Barney's chow for a few weeks, enough to last till the soothing summer heat sizzled in. Thompson was delighted with the results.

"It put the pep back in his step," she says.

Now it's not as though pets had no pain pills before Rimadyl--vets commonly treat dogs with aspirin and other human drugs, often with good success. The same goes for other medical problems: These days, you'll see pets on digoxin, beta blockers and ACE inhibitors for heart conditions, Prozac for obsessive fur licking and aggression. And that's not the half of it. When all's said and done, Gnasher the dog and Twinkletoes the cat are physiologically pretty similar to their two-legged owners.

Similar, but not the same, says Barney's vet, Dr. Bernadine Cruz in Laguna Hills. Some drugs would knock people out at the proportional dose a dog gets. Others could be toxic to a pet at low doses--cats, in particular, are easily poisoned because their livers don't metabolize drugs as well.

"Pets," Cruz stresses, "are not just fuzzy little people."

So even though vets know a lot about which drugs are safe, it's great, they say, when medicines go through the hoops required for approval by the FDA: clinical trials for effectiveness and safety on the animal for which the pill is intended. In Rimadyl trials, 81% of dogs showed improvement (a small percentage developed gut irritation and liver toxicity, which can also develop with other painkillers). Today, about 1 million pooches have taken Rimadyl, mostly for osteoarthritis, a painful joint condition affecting one in five adult dogs.

Pets need a healthy body, but they also need a healthy mind--and in December, two more doggy drugs hit the news, both for doggy behaviors.

One drug, Anipryl, helps de-fog the minds of dogs with senile dementia. The other, Clomicalm, is for dogs who go nuts when they're left alone. We mean really nuts. Dogs like Leffie.

A collie-shepherd mix, Leffie is a sweet, good-natured creature, though perhaps a tad skittish: He was always prone to nervously zig and zag on walks, and cower in the closet when he heard loud noises. After the tragic death of his owners, things got really bad.

"If you were in the house with him, he'd be a couch potato--but if you left him alone, he would totally panic," says Marsha Miller, a San Fernando Valley volunteer with Adopt-a-Pooch, an organization that finds new homes for pets. "He would chew through doors. He would chew through fences--they'd look like a cannonball went through them. He was like a termite in fur."

But Leffie is now happy and serene in a home--and Clomicalm, from Novartis Animal Health in Greensboro, N.C., helped him get there.

In humans, the drug--clomipramine--is prescribed for obsessive-compulsive disorders. In dogs, it's been clinically shown to calm pets with separation anxiety, when combined with a training program.

Today, after two months on the drug, Leffie's given up his zigging and zagging, and his termite tendencies are a thing of the past. (Though just to be safe, Miller placed him in a home with a cement-block backyard wall.)

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