Boondoggie

I never wanted a dog, at least not since, like, second grade. My husband, a dog person since birth, was dismayed to learn -- after he brought the subject up on our honeymoon -- that I had no interest in getting a dog. They drool; they shed. Plus, I told him, I'm allergic. After much discussion, I reluctantly agreed that someday, maybe, a long time from now, if we had a house and a big yard, maybe, then we might, possibly, get a dog.Not even a year later, we met Wilson.Last spring, a woman I worked with was driving on the freeway when she spotted an overweight beagle frantically dodging trucks. She pulled over and opened her car door. The dog jumped in the back seat and promptly fell asleep. After delivering the dog to an animal shelter, she sent an e-mail around the office trying to find the dog a new home.For some reason, the image of the poor dog dodging freeway traffic brought out the mush in me, and, despite my earlier protestations, I suggested to my husband that we check him out. At the shelter, families were cooing over pretty golden retrievers, black labs, and other attractive pets up for adoption. None of them were interested in the fat, graying beagle with a huge wart on the top of his head. Our dream dog.When we decided to take the plunge, we were assigned our own "adoption counselor" who conducted a "home visit" to make sure we weren't secretly harboring 27 cats for laboratory testing. Part of the counseling spiel included a warning that being responsible pet owners isn't cheap. Vet costs, we were told, could run as much as $300 the first year, with shots and checkups and all.Undaunted, we signed our adoption "contract" with the shelter, in which we promised to put Wilson on a diet, and brought him home. He trotted through the front door and gave the place a good sniff, waddling in and out of every corner. After making the rounds of his new pad, Wilson humped my leg once for good measure and then settled happily into "Old Green," a ratty old Barcalounger left over from my husband's bachelor days.Our first visit to the vet was predictable -- $146 for some rabies shots, an ear check, and deworming. Vanity by proxy got the best of my husband, and he paid an extra $25 to have the wart removed from Wilson's head. Fortunately, Wilson had already been neutered, so we figured we wouldn't be seeing the vet again until his next year's checkup.With Wilson worm- and wart-free, we settled in for interspecies bliss. We took him on walks in the park, rat-chasing adventures in the alley, and secret missions to bury stale bagels on the sacred grounds of the nearby Presbyterian church.Much of Wilson's charm lay in his attachment to us. He followed us everywhere. If my husband and I were in different rooms, he'd plant himself somewhere in the middle, splitting the difference. When I was home alone, he was never more than 2 feet away. When I went down to the basement laundry room, I'd come back five minutes later to find Wilson, nose against the door, drooling in nervous anticipation of my return. He wouldn't eat by himself.His attachment was cute, but after about a month with us, it became pathological. When we left for work, Wilson would jump on the bed and bay at the moon, a-woo-wooing his broken heart out for hours -- a song of loss and regret that didn't impress our downstairs neighbor. He would pee on the floor and scratch piles of paint off the front door -- classic symptoms of separation anxiety.We tried everything to calm him down. Following advice in our Humane Society brochures on "The Lonely Dog," we turned on Maury Povich and hoped that Wilson would find companionship in the broadcast misery of others. We bought a Konga toy, a $20 rubber ball with a little hole in the top that we filled with Skippy. Working the goo out of the ball was supposed to distract him when we left the house, but not even peanut butter would salve Wilson's nerves. Our adoption counselor, who called us weekly to check in, recommended putting him in a crate, essentially a large cage that was supposed to work like a dog house and make him feel safe, but which only seemed to make him empty his bowels the minute we left.Finally, we gave up on the gimmicks and free advice, and decided to branch out into a more expensive realm. We took Wilson to Friendship Hospital for Animals, a kind of Mayo Clinic for pets in Washington, D.C., where the staff behaviorist gave us some photocopied tips on reducing anxiety and urged patience. But after a few more weeks of puddles and panic, we started thinking that a little dash of Prozac might be in order. The vet was amenable. There