Esther Cepeda / Politics

The Bite of a Pet Project

CHICAGO -- I love Minnie, my Chihuahua, but when my family first adopted her, we had issues. Food was regularly stolen from tabletops, garbage bins were overturned, street fights broke out if another dog came near and there was seemingly no end to the poorly timed bio-accidents that had me cursing the heavens for ever letting my children bamboozle me into getting such a high maintenance pet.

Oh, and did I mention that when we responded to her adoption agency ad, she had been billed as a healthy, young dog in her prime? Instead, my kids laid eyes on and fell in love with a scruffy, too-large-to-really-be-pure-Chihuahua with a serious weight problem and a variety of hideous tumors and warts. The veterinarian followed that up with a diagnosis of severe heart murmur and old age.

But two and a half years later -- after countless, expensive, midnight runs to the emergency vet -- I've fallen head-over-heels in love with her. I talk to her all day long (she never refutes my arguments), make sure she gets healthy food, walks, attention and suitable winter gear. I've spent way more time and money on her care and feeding than I care to acknowledge, but even I have my limits.

It's not that I'm cold-hearted. It's that only a millionaire could provide the 21st-century holistic lifestyle care worthy of man's best friend. In case you hadn't heard, even as the economy has gone to the dogs, there's a big, fat chunk of it going toward them. Cats, birds and guinea pigs, too.

While researching the uncomfortable topic of what we'd do the day Minnie finally became critically ill, I learned that courageous measures for pets -- think chemotherapy, radiation treatments, stem cell and bone marrow transplants for cancers and stent procedures for blocked kidneys and urinary tracts -- have become a growing trend in animal care.

According to the American Pet Products Association, U.S. consumers spent just under $51 billion on their pets in 2011, including about $26 billion worth on supplies, over-the-counter medicine and veterinary care. And it's not just for what you'd traditionally consider routine pet care, either.

In addition to life-saving procedures, there's also arthroscopic surgery for dogs with sore shoulders and hips, and even full joint replacements, plus physical therapy, which is still within the realm of reason -- at least for the companions of a rich family. Few owners carry pet insurance, so these pricey procedures come out of relatively deep pockets.

But it's the luxurious spa-like treatments that get me -- hydrotherapy and massage therapy in addition to the standard grooming regimens of cut/dry and pedicure.

Last May, The Washington Post reported on the increasingly popular practice of treating pets' aches and pains -- and even some pesky behavioral issues -- with acupuncture. Yes, ancient Chinese medical treatment that involves inserting long, thin needles into pressure points in the, um, pelt. There are, unbelievably, 800 veterinary acupuncturists practicing today, compared to only 200 a decade ago, according to the American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture.

Considering that I can't even afford acupuncture for my chronically sore wrist, Minnie's aching-in-the-middle-of-the-night hips are just flat out of luck. If overweight were still a problem for her, however, we could jump on the pet fitness craze.

A recent Associated Press report noted that there were about 3 million dogs using treadmills in 2010, according to the Pet Products Association -- an obvious response to the pet obesity epidemic. According to the Banfield Pet Hospital's State of Pet Health 2012 Report, the number of overweight dogs has increased 37 percent in the last five years. Fat cats have increased 90 percent in the last five years, but just try to get old Whiskers on a treadmill -- not happening.

I could bemoan a country with such staggering disparities between rich and poor that some of our pets have better health care than many humans, but that's a tragic, lost cause. Instead I fantasize: Not about just how plush life could be as a pet of the affluent, but about sons who will grow up to be rich animal surgeons so they can afford to pay for their mom's wrist acupuncture.

Oh, and I'm also considering a lucrative career change: How does Certified Animal Aromatherapist sound?

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Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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