Kolo, a German shepherd, ends up at the Limehouse Veterinary Clinic of Holistic Medicine as a matter of last resort. Her spine is deteriorating and mainstream veterinary medicine cannot help.
At this North Hollywood office, veterinarians confront a range of maladies with massage and acupuncture. Berber-style carpet furnishes the paneled examination rooms. Music plays softly. Kolo is lying on a padded table as clusters of slim needles are pushed into her back and haunches.
This is the furthest outpost on the expanding frontier of veterinary medicine. In recent years, nearly every month has brought a new diagnostic tool or therapy.
The advancements have surfaced primarily in communities such as the San Fernando Valley. Small-town practitioners cannot afford specialized equipment and training because they might see only one or two cases in their field each year. Here, specialists draw referrals from dozens of nearby clinics.
So a Van Nuys veterinarian performs in-vitro fertilization of sterile pets. A San Fernando ophthalmologist uses lasers on animals that suffer from cataracts. And a Reseda clinic has begun dispensing psychoactive drugs for dogs that chronically misbehave and cats that urinate outside the litter box.
"We've had a lot of people call asking us to give Prozac to their pets," said Dr. Bob Goldman of McClave Veterinary Hospital. "It's pretty new and fairly experimental."
A wide range of responses has greeted the new treatments. Some people are relieved to find advanced care for their pets. Others scoff at the notion of going to such extremes for animals.
One local veterinarian describes society's traditional reaction to an ailing pet as "what grandma used to do--throw the cat in the barn and wait for a couple of weeks to see what happens. If the cat dies, you get a new one."
Veterinarians often ask new clients to describe their relationship with their pets. The answer may give a clue as to what extent, and what expense, the owner will go to treat an animal.
"One of the biggest problems we have in this profession is that we are trained to do very sophisticated procedures, yet people will frequently elect to euthanize the animal instead," said Dr. Donald Klingborg, an assistant dean at UC Davis, which operates one of the top-ranked veterinary schools in the country. "It tears at your soul as a veterinarian."
Attitudes may be changing. At the university, researchers are finding closer relationships between owners and pets, especially in large cities where animals can fill a void in the increasingly depersonalized daily life.
"In my grandfather's day, he had a whole range of farm animals and the dog or cat was just one of those," said Lynette Hart, director of the school's Center for Animals in Society. "The pets used to sleep outside, and now, with a recent study we did, we found that a lot of animals are sleeping in the bedroom.
"They are being shifted from a commodity, like livestock, to a companion."
Meanwhile, research of human maladies continues to supply new technology to veterinary medicine. Early heart studies, for example, were conducted on dogs. Artificial heart prototypes were tested on cats.
After procedures become accepted practice for humans, they find their way back to animals. Valley veterinarians now use ultrasound and laser therapy. Los Angeles will soon get its first veterinary MRI and CAT-scan facility. At UC Davis, doctors implant pacemakers in dogs.
"At this point, we think that the knowledge base in veterinary medicine is doubling every 2 1/2 years," Klingborg said. "It's simply overwhelming."
The magnitude is evident in the membership of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Assn. Practitioners now specialize in such wide-ranging fields as cardiology, dentistry and oncology. At the Cat's Meow clinic in Woodland Hills, Dr. Gayle Robison can send clients for radiation therapy to cure feline hyperthyroidism, an illness common among middle-aged and older cats.
"Money is a factor," Robison said of the $600 treatment. "But people really want to do what's best."
And the price for new treatments remains low in comparison to human health care. Unlike physicians, veterinarians do not pay high malpractice premiums. Nor must they absorb the costs of treating patients who cannot pay.
A local veterinarian says that he recently underwent colon surgery at a cost of $3,700. The same operation for a dog would cost less than $1,000.
"The exact same equipment, the same drugs, the same procedure," he said.
The owners who come to see Dr. Carroll Hare, a veterinary ophthalmologist, have been referred by their general clinic and understand what they are getting into.
"The owners who don't want to pay that much, I never see," Hare said.
At the Dill Veterinary Hospital in San Fernando, he treats eye injuries and deteriorating vision in dogs and cats. His work often involves cataract removal and subsequent lens implants, a procedure that costs more than $1,500. He also uses lasers to remove interocular tumors.
But not all the new or exotic practices involve serious ailments. Besides treating sterile animals, Dr. Dana Bleifer of the Animal Medical Center in Van Nuys can freeze the sperm of a prized show dog so that it can be bred years after its death. One of the finalists in the recent Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was conceived in this way.
At the All Pets Medical Center in West Hills, one of Dr. Amy Worell's most common procedures is a new blood test that determines the gender of monomorphic pet birds. This determination used to require invasive surgery.
"People like to know what sex their pet is," Worell explained. "Henrietta might really be Henry."
And at McClave, owners are requesting drugs that treat unwanted behavior in pets. Goldman chooses from antidepressants that are better known for use by humans.
Elavil can sometimes calm dogs that tear up furniture or bark incessantly when their owners leave the house. Buspirone has been successful in curbing cats that spray.
But Goldman prescribes such drugs infrequently and only after consulting with behavioral specialists.
"A lot of times, it's not the drug you need, it's something in the animal's lifestyle you need to change," he said. "So it has to be to the point where the owner is totally frustrated and is considering euthanasia.
"Sometimes I feel people are wantonly requesting it based on the popular press."
Other advancements do not suffer such overexposure. With veterinarians struggling to keep abreast, owners cannot possibly know about everything that is available.
"They don't know that when your cat gets a serious dental problem, you should actually do something about it instead of just moaning about the bad breath," Robison said.
And when mainstream medicine cannot help, more and more veterinarians are referring patients to alternative, if unproven, methods. These are the cases that come to Dr. Jerry Limehouse and Dr. Priscilla Taylor at their North Hollywood clinic. The husband-and-wife team began practicing holistic care after years as standard practitioners.
"When I was on the other side of the coin, I thought it was a bunch of hocus-pocus and quackery," Limehouse said. "But holistic medicine offers something different."
Perhaps it offers another chance for animals such as Kolo.
"I just started asking questions because my veterinarian didn't have the answers," said Sarah Senuta, who brought the German shepherd from her home in Cambria. "We had to try something different."
After Kolo's acupuncture session, Taylor waves a biscuit from side to side, coaxing the big dog to stretch her sore neck muscles. Kolo yawns.