are now several drugs on the market to treat separation anxiety; Wilson just needed a blood test to make sure his liver could tolerate them.The test ended up complicating the picture further. It revealed that Wilson suffered from elevated liver enzymes, a sign of an infection like hepatitis or possibly Cushing's disease, an unpleasant, incurable affliction that often requires surgical removal of tumors in the adrenal glands and daily doses of a medication that runs $100 a month, plus regular blood tests. Hoping he just had an infection, we fed Wilson little peanut-butter-and-antibiotic sandwiches every morning for two weeks to see if that might clear things up.A second blood test came back unchanged, so a few days later, I found myself holding a plastic cup under Wilson while he lifted a leg. The ensuing urinalysis revealed nothing, so Wilson ended up at the vet for an entire day of hourly blood checks as further testing for Cushing's. Cost: $120. Those tests came back normal. So he had an abdominal X-ray, and that came back mostly normal. Another $115 down the drain. By this time, of course, you'd never know there was anything wrong with Wilson. He had calmed down a little at home and had shed 12 pounds, causing a significant improvement in his vertical leap.We would have given up on further tests except that the vet kept offering us options. After the X-rays, she suggested calling in a specialist, an oncologist who could perform an ultrasound and liver biopsy. If he found cancer, the oncologist could also treat Wilson with chemotherapy. The tests alone would cost nearly $600. The rational thing would have been to say no thanks. He was just a dog -- and a used dog at that. The notion of investing that much money to fix a dog seemed almost immoral considering that there were kids in our neighborhood who would be lucky to get measles shots, much less a trip to the oncologist.The only problem was that, despite all his troubles, we'd gotten pretty attached to Wilson. In a few short months, we had become those annoying people who talk to their pets on the phone and buy them presents at Christmas. I even took Wilson to the beauty parlor once and had him blow-dried. After a few guilt-ridden days of mulling it over, we decided that a few hundred dollars was a small price to pay to keep Wilson sniffing around a little longer.So we dropped him off at Friendship once again, where they shaved his tummy, knocked him out, and plunged a large-bore needle into his liver for a tissue sample. Again, the tests came back normal. After $1,200 worth of vet care, there wasn't much more we could do. We left Wilson in peace -- which lasted until last month, when he stopped in the middle of the street and started wobbling around like a drunk sailor. Twitching with spasms, Wilson could barely stand up.I dropped to the ground in tears, sure my dog was at death's door. After a few minutes, he recovered and jogged back home, but two more seizure-like episodes that night brought us to Friendship first thing the next morning. Another X-ray, another blood test, another $200, and we still didn't know what was wrong with him. Trying to be reassuring, the vet told me that if another blood test was inconclusive, a dizzying array of sophisticated medical options was still available, including a full neurological work-up, a CAT scan, and an MRI. "It's not as expensive as you might think -- under $1,000," he said sympathetically.I love my dog, but after hearing the news, I almost missed the days when if your dog broke down, your mom just got you a new one. Following the vet's course of action could mean spending close to $3,000 on an elderly pound dog -- one who probably wouldn't live more than another three years even under the best of circumstances. And that was just to find out what was wrong with him. What if he did have cancer? Canine chemo?Fortunately, so far, we haven't had to make a decision one way or the other. But plenty of other people have no qualms about pulling the trigger on high-tech medical care for their household pets. Like Sub-Zero refrigerators, Humvees, and five-car garages, gold-plated vet care is a sign that the economy is booming. But after spending some time in the flea-and-tick ward, I've discovered that veterinary luxuries aren't the sole province of the rich.In the high-tech vet world, compassion and consumption intersect. By bringing high-tech human medicine to the animal world, the rich have raised the basic standard of care for everybody's pets. Now that it's possible to save our pets from brain tumors, the question is: Should we? Without the health insurance that shields us from making such calculations about our human companions, advanced veterinary medicine is forcing us to put a price on love. Just how much is a dog's life worth?