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As Kayla is led away for a biopsy, Mark Farmer is left sitting on an orange plastic couch picking black hairs off his London Fog. It's his first visit to the University of Minnesota's Veterinary Teaching Hospital in St. Paul, and he concedes he's a little overwhelmed. For the last half-hour, his elderly black Lab has panted her way through some serious prodding and poking, while he tried to absorb a textbook's worth of information on different kinds of tumors and the treatments employed to try to keep them at bay. "I'm surprised and impressed about the lengths these people would go to to save an old dog," he says. "I mean, chemotherapy for dogs--who'd a thunk it?"
Nine years ago, Farmer and his brother found Kayla wandering across a frozen lake hunting for ice-fishermen's leavings. (Farmer requested that both his and the dog's names be changed for this article.) She was friendly and well-trained, and Farmer couldn't fathom how anyone could have abandoned her. His three daughters adore her; not even the arrival of a new Lab puppy last year pushed Kayla from her pampered niche in the household. Farmer used to take the big dog hunting every fall. He supposes her first owner did, too, since she needed no prompting to retrieve ducks.
But as both man and beast have gotten older, they've slowed down. One consequence is that the dog doesn't get a lot of exercise. So four months ago, for the first time in Kayla's life, Farmer needed to cut her nails. After he clipped them, the dog started limping. For a few weeks, he thought he'd done a sloppy job and nipped her in the quick. Then he noticed a big lump on one of her toes. Kayla's regular vet ruled out any connection with the nail clipping and referred Farmer to a specialist at the vet hospital.
Dr. Jenny Urbanz immediately suggested what Kayla's vet had been hesitant to declare definitively: The lump looked like an osteosarcoma, or tumor of the bone. Kayla was hustled off for an X-ray. The film revealed a mass that looked like it was chewing away her toe. Urbanz needed to draw some fluid from the tumor to be sure, but a diagnosis of cancer would leave them with several options.
If the disease had already invaded Kayla's lungs, there would be little doctors could do. If it hadn't, and the Farmers opted for further treatment, Kayla's toe--or more likely her whole right front leg--would have to be amputated. After that, she would need chemotherapy. The cost would run more than $3,000--unless Kayla qualified for an osteosarcoma trial being conducted by one of the hospital's oncologists.
As he awaits Kayla's return on the orange couch, Farmer doesn't know where to even start thinking about the situation. He loves his dog and doesn't want Kayla to be in pain, but everything he's heard described sounds like a potential ordeal for the whole family. "When I was a kid, I lived on a farm," he says. "We had animals running around all over the place, and none of them lived to be very old. When they got too sick, people would shoot them."
What the Farmers are facing isn't so different from the dilemmas contemplated by doctors and families at human hospitals, says Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, head of the university's Center for Bioethics. "We didn't have to worry about when to discontinue life support before we had life support," he says. "We didn't have to worry about defining death before we were able to talk about removing a beating heart for transplant." When it comes to pets, he adds, choices are made a little easier by the fact that people are used to determine their animal companions' lives--and a little harder by the fact that no one else is picking up the bill.
What's more, adds Jeff Klausner, interim dean of the UM's College of Veterinary Medicine, a growing number of people consider Fluffy a full-fledged member of the family, and thus demand ever more sophisticated veterinary medicine. "The bond between people and their animals seems to be increasing as life becomes more complicated. It's the unconditional love that they get from their animals that they may not get anywhere else," he says. "And people's expectations of care in this country are pretty high and they tend to transfer them to their pets: 'If I can get this for Grandma, why can't I get it for my cat?'"
More than half a century old and known worldwide for its pioneering research, the veterinary hospital is housed in a low-slung, 1970s-style beige brick building near the cow barns and greenhouses that reflect the UM's legacy as a farm school. The facility specializes in cases that require in-depth diagnostic evaluations, advanced treatment methods, or specialized surgical procedures. Four of every five vets now practicing in Minnesota graduated from the college and worked at the hospital; new vets from across the country vie for residencies that will help them to develop a specialty. The more than 40 full-time veterinarians on the staff spay and neuter and vaccinate, but they also implant pacemakers, perform delicate eye surgery, and replace atrophied joints.
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