Georgie had a bloody nose—and it wasn’t the first time. The labradoodle didn’t get into fights; she is, by all accounts, a pleasant pooch. But Georgie’s nose bled so often that her human family knew there was something wrong.
Finding no resolution with their veterinarian, Georgie’s owners brought her to Malvern’s Veterinary Referral Center, a state-of-the-art animal hospital for dogs and cats. Georgie and her bloody nose arrived in January, and doctors there found chondrosarcoma, a rare type of malignant nasal tumor. Typical treatment entails surgery and radiation, followed by chemotherapy, then anti-inflammatory medication and sleeping pills for pain management. Even then, dogs with nasal chondrosarcoma normally survive only one to two years.
Dr. Kenneth Sadanaga had something else in mind. VRC had just obtained a Varian 2100C linear accelerator. When paired with the Siemens 16-slice scanner, it provides intensity-modulated radiotherapy. “The 16-slice scanner gives us a 360-degree view of the tumor,” says Sadanaga. “It talks to the Varian machine to direct the radiation energy exactly where it needs to go.”
In years past, radiation was delivered to animals less efficiently, creating burns, leaving behind traces of malignancies, and requiring numerous treatments. VRC’s new equipment has cut the number of radiation sessions in half and increased their efficacy. Georgie was the first VRC patient treated. “And it worked,” Sadanaga says. “After 10 sessions—instead of 20—and with no surgery, Georgie’s cancer was resolved. She breathes normally and should enjoy a long remission time.”
Staffed with veterinary medicine specialists, VRC’s three-building medical campus includes a hospital, rehabilitation center and emergency department. It admits more than 15,000 patients a year. About 5,000 are treated in the emergency center, 4,000 in the orthopedics, and the rest in oncology, ophthalmology, soft-tissue surgery and several other specialties.
A pet’s journey at VRC begins with a diagnostic evaluation. As impressive as the veterinary-specific MRI and CT machines are, information conveyed by the animal’s owners is equally valuable. “People know their pets very, very well, and they know when the pet isn’t eating, walking or sleeping normally, or when their mood or energy level seems different,” says Dr. C.J. Papathomas, the practice’s administrator. “Clients don’t always have the medical knowledge to conceive of what may be going on within an animal’s body, but more often than not, they know when something is wrong.”
But domesticated pets—especially cats —are programmed to mask their pain. “They don’t want to display physical weakness,” Sadanaga says. “And they want to please their human family, so they will try to perform normally until the symptoms overtake them.”
Other times, humans simply don’t understand their pets’ symptoms. Case in point: Many cats sneeze and have watery eyes. What may be to blame: inflammatory polyps growing in the ear. Left unchecked, they can grow into the eustachian tube and through the entire ear, sometimes reaching into the nose and creating chronic ear and sinus infections. For decades, treatment was high-risk surgery that required going through the skull to remove the polyps—and the problem would reoccur because surgical tools can’t reach to the root polyp from which others grow.
Surgery was a must for Darwin, a golden retriever born with severely deformed front legs that splayed outward like seal flippers, leaving him unable to stand or walk normally. Set to be euthanized by the puppy mill where he’d been born, Darwin was adopted by an animal lover who quickly became overwhelmed. The Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue stepped in, adopting the six-month-old dog in the summer of 2012. VRC’s Dr. Dietrich Franczuszki performed a corrective osteotomy, cutting the bones in the dog’s forelegs, repositioning them so they’re straight and adding stainless steel plates and screws.
Darwin had casts on both legs for two months. “He healed perfectly,” says Franczuszki. “He walks, runs, jumps and has a happy life.”
Deformities like Darwin’s do fall under Franczuszki’s area of expertise, but he most often treats the effects of aging. Canine spinal surgery, caused by ruptured or prolapsed discs, is one of his most common procedures. He also does joint and cartilage replacement in dogs.
The price of such advanced treatments can be significant. After initial diagnostics are performed, VRC doctors devise a treatment plan with all the different options, their likely success rates and the costs. “There aren’t health insurance options of the quality that exist for humans, so these are out-of-pocket expenses,” says Papathomas. “We’re sensitive to the reality that many clients have to make difficult decisions based on the cost of their pets’ medical care.” VRC’s goal is to make the best use of what is spent. “The right diagnosis with the right treatment with the ighest rate of success is what we want for all of our patients,” says Franczuszki.