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(US RI) Advances in animal care draw vets to workshop August 07, 2005 6:18 AM

01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, August 7, 2005

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- The Shih Tzuwore a diaper.

And a chariot-like harness with rubber wheels that allowed the tiny dog to pull its paralyzed back end along as it walked.

And walk little Charlie did yesterday, down past the vendors hoping to entice more than 600 visiting veterinarians with the latest in ultrasound imaging technology, microchip tracking devices for that wandering wolf hound, and new pharmaceuticals to ease the rigors of feline kidney dialysis.

Charlie, visiting from a Long Island animal hospice where he usually makes tracks, epitomized in his furry way why so many people were gathered in the Rhode Island Convention Center for the second annual Northeast Veterinary Conference.

People love their pets, perhaps more so now than ever before, veterinarians say, and they are willing to go to great lengths -- and often great expense -- to show it.

It hasn't always been this way, said Dr. Anthony Schwartz, executive director of this year's conference and a former associate dean at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Twenty years ago, he says, fewer people treated their pets as members of their family.

He attributes the change in attitude to the growing animal-rights movement, which has "elevated the public's sensitivity" toward animals in general.

Linda A. Ross, an associate professor at Tufts veterinary school, says she likes to think that perhaps people have become more compassionate -- and appreciative of "another living creature that can give fulfillment to a person's life."

Or it could be, she said, "that what we can do for pets has changed so much."

Today at the Tufts veterinary school, pets regularly receive kidney transplants, cancer-fighting chemotherapy, open-heart surgery and complicated orthopedic procedures.

This summer at the Cummings School, doctors implanted a pacemaker in a pet ferret.

The limits of animal medicine seem limited only by the pet owner's wallet, because much of this advanced medicine isn't covered by health insurance.

The American Veterinary Medical Association reported in 2001 that 37,900,000 American households owned 61,572,000 dogs, and 33,186,000 homes owned 70,796,000 cats.

That's a lot of ear scratching.

During this weekend's conference, sponsored by Tufts' Cummings School and the Rhode Island Veterinary Medical Association, veterinarians will attend various educational workshops on state-of-the-art medicine and procedures.

Dr. Henry Childers, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, and owner of the Cranston Animal Hospital since 1957, said yesterday that people's sentiments toward their pets haven't changed so much as their willingness to express them.

"Probably before, they thought people would think they were crazy if they spent all this money on a pet. Now they hear others are doing the same and they don't feel so foolish."

Susan Marino is a veterinary technician and the proud owner of Charlie the Shih Tzu.

Thirteen years ago, she opened what she said was the nation's first animal hospice, on Long Island, so animals "could live out their lives with dignity."

Now animal hospices are scattered around the country.

"I like to think we're evolving as human beings," she said. "And a great part of that is being there and being available to the animals who can't care for themselves."

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