Vets finding critical success


The patient was understandably nervous -- quivering, in fact.

The cardiologist, Dr. Thomas G. Saunders, carefully watched the image of his patient's heart on a state-of-the-art echo-cardiography computer screen, noting with some alarm that a valve in his heart was not functioning properly.

But the prognosis was brighter -- some medication could probably avert surgery and improve the patient's health.

Hospital visit concluded, the patient licked its nose and was offered a small treat. Buddy, a 13-year-old Maltese, was soon back in Betty Reid's station wagon and on his way home to Bel Air.

The Animal Emergency Center in Towson, which opened last month -- part of the Chesapeake Veterinary Referral Center -- is drawing patients from three states because it has quickly developed a reputation as one of the finest around-the-clock critical care facilities for animals on the East Coast.

"I came here because it was highly recommended by Buddy's regular veterinarian in Harford County," Reid said. "He's had several operations on his knees and neck, and when he was recently diagnosed with a heart murmur, we got him in here as quickly as we could."

From arthritis and root canals to obesity and surgery, ailing pets are seen by a staff of 40 veterinarians and vet technicians who tend to the health problems of pets and, along the way, soothe the worries of pet owners. Animals can also be brought into the center for treatment in emergencies, chemotherapy for cancer and on-site lab tests.

Most cases treated at the center on Cromwell Bridge Road, perched on a hill overlooking the Baltimore Beltway, are referrals. While Buddy's examination and treatment was $360, the owner was happy to pay.

"My mother is in her 80s, and Buddy is her companion and friend," said Reid. "In a way, Buddy is a member of the family, irreplaceable."

Reid has plenty of company.

According to industry estimates, more than 64 million Americans spend a growing amount of money for veterinary care. This year, veterinary costs will account for the majority of an estimated $31 billion that pet owners in the nation will spend on their animals.

Because of the advances in veterinary care and the rising costs connected with keeping a pet healthy, a growing number of owners have taken out animal health insurance. Although such protection does not usually cover vaccinations or shampoos, such policies will save pet owners money over the course of a pet's lifetime.

At the Towson hospital, specialists -- from internists to ophthalmologists -- treat cats, dogs and scores of other species. As testimony to its reputation, the Baltimore County Police Department takes its ailing K-9 unit dogs to the center.

'White coat syndrome'

Saunders, the specialist who cared for Buddy, said animals definitely feel emotion. And when it's time to visit the veterinarian, "pets, like humans, experience the so-called 'white coat syndrome'. Their blood pressure rises, they are nervous, they realize something is up.

"One of my patients was a cat who on the day of his appointment would disappear," Saunders said. "When it came time to go to the vet, Fluffy would be among the missing."

One of the pieces of technology used at the center is the echo-cardiography computer that indicates any trouble spots on a computer screen -- complete with sound of a heartbeat and colors indicating blood flow in and out of the organ.

While Buddy's procedure cost $360, the same examination would cost up to $1,600 for humans, Saunders said.

The center, which has 15,000 square feet and cost about $2 million to build, has a dental suite where root canals have been performed.

Top-flight operation

The large midsection of the center is dedicated to cages, large and small, that house pets recovering from surgery.

The center also has two operating rooms. Surgeons were replacing a ruptured ligament in the knee of Snowball, a 5-year-old yellow Labrador retriever.

As two surgeons and a technician started to stitch Snowball's leg, another patient arrived in the surgical waiting area, a bit groggy at that.

Mr. Red, a 9-year-old Labrador, had been given a mild sedative and was going to be prepped for the removal of a large tumor.

Such surgical procedures will cost up to $1,800, said surgical vet technician Kristen Horsley.

The veterinarians at the center come from top-flight universities such as North Carolina State, University of Pennsylvania and Virginia Tech.

Dr. Meredith Binder works in the critical care unit where there are six treatment bays. She and other emergency doctors tend to the most common cases, such as those of dogs hit by cars or pets that have been the victims of attacks by other animals, such as those with snake bites.

"We also treat the very worst types of injuries, those inflicted by human cruelty," said Dr. Binder.

But even those horrible acts, workers at the center say, seem to fade when the imperiled animals eventually sense they are in a good place, a place where special humans in pastel scrub suits restore both their health and dignity.

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