***Things are pretty quiet in Dr. Matt's ER today. A Shih Tzu with road rash is getting one last spot check before going home, while a black Lab waits for surgery on a broken pelvis. A young critical-care specialist with Cornell credentials, Dr. Matt Antkowiak is George Clooney with a stash of dog biscuits. Brushing back a fashionable lock of brown hair that has flopped over his glasses, Antkowiak checks the telemetry on the Labrador. Recently hit by a car, the dog is hooked up to a 24-hour heart and blood pressure monitor and IV machine that looks suspiciously like the same kind used for humans -- and it is, just like 90 percent of the drugs used here. Some of the dogs have had blood and plasma transfusions from the doggie blood bank. "We're almost like a human hospital," Antkowiak says.A phone call alerts him that his first emergency case of the day will be arriving soon: a dog with a heart rate of 20. "Probably a good candidate for a pacemaker," says Antkowiak.On any given day, between eight and 20 animals come in to Dr. Matt's intensive care unit. Sterile and white, the animal hospital could pass for any state-of-the-art teaching hospital, except that the walls are adorned with things like chocolate toxicity charts showing how many Hershey bars your Pekingese could eat before they kill him (answer: four). The low churning of IV pumps creates cognitive dissonance against a backdrop of people crawling around on the floor rubbing cats' tummies, sitting in cages with dogs in casts, cooing things like "Ooooh, aren't you sweet. Do you want some water, Poopy?" Animal owners are referred to as "Mom" and "Dad."Down the hall, a cardiologist is using a $200,000 echocardiogram machine to examine a boxer with a heart murmur. As she runs a wand over the dog's belly, the machine emits the muffled staticky waves of Doppler technology, the same stuff obstetricians use to give every expectant mom her first baby picture. Colored streaks on the screen show blood flowing through the boxer's heart while the computer charts other vitals in real time. The machine, designed for pediatric use, is so state-of-the-art that some human hospitals don't have one yet.Next door, Rodney the cat is having an abdominal ultrasound. If it turns up cancer, Rodney is in good hands: the vets here does chemotherapy, too. If his owners prefer a more holistic approach, the staff acupuncturist is available for treatments."None of this is inexpensive," says Antkowiak. "We get a pretty elite group of people -- or crazy, however you look at it."In Dr. Matt's intensive care unit, a sweet, doleful golden retriever struggles to stand up inside his steel cage. He pants heavily; his eyes are squinty and swollen. An orange oxygen line snakes out of his nose. His unsteady legs look like sticks wearing slippers. They've been shaved from knee to ankle, and the techs are running out of fresh spots to put new IV lines. The dog's bald head is criss-crossed with fresh sutures where a neurosurgeon sawed in to remove a brain tumor that had been causing seizures.The benign tumor was successfully removed, but the surgery caused secondary complications. Now, the 7-year-old dog's liver is failing; his esophagus has doubled in size. A tech sits on the edge of the cage and holds the dog's head in her lap with a towel, gently lifting a water bowl to tongue level. The dog's owners, who have spent all-night vigils at the hospital, are said to be inconsolable. They have spent nearly $15,000, but they will leave here only with numbers for pet-loss hotlines and grief counseling.There's no better place than here to see why human health-care costs are so impossible to contain. In human medicine, insurance bureaucrats try to keep the lid on by preventing people from making too many trips to the chiropractor or spending $1 million to keep their loved ones alive just one more month. There's no such barrier in the vet world, at least not yet. Pet owners, it turns out, will go to any lengths possible to improve on the length and quality of life of even the lowliest alley cat. If treatment is available, they'll demand it. And they're willing to pay.