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Role of US Veterinarians Increasing - 2002-09-26

Approximately 63 million American homes have pets, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association. And the nation's 68,000 veterinarians play a large role in the lives of the pets and their owners.

Dr. Margot Kerr is treating Toby today. "Toby is this very cute, little, black and white terrier puppy, who got into rat poison. Most of the rat poisons are anti-coagulants. What they do is use up the clotting factors in blood. So the animal can start to spontaneously bleed," she says. "And when he presented exhibited symptoms last night, he had what we call 'hemothorax, which means he had started to spontaneously bleed into his chest cavity. That's life threatening if you don't intervene. But I think he's doing much better."

AB: "What did you do for him? How did you stop that?"
MK: "They gave him something called 'oxy-globin,' which is a product that's a blood replacement product that has some oxygen- carrying capacity. They gave him a plasma transfusion to help provide some new clotting factors and then started him on vitamin K, which is where those rodenticides interrupt the clotting factors. They make it so the body can't recycle vitamin K, which is essential."

Toby's treatment for ingesting rodenticide, or rat poison was very expensive, and in fact, a recent survey by a pet industry association found that American pet owners spend at least $12 billion a year on veterinary medicine. Dr. Kerr says that what that amounts to is: owners are willing to pay high fees to save the life of an animal that they consider a friend.

"I think in America, there is, with the changing of our demographics: people living far away from their families, many more singles or elderly people whose spouses die, animals become replacement for family that's not there," Dr. Kerr said.

Small animals, like dogs, cats, reptiles, rabbits and other so-called "companion pets" account for more than half the animal patients at veterinary clinics large and small in the United States. In rural areas, veterinarians also see pigs, goats, sheep, cows - medical personnel often driving to a ranch or farm to provide services for entire herds as well as individual animals.

Health care at a clinic like Friendship Animal Hospital involves an examination, diagnosis, treatment, as well as vaccinations for diseases such as distemper or rabies. In recent years, veterinarians have also had to closely monitor the West Nile Virus, a disease which is spread by mosquitoes, attacking the brains of birds, horses, and other animals. Some 15 people have died from West Nile Virus this year when they were also infected by mosquitos.

Dr. Kerr says the first thing she does for a pet patient is make friends with the animal. So at a recent appointment, she lifted a 19-week-old dog, a Corgi breed with long, pointy ears and short legs, up onto the examining table and she started cooing to him. "I usually start my exam at the head of the dog and work my way back to the tail," she says. "So far everything is perfect. I listen to his heart, listening for his heart rate and rhythm, making sure I don't her anything abnormal."

Dr. Kerr, who's in her mid-30's, entered her profession the standard way: four years in veterinary college, then getting satisfactory results on a national licensing exam, and finally watching and learning from established veterinarians. She earns about $60,000 dollars a year. She also state another reason she has chosen this profession. "You have empathy. You want to try and make an animal in pain feel better. You want to try and fix the problems we can fix," she says. "You want to try and support an animal with palliative [relieving pain] care when they have an illness that you can not cure but so you make the quality of life remain good. That's always the goal the animal's quality of life."

But is there such a thing as going too far, spending too much money to care for a sick pet, for a cancer operation for example? "People always say, 'What would you do, doc, if it were your dog or cat?' I sort of tell them, 'I can't tell you that because the choices I might make are very different from what somebody else might make," she says. "I don't think I might go as far as some of the owners who I've seen take their animals through [excessive medical] things. That's just my personal feeling. But the fact we can offer that is a benefit to a lot of animals and their owners."

Dr. Margot Kerr recalls the oath she took at graduation from veterinary college: "to cause no pain, cause no injury.. and try and heal." which is something she does with love and respect for animals and their owners.