Suzanne Green and her dog, Suzi, have made the trip from their home in New Jersey to the Animal Medical Center in New York City many times before.
Suzi, a bichon frise, has lymphoma. After six months of chemotherapy, she headed for a checkup at the center, which isn't just any veterinarian's office.
"I'm always nervous they are going to find something," Green said.
As you walk through the corridors of the center on Manhattan's Upper East Side, you could be forgiven for thinking it looks like a triage scene on an episode of "Grey's Anatomy." The young residents and internists take their business very seriously — as seriously as Americans take their pets.
Jeffrey S. Klausner is the CEO and president of the Animal Medical Center, a nonprofit facility that offers everything from chemotherapy — "we are the Mayo Clinic for pets," Klausner said — to water therapy.
It has an underwater treadmill for patients like Lily, a pug, who was recovering well after having a double hip replacement.
Spend a little time at the center and it's easy to understand why it's such an unusual place. The waiting room is packed with dogs, but this hospital takes all comers, like Bowzer the tortoise who needed his nails cut and beak tended to. Aunt Rose, a 33-year-old feisty yellow parrot, had come by for a sonogram.
"It looks like a diverse liver disease that is not cancer," said Aunt Rose's doctor.
No Expense Spared
Aunt Rose seems like a most exceptional patient, until you meet Dianne Rochenski and her pet mouse, who had developed a large tumor. Mousey, as she calls him, broke into Rochenski's apartment a few months back and she fell in love. Rochenski was told that it would cost $1,000 to remove the tumor.
"I brought him to work with me today," said Rochenski. "I don't like to spend money on myself for the doctor, but no holds barred for him. Mice are just so misunderstood."
There is no misunderstanding what animals mean to their owners. More Americans have pets than children and more and more they are willing to spend whatever they can on that animal. Twenty years ago the most complex procedure out there was getting your cat de-clawed.
The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association says Americans spent $41 billion on U.S. pets last year. Green, who is a surgeon, says she has spent at least $12,000 on Suzi. As of this checkup Suzi was deemed cancer-free. But if it comes back?
Green says "the dog will let you know" when you've done all that you can. "They will show signs they don't want to eat. Then it's time to make a hard decision," she said.
Until then, Green said, "I would spend any amount. I would mortgage my house."
'We Treat Families Here'
The Animal Medical Center handles 50,000 patients a year and is open 24/7.
"Veterinarians are often very much like pediatricians. We take their lives seriously," said Nicole Liebman, Suzi's oncologist. "These pets are like their children. We often call them their babies, the owners are mom and dad. This is really like a family. We treat families here."
Researchers at the center — in collaboration with a team at Memorial Sloan Kettering — have developed the first-ever vaccine to treat canine melanoma. Trials are under way on one for humans. While dogs and cats are dying of the same diseases humans are, Klausner says the biggest reason animals are given up is because of behavioral problems.
"You don't sit down and talk to them on the couch, obviously," Klausner said.
Most behavioral problems occur not because of the animal but because of the owner, but it was probably only a matter of time before we put our dogs and cats on Prozac.
Michele Losorda made the decision to put little Justice, her 6-year-old Yorkie, on the antidepressant after he panted himself into a collapsed trachea. He also likes to bite his owner.
"If you came into my house, you'd probably think I was very sick," said Losorda. "He has severe anxiety problems, so he's basically housebound."
"Just [on] this I have spent $1,700," said Losorda, "and he's had other surgeries so I would say I have to be close to $12,000."
Losorda says she doesn't have this conversation with non-pet owners, one of whom once suggested she put Justice to sleep.
"Are you going to put your child down for stomachache?" she asked.
'My Dog, He Has Problems
Losorda had to take the morning off from work to take Justice to his appointment with his "pet shrink" — she says he's having one of his good days. "Last time he took a cab he completely melted down. It became an emergency situation," she said.
"I'm very popular at cocktail parties," said Elise Christensen, Justice's behaviorist at NYC Veterinary Specialists. "First people laugh at me because I'm a dog shrink and then they say, 'Oh, but you know, my dog, he has problems and sometimes when I leave he destroys things.'"
None of these treatments are cheap. Behavioral problems, like most significant health problems, are not covered by pet insurance (which only 5 percent of Americans have for their pets).
"If your puppy is just jumping on you when you walk in the door, you don't need to come see a vet behavior person," said Christensen. "If your dog has seen three trainers and bitten seven people and you have a lawsuit, you probably need to see a veterinarian in behavior-exclusive practice."
Any pet owner will tell you that you can have the worst day at work or gain five pounds, and you think life is tough, and then you come home and you have this pet who just can't believe you're home and is so excited. And it doesn't matter if you gained five pounds or you had a bad day because they love you anyway.
And that's why Green keeps investing in 15-year-old Suzi, because while she says she doesn't go out to eat or travel as much as she did before, her dog enriches her life in ways she just can't quantify.