***Dusty, Spunky, and Ginger are cats. Dusty, 19, is the mama of Spunky and Ginger, who are 17-and-a-half. Spunky is black-and-white; the other two are calicoes. Every three weeks, Spunky gets chemotherapy for intestinal cancer. He had a brush with death in December, but a special diet brought him back from 6 pounds to 8. "Spunky has done beautifully on chemo -- hardly any side effects," says his owner, Connie Paulsgrove. "It's not like with the people."Spunky's plumbing is on the fritz, so he gets daily fluids and enemas every other day. At various times, he's been treated by an ophthalmologist, a cardiologist, a neurologist, an oncologist, an internist, and a surgeon, who did his exploratory surgery in September.Like the senior citizens they are, Paulsgrove's cats consume a daily pharmacopeial buffet. Spunky takes daily doses of Lactalose for lactose intolerance; Prednisone -- a steroid -- for anti-inflammatory benefits of all sorts; Tagamet "for his tummy"; Cisapride to make his intestines contract; and an appetite stimulant. Ginger is on heart pills, Prednisone, a thyroid pill, an appetite stimulant, and Lactalose. Dusty, who has had two strokes and may have a brain tumor, is on phenobarbital, Tagamet, heart meds, and Prednisone. A radioactive iodine cocktail quieted Ginger's overactive thyroid, and all three have had ultrasounds for one thing or another.Six of Paulsgrove's pets -- five cats, one dog -- have been patients at high-tech animal hospitals. "Three of 'em are in heaven right now," she says. "All three I had two years longer because of these wonderful doctors."Paulsgrove, a self-described housewife, has tiptoed down roads over ice, in snowstorms, and during hurricanes to get her animals to the hospital. She doesn't have to go as often now that Spunky is doing better on the chemo, and since the vet techs taught her how to administer the fluids and enemas herself.Paulsgrove's human children, now in their 30s, think she's nuts. She's a little sheepish about lavishing such care on her cats, but she says, "I do for my pets what I do for my children. Since I've been down there, I've found out I'm not the only one. We wouldn't be coming there if we didn't love our pets."Relatively speaking, she says, the vet care doesn't cost that much, especially considering what the cats have had done. "The feeling that you have that you're helping them, you can never put a price on that feeling. I'd rather put the money on the pets than buy something for myself. I'd do without anything if I had to. You want to do everything you can for your little ones. They're like your children. They love you no matter what you look like. You can't just snuff 'em out because they get sick. They have the right to get the treatment -- 'specially since it's out there."It's people like Paulsgrove who keep animal hospitals in business. They're not rich, but they're like the 40 percent of pet owners surveyed by the American Animal Hospital Association last year who said they would spend any amount of money necessary to save their pets' lives."We've had people put second mortgages on their houses, that's how much they love their pets," one lab tech told me. Even the rich are willing to make sacrifices. "I've had people say, 'We were getting a summer home, but now we're treating our dog,'" says Antkowiak."My last two clients had pets instead of kids," Lefbom said one day last month. "If it's your pet instead of your kid, you're going to do the best that you can. It's not socioeconomic. It's the individual, how important that pet is to people. Part of our job is not to decide for people."***I'm not sure my grandfather would recognize the medicine going on at these new hospitals. He was an old-fashioned vet, the kind who could treat cows and cats equally well. When he could no longer deliver bovine babies or stand for hours in surgery, he started a veterinary supply company across the street from the Wonderbread factory in Ogden, Utah. When he died, my father took over the business. Sometimes my dad would take me on the road with him to call on clients all over the Rocky Mountain West.The vets we called on were salt-of-the-earth, James Herriot types who birthed cows, wrapped horses' legs, and occasionally gave our kitty her shots. They wore cowboy boots, danced the Idaho stomp, and always had a story ready about some client whose family gerbil had taken a spin in the dryer or who wanted to have her dead parakeet autopsied. Despite their warm humor, these vets were pragmatists. Cuteness and floppy ears never swayed their belief in the value of putting a creature out of its misery.In those days, there were no radioactive iodine treatments for cats or spinal surgeries for wiener dogs. You shot the horse with the broken leg; you put the old dog to sleep when the quality of his life made it not worth living. It was a sensibility that some people thought the human medical establishment