Advances in Medicine Have Gone to the Dogs

07 April 2013
Published in Life
Written by  Alex Porpora
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Advances in Medicine Have Gone to the Dogs Left: Scout as a young dog, Right: Scout's elbow replacement

Advances in veterinary care present new hope for ailing pets, and tough choices for pet owners.

Scout, an active black Labrador Retriever, had always loved her daily walks with owner Brandi Williams. But, when she was just six years old, things started to change. Her daily walks became shorter and shorter, and eventually she could no longer run. After a trip to the vet, Brandi learned Scout had arthritis, primarily in her right elbow, and was faced with the decision of how to care for her companion.

With advances in veterinary medicine, increasingly animals have the same options for treatment that are offered to humans with similar conditions. There are kidney transplants for animals with disease, and radiation and chemotherapy treatments for pets with cancer. For animals with arthritis, like Scout, joint replacement is now an option.

Specialty treatments, however, can come with a hefty price tag. According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, U.S. households spent an average of $375 on veterinary care in 2011, but such statistics can be deceptive. Advanced medical procedures, such as knee replacement or chemotherapy, can run more than $4,000. For many of the six-out-of-ten pet owners who consider pets as family, hundreds or even thousands of dollars is a small price to pay for the ability to improve quality of life.

Like any devoted pet owner, Williams did everything in her power to help relieve Scout's pain. Because the front legs of a dog support 60% of their weight, Scout's arthritic leg was under intense stress. Her local veterinarian, Rob Bagley, prescribed non-streroid anti-inflammatory drugs, and recommended weight management and daily activity, the most common approach for arthritis in animals.

After about 2 years of intensive treatments, there was no noticeable improvement. Williams researched Scout's condition to learn whether there was something more she could do. "I felt like Scout just had years ahead of her, and if I could do something, then her quality of life would be better or at least maintain where it was."

Although amputation is sometimes recommended in severe cases of trauma, Williams wanted to save the leg and Scout's left foot was also starting to show signs of arthritis. She opted instead for a total elbow replacement. Bagley says that while this orthopedic procedure has been available since the 1980s it "is still not a mainstay." At first, the procedure was highly invasive and required a long recovery time. Many newer procedures and replacements have since been developed that are less invasive and have a shorter recovery time.

The TATE elbow, developed in 2007, is one such advancement. The prosthetic replicates the motion of the elbow joint with two C-shaped components that nest inside each other. Fitting into the elbow joint, the prosthetic cups the humorous bone, with the rounded side facing the radius and ulna. Unlike other prostheses, it is not cemented in place but rather was developed for the bone to grow into it, similar to some prosthetic joint options available for humans. Veterinarian Randy Acker of Sun Valley Animal Center in Idaho invented the TATE elbow, named after his yellow lab who, like Scout, had arthritis. Williams decided this was the best option for Scout, and paid $3500 for the procedure.

At first, it looked like Scout would be able to return to her active lifestyle. "Right off the bat she was able to walk, which Dr. Acker said was normal," says Williams.
However, as with many medical procedures, complications developed. For Scout, "the upper piece attached to the humorous didn't heal or attach – the bone didn't grow into it," says Williams. She says Scout's recovery has reached a plateau.

Williams is now working with Dr. Bagley to improve Scout's condition. She's now taking a different pain medication and due to improved management Scout has a better outlook. "We can make it around the block on some days. It's a pretty small walk. But it's a 10-minute walk instead of a 4 or 5-minute walk. And she's a happy dog."

Even though the prosthetic didn't fix Scout's problem, Williams stands by her decision. "You have to weigh the pros and cons yourself and the quality of life for your dog - it's a tough decision. I believed I was doing what was best for my dog."

With more veterinarians specializing in subtypes of care, and continued advancements in veterinary medicine, pet owners will be presented with increasing treatment options in the future. Dr. Bagley has practical advice for pet owners who may be faced with a decision like Williams. "It's important for a pet owner to become educated about different options and it is the vet's job to understand the risks and benefits of each option. We're on the same team and the best solution depends on the pet and the situation."

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