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MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center sees growing similarity in pet, human care

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  April 28, 2012 10:00 AM

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(MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center)

In this video, veterinarian William Rosenblad performs a dental surgery, and gives an overview of the procedure, at the MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain.

It's a typical hospital scene.

Past two large glass automatic sliding doors, the modern lobby has a sparkling glow and a sanitized smell. A few people quietly wait to approach the receptionists, who are typing away on computers while juggling phones and paperwork.

Others in the lobby are more anxious -- waiting for loved ones to return from beyond two large wooden doors down a hallway to the right of cashiers and a pharmacy. A doctor dressed in blue-green scrubs with a stethoscope draped around his neck and a clipboard in one hand waves a plastic card in front of a reader. Unlocking those oversized doors, he disappears.

But, then, a patient emerges from down a side hallway. He is still running as he reaches the front desk and leans over to say greet a woman working on the other side of the counter. She pats and scratches his head, while his tail wags in delight.

It is a hospital, but for animals.

And the building's lobby is a prime example of how the medical care given to animals has improved in recent years to the point where much of the practice resembles how humans receive treatment.

As cats, dogs and other cherished pets are viewed more and more as "family members," their owners have become more engaged in learning about animal health care, said Jen Holm, chief medical officer at the MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain.

People are willing to do, and pay, more, which means many pets are living longer, she said.

"I think we value animals in our lives really differently than we did even one generation ago," said veterinarian Lisa Moses. "The human animal bond in American culture has grown."

About 62 percent of US households own a pet and an estimated $52.8 billion will be spent this year on those beloved animals, including about $13.5 billion on veterinary care which is second only to expenditures on pet food, according to the American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey.

Pet ownership has seen modest gains from two decades ago, the survey shows. Spending meanwhile has soared, more than tripling over the past 20 years.

Pet medical care can be costly, she said. But, "this is by no means a service just for rich people. I'm amazed at the diversity we see."

During 2011, the average pet owner spent about $500 in veterinary services, and about one-third of pet owners answered that: "I can't really afford to take my pets to the vet," according to an Associated poll.

(To see a series of X-ray images of random objects eaten by pets, click here.)

Rapid advancements in technology and human medicine in recent decades are translating into better care options for pets, Holm said.

"It's not necessarily the end if an 8-year-old dog stops walking," said Christine Anderson, a medical and radiology oncologist at the animal hospital. And, "Many people hear cancer and they think 'oh, that's it,' But we know from humans that's not always the case. There are often things we can do to lengthen their life or improve the quality of their remaining life."

(Matt Rocheleau for
A dog in the urgent care ward.
As Holm walked past the hospital's dental exam rooms, where doctors perform root canals, oral reconstruction and cavity treatments, she pointed out that many pets now live long enough, to develop tooth problems.

"This is an area that in the past 10 years has really evolved in veterinary medicine," she said.

But, beyond tooth troubles, there is a gloomier side to pets living longer.

The older they get, the more attached owners become. And, in their later years, animals, like humans, develop complicated conditions and degenerative diseases -- including cancer, diabetes, arthritis and eye issues -- that owners have a tough time coping with.

Five years ago, Moses started the pain medicine department at Angell Animal Medical Center. She said pain medicine for animals is a new field, and her department is one of a handful in the world.

Moses said she quickly learned that running such a department involved more than just helping to ease the physical pain pets feel as they grow older or become sick.

She often finds herself as a shoulder to cry on, a therapist of sorts to people. She walks families through the most heart-wrenching decisions pet owners can face, including about whether to euthanize their beloved animal.

Moses said she often sees an animal about three times per week during the pet's final months, which means she develops a close connection to both the pet and the pet's owners.

"It's very hard to lose them and to lose the animal at the same time," she said.

Her job involves many meetings in a secluded space in the corner of the hospital. There are several soft, padded chairs, a small table and a box of tissues in the "meditation room." There is a side exit that mourning pet owners can use to leave the hospital without walking through the main lobby.

In that isolated room, pet owners anguish in over whether to go forward with a certain, risky procedure. Sometimes they opt to euthanize. Sometimes the animal is put down in that room.

Half of American pet owners considered their pet "as much a part of the family as any other person in the household," and another 36 percent said they see their pet as "part of the family, but not as much as the people in the household," according to a 2009 poll.

Still, "a lot of people are able to step back and say I'm not going to try everything medically possible," Moses said.

Euthanasia is markedly more socially acceptable in pet medicine than human medicine.

As veterinary care has improved, that practice remains among the most apparent distinctions between medical options sought for animals versus care typically sought for humans.

"We're trying to make pets more comfortable, and not necessarily trying to cure them," said Anderson.

For example, she said more than half of dogs over age 10 will develop cancer at some point.

"In humans, the goal of treating cancer is often to cure it," Anderson said. "Our goal is to cure [the animals] if we can, but if that's not a possible or reasonable goal, we want to do what we can to improve their quality of life."

A human hospital for animals

(Matt Rocheleau for
A dog undergoes eye surgery.
In many ways, the medical care now available to animals mimics what humans receive.

For six decades, Angell Animal Medical Center was located in the Longwood Medical Area, the heart of human-centric healthcare in Boston.

In 2006, the hospital opened at its current South Huntington Avenue location after it was built through $16 million in donations.

Highly-trained doctors, nurses and assistants work on array of cases. Some involve immediate, life-saving treatment through the hospital's emergency center, which is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

On a recent visit, doctors and nurses huddled over a Newfoundland-breed dog, who laid on his back, sedated and hooked to tubes, heart monitors and intravenous. In one of the hospital's five operating rooms as machines beep and whirred, the patient underwent a tibial-plateau-leveling osteotomy, or surgery to fix a condition akin to what some humans experience and call "ski knee."

Between 15 and 25 operations are performed at the hospital each day.

The hospital offers inpatient and outpatient care, officials said. Most pets who are brought there live within 20 miles of the hospital, though specialty pets come from all over New England.

There is space for animals to stay overnight. Some are there to be monitored and treated, staff said. Others are there because their owners are traveling.

The boarding area offers, at an extra cost, some lavish amenities for guests; among the options: having a staff member from the medical center read their pet a bed time story or to have soothing classical music played for their pet.

The medical center has dentistry, ophthalmology, surgery, radiology, oncology and pain therapy departments, all of which consult with and refer patients to one another. The American Veterinary Medical Association recognizes 40 distinct specialties within the veterinary practice. The only specialty that Angell Animal Medical Center does not treat for is the large animal specialty, according to Holm.

The hospital also has access to resources at other facilities run by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, including adoption centers and shelters and advocacy, education and law enforcement departments.

"Our cases are a lot older than they used to be and a lot more complicated," Moses said.

But, Anderson explained, "There definitely are more things we can do to help them."

To see a series of X-ray images of random objects eaten by pets, click here.

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(Matt Rocheleau for

In this video, veterinarian Lisa Moses talks about the innovative pain medicine department she heads at the MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain.

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