could use a dose of.Even with my own sizable contribution to the $11 billion annual U.S. pet health industry, I'd be the first to admit that there's something kind of gross about it. It's not just the money, either. There's something unnatural about using technology to extend your dog's shelf life, like trying to make your rose garden bloom all year round.The amazing feats of medicine performed at vet hospitals conflict with everything Marlin Perkins taught us about the Wild Kingdom, where nature is brutal and death is supposed to be a fact of life. There's supposed to be some kind of logic to the food chain: The goldfish eat the bugs; the cats eat the goldfish. The cat on dialysis blurs those lines. Artificially extending the lives of pets presumes that they have the same sense of time, mortality, and loss that humans do. It's anthropomorphism at its worst -- or best, depending on your perspective.Likewise, excessive vet care can be a measure of either compassion or extreme self-indulgence. The hallmark of affluence is being spared the discomfort of deprivation, of worrying about putting food on the table and paying the rent, of watching your babies die. Of watching your pets die. The new veterinary medicine keeps pets around longer mostly for our benefit, not theirs. Their suffering is easily remedied with euthanasia. Ours is not so easily assuaged. Pets provide a kind of simple, unconditional love that we're unlikely to get from parents, kids, spouses, or friends. It's not a luxury we lose lightly.Held up against so much human misery, though, $15,000 spent on health care for a dog seems horribly out of proportion. "If you think about what could be done with the same money, it does seem a little absurd," says Robert Frank, a Cornell University economics professor and author of the new book Luxury Fever.Michael McGraw, a spokesperson from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has no problem with spending money on pets. "We tell people, 'If you have the money, spend it.' There are few things that we can't put a price on, and one is the unconditional love that we get from dogs and cats around the house," he says. "If you've got $5,000 in the bank and your animal's in trouble, why not spend it [on your pet] rather than on a down payment on a new car?"PETA activists like to quote Gandhi, who said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way in which its animals are treated." By their measure, lavish animal medical care is not gross yuppie excess. It's a reflection of our humanity and our ability to show compassion for small and helpless creatures.Kim Roberts, manager of the First Strike Campaign at the Humane Society of the U.S., says, "There's a big difference between someone who buys their dog $1,000 worth of clothes and spending $1,000 on chemotherapy. I don't think we can in any way denigrate people who are willing to spend money caring for their animals."***Wilson is snoozing peacefully under my desk. And farting. It's easy to see why pets are supposed to be good for your mental health. It's hard to be too depressed working over a farting beagle.Yesterday, though, Wilson had another seizure, forcing us to again consider what to do with him. CAT scan? MRI? I'm no closer to making a decision than I was a month ago. Wilson is my warm, furry friend, and he is sick. Starving kids in Africa seem a long way away. Hungry kids in Section 8 housing, though, are one block from home. I do moral arithmetic. Maybe, I think, if I give more money to charity, then it will be OK to spend what money I have left on my dog. I feel as if I'm bargaining with my mom for a new bike.Wilson doesn't offer much in the way of opinion; he just rolls over for a tummy scratch. If he were a person, the answer would be simple. But Wilson is just a dog. He can't choose whether the poking, prodding, and pain of modern medicine is worth the trouble.And then there's Isaac, Tag 42 Blue, an 8-year-old beagle-cocker spaniel mix smiling out from the Humane Society Web site who could melt the coldest heart. He even looks a little like Wilson. On death row, Isaac won't get the chance to grow old and get sick if someone doesn't fall in love with him and take him home.But then, Isaac won't be the same farting dog at my feet. He won't be the dog who yanked my heartstrings all the way from the freeway and came home to flop in Old Green. I start to wonder how much a year is worth. It's an impossible calculation that could go on until we run out of money and tests and potions and treatments. Maybe I should sell my car.

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