Feline Medicine Goes High-Tech


Advances in veterinary medicine make it possible to diagnose and treat medical conditions in cats that would have been a death sentence a decade ago. From chemotherapy to kidney transplants, MRI’s to radiation therapy, ICU care to chemotherapy, cats can now receive the same level of medical care as humans. Cutting-edge veterinary care by board-certified specialists ranging from internists to oncologists to ophtamologists is becoming more widely available than ever before.

Dr. Julie Smith is the Medical Director at AnimalScan Advanced Veterinary Imaging center just outside of Washington, DC. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) facilities is one of the most powerful and accurate diagnostic techniques available today, and has become routine in human medicine. For the past ten years, MRI’s have been available for animals. An MRI provides detailed and valuable information without the higher risk involved in invasive procedures such as exploratory surgeries.

High-Tech Medicine Saves Lives

Dr. Smith shared the case of Mike, a 7-year-old Maine Coon with a brain tumor. “His presenting signs were a 3-week history of behavior changes and circling to the left,” says Dr. Smith. ”His tumor was a meningioma.” Mike’s neurologist recommended surgery. “It was an easy decision for us,” says Louis Abramovitz, Mike’s guardian. “Mike is such a special, sweet, affectionate cat, and we believed that he had many more good years ahead of him.” Not only did Mike fully recover, but “within a few weeks, he seemed to have more energy and was more playful than he had been in years,” says Louis.

The Hope Center for Advanced Veterinary Medicine is a multi-specialty practice in Vienna, VA. Services offered range from emergency medicine and intensive care to surgery, CT scan and cardiology. Oncologist Conor J. McNeill, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM (Oncology) offers state of the art cancer care, combining traditional methods with cutting edge protocols. One of his recent successes involved a 12-year-old domestic shorthair cat with advanced lung cancer. “We don’t know what caused the cancer,” says Dr. McNeill. “We treated him with chemotherapy for six months and were able to keep the cancer at bay, but then the tumor started to grow again.” For his most recent treatment, Dr. McNeill used a novel drug, currently only approved for dogs, and the cat’s tumor shrank with just one dose. This type of off-label drug use is quite common.

Quality, not quantity, of life is the ultimate goal in cancer treatments. “We want to be sure that our patients don’t suffer,” says Dr. McNeill. “Our goal is for them to be comfortable, pain-free, and willing to eat on their own. We are proactive about treating possible side effects such as pain and nausea.” Dr. McNeill is quick to add that chemotherapy side effects are rare in cats, and most cats tolerate the treatment well.

The Cost of High-Tech Veterinary Medicine

High tech treatments such as MRI’s and chemotherapy come at a cost. MRI’s can run from $1500-1900. Costs for intensive care can range from $1000-2000 a day, and costs for chemotherapy can climb into the thousands of dollars. Making treatment decisions can be challenging for cat guardians when financial concerns have to be considered in addition to quality of life issues.

When cost becomes a factor, euthanasia can become part of the discussion between veterinarian and client. This is known as “economic euthanasia” in the veterinary profession, and it’s a sensitive topic that is handled with great care by veterinarians and staff. “We can never really know what a pet means to an owner, “says Kris Boucher, the CEO at the Hope Center. “We make recommendations that fit into the client’s budget, and we offer payment options, but we never judge a client’s decision.” According to Dr. McNeill, there are always options. “We may be able to treat a cat with cancer with steroids and palliative care for as little as $50 a month,” he says. “This may keep the cat comfortable for a few more weeks, and it may also give the client time to come to terms with the cat’s terminal illness.”

There are ways to help cat guardians with the cost of advanced veterinary care. Pet insurance is becoming increasingly popular. There are several companies offering a variety of plans, and coverage will depend on the plan selected. In some cases, the plan may pay for the majority of the treatment, in others, clients may pay a deductible and a small co-pay. Low or no-interest credit cards such as Care Credit, designed specifically to cover medical and veterinary expenses, can be an option. Some practices may offer payment plans.

Is High-Tech Medicine the Right Choice for Your Cat?

But just because advanced medical care is available for cats, and even if finances are not an issue, high tech care is not necessarily the right choice for every cat. While advanced care can save lives, it can also prolong suffering. “We have the same conversations about advanced care with our clients as those that take place in human healthcare,” says Boucher. ”Sometimes, clients want to go further with treatment than a veterinarian may be comfortable with, but we will only recommend euthanasia in extreme situations.”

Cat guardians who are faced with a serious medical problem have more options today than ever before, but with those options also come difficult decisions. Whether or not to take advantage of the incredible advances in veterinary medicine available for cats today is ultimately up to each individual cat guardian. After weighing all the factors, in the end, the cat’s guardian is the only one who can determine what is best for her cat.

This article was previously published in the July 2013 issue of Cat Fancy magazine and is reprinted with permission. Photo of cat inside magnet courtesy of Animal Scan Advanced Veterinary Imaging, photo of Mike courtesy of Louis and Lynda Abramovitz

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