No expense spared by these pet owners


There was no denying the bond between these people and their pets. In a quiet conference room at the Baltimore Convention Center yesterday, Denise Benoit described heading to church near her Prince George's County home to pray after she learned that her 4-year-old calico cat was afflicted with congestive heart failure.

Martine Britell, a television producer from Virginia, choked with emotion as she described her Sheltie's battle with cancer.

And Alan Swartz, a retired police detective from New Jersey, acknowledged shedding tears as he nursed his Rottweiler through life-threatening bouts with Addison's disease and diabetes.

"I feel like I'm willing to pay whatever it costs, as long as she's willing to fight," said Swartz, who said he has spent $25,000 on his dog's care.

The pet owners spoke at a meeting sponsored by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, which is holding its annual conference in Baltimore this week. Its members are trained and certified in a variety of veterinary specialties, such as cancer and cardiology.

The three-day conference, which ends today, attracted 3,500 veterinarians and vet technicians. Seminars focused on topics ranging from the latest in llama care to genetic testing for horses.

The pet owners spoke at a session organized to encourage others to seek specialists when their pets' lives are threatened by diseases such as cancer, congestive heart failure and neurological disorders.

"What we're trying to do is get the message out for people to ask about specialized care," said Dr. Saundra Wright, a veterinarian from Seattle and a spokeswoman for the group.

The pets trotted out for "interviews" yesterday were well-behaved -- despite the occasional bark -- during what turned out to be an hourlong discussion of their health histories. All three looked bored, but healthy.

Lucky, Britell's 5-year-old Sheltie, put her head on the floor and dozed. Benoit's calico sat contentedly on her owner's lap after being plucked from a container. Cassie, the Rottweiler, lapped water from a plastic cup when it was put to her mouth.

But the animals were not always so content.

Swartz's Rottweiler was dehydrated, lethargic and "very close to death" three years ago when he brought her to Dr. Nancy Sanders, a specialist in internal medicine with an office near his home in Wanaque, N.J.

The dog also developed arthritis and nearly went blind. "At one point, she was bumping into things," Swartz said.

Sanders said she put Cassie on five or six intravenous drips, part of an intensive course of treatment that lasted three years.

Cassie is still getting injections of insulin, along with other medications. But she can still see and her health has recovered. Swartz credits Sanders with saving his dog's life.

"If it wasn't for her, Cassie wouldn't be here today," Swartz said.

Genie, the cat, was diagnosed with a heart murmur after being hit by a car in February 2004. Fluids in her chest made it difficult for her to breathe, so the fluid was drained in procedures performed every two or three days for several weeks.

Surgery to correct an abnormality in her heart, a rare procedure for cats, was performed in September, said Dr. Luis Braz-Ruivo, the Bowie veterinarian who performed the operation. Genie's care probably cost about $6,000, he said.

Benoit, a former research coordinator at the National Cancer Institute, at one point quit her job so she could nurse her cat back to health. She has since found other work, but at the time, she saw quitting as a necessity.

"I needed to put all my focus on my cat," she said. "I guess as a pet owner, that's the kind of sacrifice you make."

Britell said she noticed Lucky's swollen lymph nodes when the bright-eyed dog was stitched up after being attacked by two Rottweilers last year.

The dog responded "beautifully" to a nine-month course of treatment that included chemo-therapy, a weekly regimen in which blood is drawn and medications are injected intravenously.

She's been in remission for six months, said Dr. Lisa Fulton, her veterinarian, who now lives in Ohio.

Throughout her treatment, Lucky continued to compete nationally in agility competitions sponsored by the U.S. Dog Agility Association. At the national finals last fall in Arizona, she finished among the top competitors in nine events, Britell said.

She said whatever the cost for Lucky's treatment, it was worth it. "I never looked at the credit- card bills," she said.

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