Summer 2012 Magazine

Ethical Decisions and New Veterinary Treatments

By Nancy Marano

A veterinarian's ability to treat life-threatening diseases with advanced technology, equipment and medications has increased rapidly. It is now possible to treat some cancers, kidney disease, urinary tract problems, joint disease and other conditions with innovative techniques. These methods may cure an animal's problem or, if a cure isn't possible, may ease pain and make life better for an elderly or ill companion animal.

But these advances come with a cost - monetary and emotional. Recently the New York Times published an article on this subject. It discussed the high cost of advanced treatments and the awful, heart-breaking dilemma people face when the treatments that might save their beloved companion animal cost more than they can afford.

The article tells the story of a 10-year-old Chow dog named Tina who was diagnosed with lymphoma a disease of the lymph glands that often attacks older dogs. Tina underwent chemotherapy in Florida where she lived. Then she went to the Veterinary College at North Carolina State University where Dr. Steven E. Suter harvested healthy stem cells from Tina's blood and performed a bone-marrow transplant on her. She went home two weeks later cancer free. The cost for this procedure was $15,000 while the total cost for her treatment was $25,000. Unfortunately, Tina died nine months later after developing liver cancer.

Pet insurance may cover some of these costs, depending on the level of coverage a person has, but advanced treatments go beyond what most policies cover. Plus only three percent of pet owners carry pet insurance according to the American Pet Products Association. This means that most people will be paying the full costs themselves.

Veterinary cancer treatments have seen the most rapid advances due to imaging equipment such as MRI's and CT scanners. Veterinarians can do less invasive surgery because of more precise imaging. Drug companies also are developing medications that treat specific cancers and are less destructive to healthy cells and tissue. Veterinarians are using integrative approaches to treatments so surgeries may now be followed with physical therapy, pain and nutritional management.

All of these treatment options put a huge burden on the companion animal owner at a time when emotion often colors the decision-making process. The advanced treatments are very expensive and provide no guarantee that they will save the animal's life or even keep it pain free. If they work, the treatments may only extend life without curing the disease. The owner must decide whether trying the treatment will make his animal suffer more or whether suffering now will help in the long run. How do you explain to your companion animal why he is in pain and that the treatment is making him hurt more? Can you afford the treatment? A person is forced to deal with guilt feelings because his love for his companion animal is being equated with how much he can afford to pay for treatment.

The question a companion animal owner must grapple with is what is his responsibility to his animal? How far should he go in treating an animal's illness if the outcome is not certain? Will he be extending the animal's pain or providing extended quality time with the animal's family? No one can answer these questions with certainty. The veterinarian can only tell you what he's seen before with particular treatments not how your animal will react. People often think they know how they will answer these questions until their animal is involved. Then the decision isn't so easy.

PETroglyphs occasionally asks readers to send in their comments about various animal issues. We would like to hear your thoughts on this issue. Treatment vs. cost will continue to be an important issue forcing animal people to make ethical decisions concerning how far they are willing to go to treat their companion animal. Here are some questions we'd like you to answer.

1. Have you ever been in this position yourself?
2. What decision did you make and would you make the same decision again?
3. Why did you make the decision you did?
4. Was your animal cured by the treatment or did it extend his/her life with good quality?

We will continue watching this issue and will publish some of your comments. Please send your comments to Tell us whether it is all right to include your name or whether your comment is anonymous. We appreciate you taking time to let us know your thoughts.

(For more on ethical decisions you must make with your veterinarian see the article How to Talk with Your Veterinarian in the Summer 2005 issue of PETroglyphs.)

Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who is owned by three cats, Sammy, Callie and Max. Callie and Max are new additions to the family. She is a member of the Cat Writers' Association and Dog Writers of America.

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