Good for animal welfare or Frankenstein science?
FOR SOME pet owners, its the least they can do for their ageing, ailing pet. For others, its Frankenstein Science - a step too far. The concept of pet organ transplants is nothing new, but the moral question of whether stray and unwanted dogs and cats should be used as donors continues to polarise opinion amongst pet owners. Stray dogs and cats are currently being used to provide organs for America's ageing pets, but there is a significant moral twist to the story: owners must give the donor pets a home Dogs, like people, are getting older in America. As the "baby boom" generation greys but soldiers on thanks to cosmetic and medical science, so do the tens of thousands of their ageing pets, whose lives are being extended thanks to expensive medicines, surgery and £130-a-month diets paid for by doting owners.
The idea of a dog being "put down" when it starts to suffer the ailments of old age is becoming unthinkable. Even transplant surgery is being employed to keep alive pets whose own organs have worn out - though there are moral complications for the owners. Besides finding the £6500 needed for the operation they also have to agree to look after the stray that has provided the donated organ.
Thurber is a Golden Retriever who has just celebrated his 14th birthday - thanks to £8000 worth of veterinary attention in the last three years. Thurber has suffered arthritis, hypo-thyroidism, hoarse-bark, epileptic seizures and "cognitive dysfunction" (senility). He has undergone CAT-scans and spinal taps, and been coaxed into swallowing a variety of medicines.
Last week, after his regular acupuncture treatment to ease his stiffening joints, he was allowed to briefly frolic in the sudden snowfall that blanketed Manhattan before his owner, Jimma Frye, hauled him up five flights of steps to their flat in the East Village. Once indoors, he dined, as usual, on his favourite peanut butter sandwiches and the new BD (Brain Diet) formula dog food a mere snip at around £130 a month.
"Is he worth it? Of course he is worth it!" says Jimma Frye. "To a lot of us in the city who have never had children, our pets are our family. We have nursed them as puppies, shared our lives with them, and now care for them in their senior years." Ms Frye said that she was certainly not ready to say goodbye to her dog, adding that he still enjoyed "quality of life".
Research by the American Veterinary Medical Association shows that the number of the country's 60 million dogs above the age of 11 has increased by 25 per cent in the last five years, while 16.8 per cent of cats are older than 11, an increase from 13.3 per cent over the same period.
A large dog has traditionally entered its last days aged about eight, while small dogs would live to about 11. The AVMA is discussing "ageing pets" as a special issue at its annual conference next July.
"We have entered a spiral of older dogs leading to better medicine and diet products, leading to still older dogs," said Dr Kristin Iglesias, a vet at the St Marks Veterinary Hospital.
"This is how it works in a capitalist society," she said. "Both the pet food companies and the drug companies - the human drug companies - have spotted a huge and growing market.
Nobody comes asking for us to put a pet to sleep at the first sign of sickness. It is not age that counts, but the quality of life that we can help maintain." The leading pharmaceutical companies, including Bayer and Pfizer, are rapidly adapting human-tested products for the ageing pet. Recent breakthroughs include Rimadyl for arthritis, and Anipryl for cognitive dysfunction.
The vets have opened hospitals that could be mistaken for their human equivalents. At the extreme is the Animal Medical Centre in Manhattan, located in the heart of the wealthy Upper East Side.
There are 80 vets on staff or on call, in 26 specialities. They treat 60,000 pets a year, on a budget of £13million. The board behind the reception desk posts the way to oncology, dermatology, urology, ultrasonography, ophthalmology, neurosurgery and computer tomography. In Exotics, they will, and have, removed a brain tumour from a snake. Heart surgery for a dog runs to around £1000, and brain surgery for a cat, £2000. A root canal, with gold finished caps, is £600 per tooth.
Transplants are available, said Dr Ann Hohenhaus, chairman of the department of medicine at the AMC. Most common, so far, are corneas for dogs with ailing eyesight, and kidneys. "Kidney failure is common in both senior dogs and senior cats, but we tend to get rejection problems with dogs. With a cat it is not a problem - bring your cat in and we can do a transplant within a couple of weeks," she said.
The surgery costs around £6000, and as part of the deal the pet's owner must also take home the animal that has donated the kidney, often a stray left on the vets' doorstep.
The alternative to surgery is dialysis: the hospital has adapted child-size dialysis machines and a year's treatment costs £35000.
Dr Susan Cohen, the Animal Medical Centre's full-time grief counsellor, believes that the centre exists because of "the extraordinary strength of the bond between human and pet".
"I think the answer lies in evolution - humans survived better if they paid attention to the animals around them. And we all need someone to love," she said.
THREE YEARS ago in the UK, a suggestion was put forward that dogs and cats in animal shelters could be used to meet a growing demand for kidneys and other "spare parts" for sick pets.
The British Veterinary Association struggled to devise a set of ethical guidelines to regulate members who want to perform pet organ transplants, costing about £14,000 a time.
The RSPCA confirmed at the time that it was examining the possibility of a scheme, while vets reported receiving dozens of requests a year for transplant operations that are not available in this country, but have been successfully pioneered in America.
Although the BVA's ethics committee said it had "no intrinsic ethical objection" to the operations, many vets were still opposed to the idea. The association's ruling council was then on its third attempt to find an acceptable solution and planned a meeting in June 1999 to provide firm guidelines to the profession.
Under provisional proposals, organs would be taken from some of the thousands of dogs and cats routinely destroyed at animal shelters each year and used to help keep sick pets alive.
The move would prevent animals being bred specifically for their organs and the first operations would be performed in one or more "centres of excellence" - possibly university-based veterinary departments.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, one of Britain's most distinguished veterinarians who chairs the association's ethics committee, said at the time: "The committee is unanimous that there is not an ethics issue here provided that proper guidelines are followed."
The committee, he said, was in favour of operations so long as they were not carried out on aged animals that would have a poor quality of life, for the "glory of the vet" or simply in the interests of the pet owner rather than the sick animal.
Chrissie Nichols of the BVA Press Officer told OUR DOGS that no firm guidelines on pet organ transplants had been agreed since then.
According to its figures for 1998, the RSPCA destroyed more than 12,000 dogs and 22,000 cats a year on veterinary advice because of ill health. In addition it destroys more than 800 dogs and 1,800 cats because no homes can be found for them. Often this is because the animals are aggressive and would be harmful to children in a family. The RSPCA said: "The RSPCA would never consider putting an animal down solely for its organs to be used in transplant operations. The society is currently holding an internal debate and will consider the BVA's conclusions when it has reached them."
Varnes, press officer of the RSPCA spoke to OUR DOGS last week,
indicating the Societys position on animal transplants
had not altered since 1999: "The RSPCA have been in contact
with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons on this point
and we would be against any move to make pet transplants available
in this country," said Ms Varnes. "Our concern would
be whether any unnecessary suffering would be caused to the
donor as a result of the surgery and also we would be concerned
as to the effect that surgery would have on the recipients
future quality of life, which would involve drug treatment,
frequent blood sampling and the possibly of a kidney biopsy
RCVS Guidelines for Renal Transplantation in Cats states
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