Creature Comfort

Tales from the other University of Minnesota hospital

Many of the patients seen here travel hundreds of miles in the hope of finding a diagnosis or treatment that was beyond the capabilities of their neighborhood vet clinic. The hospital's computer record-keeping system contains codes for hundreds of species. The archive can identify marmosets, aardvarks, and lemurs, as well as esoteric dog breeds with names made up mostly of consonants.

In addition to tens of thousands of family pets and farm animals, doctors here have treated polar bears and red pandas. A Como Zoo flamingo is currently undergoing radiation therapy. The Great Plains Zoo (of Sioux Falls, S.D.) recently had one of its monkeys treated here on the same day that a pair of hedgehogs visited the staff dermatologist because of a skin condition.

The hospital has equipment many Third World hospitals can only dream of, plus cement corridors designed especially for nervous bladders and patients used to leaving dung pretty much wherever. There are anesthesia masks and muzzles to fit ferrets and Brahma bulls. The large-animal clinic has more hooks and rings hanging from the ceiling than an S&M dungeon: A patient weighing 2,000 pounds can be tilted slowly onto her side and winched from the X-ray room to the surgical bay to a padded recovery chamber.

Michael Dvorak

On a recent afternoon, the surgical recovery area held two unusually complicated sterilization cases: One of the patients was a terrier with incurable bone growths that prevent it from opening its mouth more than a quarter of an inch--barely enough to let the dog's tongue scoop up a single nub of kibble at a time. The dog's usual vet couldn't get the jaws open far enough to insert an anesthesia line, so the university vets made an opening in the animal's throat.

Waking up next to the terrier was a hermaphrodite cocker spaniel. It had two complete sets of external genitalia, but doctors weren't sure which internal reproductive organs they'd find. In surgery, they discovered nearly complete sets of both, and so spayed and neutered the dog. They also removed its testicles; on hermaphrodites these often sit inside the abdomen and are prone to developing cancer. (Just as in humans, hermaphroditism is rare in dogs; hospital staffers say the few cases they've seen have been in various kinds of spaniels.)

The teaching hospital may be at the forefront of veterinary medicine, but it's hardly the only place now offering high-tech care for animals. In their last year of veterinary school, UM students work at the hospital. Many also spend their first year after graduation in an internship there, and some take an additional four years to complete a residency. As the new vets go into practice, they take the hospital's increasingly sophisticated techniques with them.

And once new diagnostic procedures and treatments appear on the consumer market, there are plenty of pet owners willing to pay for them. Though pet ownership has remained fairly stable for the past decade, spending on pet care and supplies has fueled growth in what is now a $21-billion-a-year industry in the U.S. Pet trends barely lag behind those among humans: Organic dog and cat food is available at local co-ops, and last year, a gourmet bakery for dogs opened in Minneapolis's Linden Hills neighborhood.

"The number of pets is expected to show a steady increase because of rising incomes and education and the movement of baby boomers into the 34-to-59-year age group, in which pet ownership has been highest," reports the American Veterinary Medical Association in literature aimed at budding vets. "Seemingly, pet owners may be willing to pay more for elective and intensive care than they have in the past." More than 750,000 people nationwide have purchased health coverage from a company called Veterinary Pet Insurance at a cost of $8 to $21 a month. The highest demand for new vets these days comes from specialty clinics where veterinary ophthalmologists, internists, orthopedic surgeons, and others see difficult cases referred by general practitioners; holistic care is also growing in popularity.

Ed Kosciolek, administrator of the university hospitals, says the veterinary facility's appointment logs clearly demonstrate that demand for specialty services is skyrocketing. Between July 1997 and June 1998, he estimates 10,000 patients made 25,700 visits to the hospital--a 27 percent increase over the fiscal year before that. Judging from the numbers so far, fiscal 1998-99 should bring another 21 percent jump.

While the hospital doesn't track the numbers of individual species seen, Kosciolek says it's safe to assume that 80 percent of small-animal patients are dogs. Cats, which account for half of household pets nationwide, tend to be more resilient, in part because most live indoors. So-called exotics--ferrets, iguanas, and the like--comprise a mere fraction of the hospital's caseload, though the number of llamas being seen at the large-animal clinic is growing.

A dozen years ago, Kosciolek says, about 80 percent of the hospital's budget came from funds the state provides to the university, with the remainder made up of revenue earned from services. But in the current fiscal year, only 15 percent of the hospital's $7.3-million budget came from the state. In 1998/99, the budget is slated to top $9 million.

In June 1997, the facility added two emergency vets to meet demand for evening, weekend, and holiday critical care. Construction of a new intensive-care unit is under way, with half its $800,000 cost donated by clients. During the last year, consumer demand has forced the hiring of new specialists in neurology and oncology, as well as a second ophthalmologist. This year may bring construction of a special suite for eye surgery, as well as a more hoof-friendly floor for the large-animal wing.

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