Dog on Underwater Treadmill
When I look back over my 33 years in veterinary medicine, I am stunned at the changes I have witnessed. Just in the past 10 to 20 years, we veterinarians have seen advances in every area of medicine and new ways of caring for animals that I never dreamed of when I was in veterinary school. Here are the ones that I think have had the greatest impact on our ability to give pets the best care possible.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Pain management. When I first began practicing veterinary medicine, a commonly held belief was that animals didn’t experience pain in the same way humans did. It was even thought that pain relief would get in the way of their recovery after surgery: If they felt good enough to move around, they might become active too soon and tear their stitches. Now we know that animals heal more quickly when they’re not in pain, and we have better medications and treatments for pain, including stem cell procedures for joint pain and new classes of drugs for managing pain.

Individualized care. It wasn’t so long ago that we recommended the same vaccinations and the same spay/neuter surgery at the same ages for every animal we treated. These days, vets opt for personalized pet health protocols that take into account breed, size and lifestyle. Not every animal needs every vaccination, and the right time for spay/neuter surgery can vary. For example, in some large and giant breeds, studies show that spay/neuter surgery before full maturity is linked to increases in the incidence of certain diseases. Instead of automatically scheduling these surgeries at the traditional age of 6 months, we now take your dog’s individual needs into account. We are also looking at new ways of vaccinating cats to prevent cancers that form at the injection site of a vaccination. They include decreasing the frequency of vaccines, nasal delivery of vaccines, vaccines that are air-driven into the skin and vaccinating the cat in the tail tip, which can be easily amputated if a vaccine sarcoma forms there. And gene expression profiling means that one day we may be able to create individualized cancer treatments for specific pets.

More specialists. The first two veterinary specialties were pathology and public health, back in 1950. Can you believe that was more than 60 years ago? There are now 40 distinct specialties, including anesthesia, behavior, dentistry, dermatology, emergency and critical care medicine, neurology, preventive medicine, surgery and toxicology. Today, more than 11,000 veterinarians with advanced training are available to work with us to treat animals with unusual or complex health problems.

The Internet. I’ve often said that one of the signs of a really good veterinarian is a willingness to say “I don’t know,” followed by “but I’ll find out.” The Internet has made it easier than ever for us to do that. Email and portals such as Veterinary Information Network give us the ability to quickly pick the brains of experts for second opinions and digitally share X-rays and test results across the country or even across the globe.

Putting Technology to Work

Advanced diagnostics. Not so long ago, it could take several days or even a week to get test results back from the laboratory. Many of us now have advanced laboratory facilities right in our offices that allow us to analyze blood samples during a pet’s appointment, enabling us to diagnose kidney or liver disorders or determine the presence of an infection in minutes. Digital X-rays give us a highly enhanced view of foreign bodies, bones and organs that wasn’t possible with traditional film X-rays. Ultrasound scans are now widely available for non-invasive exams of internal organs. Another advance is the use of endoscopy, a minimally invasive procedure that involves inserting tiny cameras into the body so that we can take a look at such areas as the gastrointestinal tract, lungs and nasal passages. All of these advances help us to diagnose and treat your pets more quickly and efficiently.

Better treatment options for arthritis. From Class IV lasers to stem cell injections, we have better ways to relieve joint pain in dogs and cats (yes, cats get arthritis). Laser therapy can stimulate the body’s healing powers and may provide rapid pain relief. Stem cell injections using the dog’s own cells can help promote healing by regenerating some damaged tissues and can be used to treat osteoarthritis and soft tissue injuries with success.

Rehabilitation. It used to be that when we did orthopedic surgery, we thought our job ended when the stitches came out. Now we don’t consider the job complete until the pet walks comfortably again. That usually involves some form of rehabilitation therapy. Underwater treadmills, therapeutic exercise, massage, heat, ice and electrical stimulation can all help many pets recover more quickly from surgery as well as help them move better in old age and even help them recover from temporary paralysis.

The Future’s So Bright

Genetic medicine. The sequencing of the canine and feline genomes — the textbooks of life — means researchers are able, in many cases, to pinpoint genes responsible for inherited diseases and create genetic tests to identify affected animals. It’s bringing us new approaches to developing and choosing the best therapies for treatment of cancer, heart disease and other ailments.

Emotional well-being. We want to help your pet be not only physically healthy but also emotionally healthy. That includes fear-free visits to our clinics, one of the pet projects dear to my heart. I want to take the “pet” out of “petrified” and keep pets calm and relaxed during veterinary visits. The happier they are, the happier you are and the happier we as your veterinarians are.