Humans have turned to domesticated dogs, cats and other small animals throughout recorded history as a means to improve their own quality of life, relying on them for work, service and companionship.

As part of the bargain, humans are supposed to provide a better quality of life for these pets and working animals than they would encounter in the wild.

Most of the time, routine veterinary service can meet a pet’s health care needs. Until recently, however, highly specialized medical care for acute animal health problems and disease has typically remained out of reach for all but the most wealthy or eccentric pet owners, but it is slowly becoming more accessible.

Locally, there are already a few high-tech clinics specializing in animal dentistry, eye and vision care, and even cardiac health, and the options have been expanding in recent years.

Healthy Teeth

The collocated suites of the Animal Dental Center and Eye Care For Animals on Centre Park Drive, in Columbia, provide specialized care not only for pets, but also for horses, other farm animals, rehabilitating wildlife and even the exotic creatures that inhabit the area’s zoos and aquariums.

Dr. Ira Luskin has been practicing animal dentistry and oral surgery since 1979 and is the hospital director of the Animal Dental Center of Baltimore, Columbia, Annapolis and York, Pa. His patients have included lions and fruit bats, and he has also performed a root canal on a polar bear at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

In 2000, Luskin established the Animal Dental Training Center (ADTC), of Baltimore, as the first private post-graduate training center for veterinary dentistry and oral surgery in the United States. Since, the state-of-the-art teaching facility has hosted more than 360 classes, covering a range of topics for about 5,000 veterinarians and veterinary students from all over the world.

One of the most common causes of canine dental problems is misinformation that advertising has ingrained in the public’s mind, he said.

“We’re led to believe that all we need to do is throw them a milk biscuit and they’ll have good teeth,” Luskin said. “But animals are like people, they’re susceptible to disease and bacteria, suffer from trauma and periodontal disease and develop cavities.”

They also have thinner enamel and stronger jaw crushing force, which predisposes them to damage.

As creatures of instinct, animals adopt coping behaviors to survive when something is wrong, hiding the disease or trauma until it is discovered, usually at an advanced state, Luskin said.

“Pet owners and caregivers should suspect a problem if an animal isn’t interested in eating, becomes picky about what it eats or makes frequent trips to the food bowl but eats very little when it does,” he said. “In our line of work, preventive medicine for animals is often education of the pet owner.”

Heart Health

Katie Newbold, CEO of Chesapeake Veterinary Cardiology Associates (CVCA), oversees a practice with 10 existing offices and 58 employees throughout Maryland and Virginia.

“We started in Annapolis in 1987,” she said, adding that the practice is still growing and expects to open a new Columbia location in October. “We’re looking at expanding nationwide at this point.”

Other Maryland locations include Frederick, Rockville, Gaithersburg and Towson.

As technology for human medical care has advanced, pet owners have naturally come to expect a higher level of care for their animals, Newbold said.

“We’re using the same technology that’s used in the human medical field and that you would find in hospitals: sonograms, fluoroscopy, radiography and electrocardiograph equipment,” she said.

The demand for specialized care continues to expand well beyond what specialists predicted only a few years ago. “We thought this field would have been saturated by now [locally],” Newbold said, “but our offices alone are seeing 16,000 cases a year in Maryland and Virginia, and there’s still a lot of room for expansion.”

As for the specifics of animal cardiac care compared to human care, the heart physiology may be similar, but animals get dissimilar diseases.

“There’s less coronary artery disease, probably because animals tend to eat a better diet and get more physical exercise than humans,” Newbold noted. “What we tend to see is more age-related changes and insufficiencies in valves, as well as structural problems in the muscle and heart chambers.”

Worth the Cost

Eye Care for Animals (ECFA), with offices in Annapolis, Columbia, Bel Air, Frederick, Rockville and Towson, was founded in 1981 in Arizona and has expanded steadily; the business now includes 54 practices in 16 states.

Aside from dogs and cats, Eye Care for Animals also provides ophthalmic diagnosis, treatment and surgery for horses, wildlife and zoo animals. “We can care for just about any animal that has an eye,” said Veterinary Technician Katie Benedict.

According to the ECFA website, practices also participate in monthly Eye Certification Registry clinics nationwide to promote the elimination of heritable eye diseases and ensure the continued health of purebred dogs.

Like the Animal Dental Center and CVCA, ECFA is equipped with advanced tools that include operating microscopes, cryo-surgical units, a variety of laser technology and ultrasonography.

Because pets can’t communicate their needs, pet owners have an obligation to monitor the health of the animals that depend on them for care, Luskin said. Veterinarians, along with the Animal Dental Center, CVCA and ECFA, are partners in that obligation, and the results of that partnership are tangible.

“We recently completed a study that shows pets with heart problems survive longer if their care is managed by a specialist in addition to the regular care received from a general veterinarian,” Newbold said. “In the case of congestive heart failure, they can actually live up to 75% longer.”

It may come at an additional cost burden for the pet owner, “but pets really are part of the family,” she said. “For many people, the specialized care is well worth the cost.”