Bella Clark lay on her side, on a 12-foot metal table covered in a white drape, as three techs readied her for surgery. Her legs were bound and her head was tilted slightly upward, revealing a smooth, shaved neck. Her surgeon was about to operate on her jugular vein, blocking off an errant vessel that was siphoning blood away from her liver and making her ill.
The surgery for 1-year-old Bella, a Brittany spaniel, would total more than $10,000. That exorbitant cost didn't matter to her owner Andy Clark, who sees her not as a pet, but as a daughter.
“I'm a little bit of an overzealous father,” he told me. “You don’t put a price on your dogs. Those are my life.” After Clark's divorce, his dogs became his nuclear family. Months earlier, one had died, and when Bella got sick, he couldn’t bear the thought of losing her, so he sold his second car and drove 10 hours from San Diego to a University of California-Davis veterinary hospital to get Bella the best care.
Pet health care is getting as sophisticated as the two-legged variety. Bella's minimally-invasive surgery, along with kidney dialysis, specialized diets, cancer treatments, organ transplants, and even cosmetic surgeries, are examples of high-tech procedures borrowed from human medicine to improve and help extend the lives of our pets.
The amount of money spent on pets has skyrocketed, tripling from $17 billion in 1994 to $58 billion in 2014, according to the American Pet Products Association. Almost $29 million of that went to veterinary care and over-the-counter medications. Vets used to modify human medical equipment to treat animals, but now companies like 3M and Medtronic have groups focused on developing equipment for veterinary medicine. The veterinary diagnostics market is expected to be worth $4.2 billion by 2018.
The explosion of animal healthcare options reflects the shift in how pets fit into the fabric of American life. Society used to see them as animals, but now two thirds of Americans consider them members of the family. When their pets get sick, people flock to online forums on Facebook and Yahoo that serve as support networks, not unlike the ones we see for human diseases. With such hefty emotional and financial investment, owners have come to expect a level of medical treatment that befits a human person.
This has fueled the creation of a new kind of veterinary medicine, where specialization is king. The number of animal surgeons has more than quadrupled from 124 in 2006 to 519 in 2014, while the number of general practitioners has only grown by 55 percent over the same period, according to data from American Veterinary Medical Association.
And that means people may be able to find the perfect doctor when their pets get sick. When Christy Stetler's cat Mister's kidneys began failing him at the young age of three, she tried to keep him healthy with a special low-protein diet and, when he was especially sick, a saline IV to clear the toxins building up inside his small body. Stetler, a 50-year-old supervisor for a medical billing office in California, considered dialysis, but that can cost thousands of dollars per session, and it's more like a bandaid than a permanent fix. So instead, she decided to get Mister a feline kidney transplant.
Stetler arranged for Mister to have the surgery with Dr. Jonathan McAnulty, at the University of Wisconsin, because he is one of the few transplant surgeons for cats with renal failure in the U.S. He claims a 90% survival rate. Of course, a transplant requires a donor, so she found a cat named Star. (Donor cats usually come from shelters or companies that sell animals for research.)
Stetler booked plane tickets for her husband and stepson to take Mister and Star across the country. "I was afraid I'd never see him again," she recalls. "But this was the right thing to do. Otherwise, he was going to die."
Mister's surgery was a success, but he is now on a strict drug regimen for the rest of his life. Since the surgery two years ago, Stetler wakes up daily at 3am to feed Mister and give him his meds. She's used to it. Mister's two brothers are also ill; the one with leukemia has undergone kitty chemotherapy and the other is taking meds for feline immunodeficiency virus, the cat version of HIV.
The Stetlers have spent nearly $30,000 in hospital bills and medications for Mister, all of it out of pocket, because none of their pets had health insurance. That's not uncommon. Insurance rates are lowest for cats, but it's estimated that only between one and 6% of pet owners in the U.S. buy insurance, a number that’s surprisingly low given the rising cost of pet medical care.
"Some people think of them as just animals. This one is sick, let's just put it to sleep. I think about going to the extreme if I have to because they're part of our family," Stetler said. "It's like having a kid…We're doing this because we love our animals."
As veterinary medicine starts to look more and more like human healthcare, it's confronting some of the same problems: rising costs due to increasingly expensive equipment and medications, as well as ethical debates over end-of-life care and the value of an animal’s life. When families can't afford the care their pets need, they often dip into savings, sell off property or resort to crowdfunding sites.
But it's working. Pets, like humans, are living longer. According to data from Banfield Pet Hospital, which maintains a detailed database on pet health, the average lifespan of cats in 2012 was 12 years, up one full year since 2002. The average lifespan of dogs has increased about half a year over that same period. Experts say that's the result of better veterinary care and pet nutrition, as well as a stronger bond between owners and their animals.
The big difference between human and pet healthcare, as Melissa Dahl pointed out in New York Magazine, is that people can speak up for themselves; animals can't. They're beholden to their owner's decisions.
Bella was always small for her age, and she was always tired. Then, she started having seizures and walking into walls. Clark, a 55-year-old San Diego bar owner, feared the worst. A vet told him Bella was born with extrahepatic shunt, a congenital birth defect that split one of the veins running through her liver. The organ couldn't cleanse her blood of toxic substances, and that was slowly killing her. It could only be treated with surgery.
Until recently, the only available surgery was long and bloody and had a 25% mortality rate, plus a long recovery time. Clark wanted better for Bella, so the vet referred her to Dr. William Culp, one of a few surgeons throughout the country trained to perform minimally invasive vascular surgeries. On June 24, when Bella went under the knife, Culp made a small incision in her neck and snaked a thin wire through her jugular, past her heart and lungs, down to her liver. Culp could see inside her thanks to a series of X-rays taken in real-time.
Once he reached the point where her vein forked, he started placing tiny metal coils there; these would eventually cause a clot to form, sealing the abnormal vessel and redirecting blood to her liver, where it could finally be cleaned. The nearly-bloodless procedure took less than three hours.
It’s one of modern veterinary medicine's most technical surgeries. "As people experience less invasive procedures for their own healthcare and that of their family members," Dr. Matthew W. Beal, the Chief of Staff at Michigan State University's small animal veterinary medical center, told trade publication DVM360, "it evolved that their pets should experience the same advantages."
Culp performs anywhere between 30 and 40 of these surgeries on dogs and cats annually. The price tags range from a few thousand to upwards of $10,000, depending on the size of the animal. Cat surgeries, says Culp, tend to be cheaper because the equipment is smaller. "In the last 5 years or so, we have had a pretty big explosion in these…because the outcomes have been so good," Culp says. So far, he boasts a 100% survival rate.
Despite what seems like wider acceptance of pets as family, there's still some social stigma associated with the large sums of money people like Stetler and Clark are spending on their animals. Some of Stetler's own family have questioned her choices, for instance.
But the criticism signals more that sticker shock. Both Bella and Mister seem to be doing well; the conditions they had were curable. But what if an illness is terminal? At what point should an animal be allowed to die? Is it fair to keep a pet alive when they might be in pain?
And then there are the donor animals like Star, who now lives with Stetler's mother in Michigan and had been renamed Midnight. The Stetlers pay for her veterinary bills and visit her twice a year. But was taking one of her kidneys so that Mister could live the right thing for her?
How far are we willing to go to extend, either indefinitely or for just a few weeks or months, the lives of the pets that keep us company and love us? To paraphrase, from one of my favorite futuristic veterinary medicine movies, Jurassic Park, sometimes we're so preoccupied with whether or not we can, that we don't stop to think if we should.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.