Creature Comfort

Tales from the other University of Minnesota hospital

Administrators say there's no one type of person more likely to use the hospital's expensive services: Lots of people who joke about designer doggie doctors feel different when their own pet is suffering. Kyle and Roberta Peterson were aghast when Kyle's sister spent $1,600 to have her dog's congenital hip deformity surgically corrected four years ago. "At the time, we thought my sister should just put the dog to sleep," admits Kyle.

Now they're here with Jake and Joey, two Lab-mix puppies they adopted at the Lake Superior Humane Society near their home in Duluth. Both dogs are halfway through having the same operation on each hip, for a total of $6,000.

Kyle is a heating repairman, and every time they bring Jake and Joey to the hospital, he has to take an unpaid day off. Roberta has been using vacation time from her clerical job. On a recent visit, they were hoping to negotiate putting off the dogs' second operations; they're still scraping together the money to pay for the first ones. Even after watching Kyle's sister cope with a canine invalid and a used-car-sized bill, adds Roberta, "we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into" when they started the process of fixing the pups' hips.

Michael Dvorak

And then there's Leroy Kramer, who drives a van that transports troubled teens back and forth to school in Minnetonka. His 9-year-old black Lab, Sam, recently tore the anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees--the same injury that sidelines many football players. Doctors have already built Sam one new ligament. He's scheduled to have the other one done in six months. When Kramer's buddies learned that the procedures cost $900 per knee, they subjected him to quite a ribbing: "They said for what I paid for this operation, I could buy two full-blood Labs. I said, 'Yeah, but I couldn't buy another Sam.'"

Bioethicist Kahn says many owners will stretch their finances to pay for expensive vet care--up to a point. "Most people probably don't decide how far to extend care based on money. They love their animals," he says. "But someone facing a $5,000 bill for a kidney transplant for a cat? They may well decide that's too much. There's sort of a parallel between what's best for Rover and what's best for Mother. It's kind of the same thing--until you're looking at spending $100,000. And then, in the case of Mother, you probably find a way."


Auggie Doggie is that rare specimen who's actually thrilled to be at the doctor's office. According to his owner, Judy Hurt of Eau Claire, Wis., he starts whining when she turns her Ford Explorer east off Highway 280 onto Larpenteur Avenue. By the time they've driven through the fields on the outskirts of the UM agricultural campus, Auggie is so excited he tows Hurt into the vet hospital building.

Now inside an exam room, the 4-year-old boxer is surrounded by humans--orthopedic surgeon Larry Wallace, two surgical residents, a veterinary technician, and two visitors. He prances from one to the next, taking in their scents and scoping their willingness to rub his creaky rump.

There are three shallow, sickle-shaped ridges in the short fur on the dog's haunches, souvenirs from earlier trips to see Wallace. The first two are from operations to tighten up each hip. Auggie suffers from hip dysplasia, a bone disorder common in large dogs. The third scar outlines his back left knee, which Wallace opened up two years ago to repair a torn ligament.

Like many large dogs, Auggie probably inherited his dysplasia as the result of generations of poor breeding. The disease prevents his hip joints from coming together properly. As dogs age, the condition inevitably worsens, causing arthritis. Sufferers become progressively more lame until they can barely walk. In the past, many dogs were put to sleep at that point.

Two years ago, Wallace repositioned Auggie's hip joints. He made three cuts, separating the major bones of the pelvis, allowing the hip socket to be rotated over the ball of the joint. Fixed in place with a plate and screws, the joint became more stable. A gray-haired veteran of nearly four decades in surgery, Wallace has been doing this particular procedure for more than 30 years.

A few months after Wallace realigned Auggie's hips, he fixed the boxer's left rear knee, or stifle. The anterior cruciate ligament, which runs inside the knee and helps hold it together, had torn. The injury often comes when a dog or cat--frequently one that's overweight or out of shape--overexerts itself. Wallace painstakingly rebuilt Auggie's ligament using a little piece of tissue borrowed from elsewhere in the leg. This piece of handiwork runs in the neighborhood of $900, depending on what surgeons find when they get the joint open.

But Auggie's owner insists he's still limping, so today Wallace is examining whether the dog may have reinjured his ACL. He takes out the same kind of hard rubber hammer used to test reflexes by people-doctors and, mindful of Auggie's massive jaws and dislike of surprises, lets the dog smell it. Making sure his hand crosses Auggie's field of vision, he lowers the hammer to the leg and starts tapping.

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