Americans spend millions to keep pets healthy

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PHOENIX -- We love our pets and show that love by spending a lot of money. Americans will spend a jaw-dropping $53 billion on their pets this year.

A big chunk of that goes to health care, which is right up there with medical care for people.

Stephanie Helbig and her husband spent thousands at VETMED in north Phoenix to diagnose and treat their 9-year-old beagle, Lucy, after she fell sick with a life-threatening illness.

"I think I'm like most people. My dog is like my child," smiled Stephanie

Stephanie brought her beagle to VETMED to be treated after a blood test revealed a complex condition: immune-mediated neutropenia and hemolitic anemia. Lucy is almost cured, but it cost her and her husband nearly $20,000.

"It was never a question of whether we would spend the money or not," Stephanie said.

VETMED is where other veterinarians across the Southwest send their sickest patients for the most advanced diagnosis and treatment -- including many of the machines and procedures common in human health care.

Dr. Arch Robertson founded the clinic in 1995, specializing only in ultrasound technology. Today it's a bustling, new, high-tech facility that fills an 8,000-square-foot building with plans to add another 5,000. 

Robertson marvels at how far his practice has come.

"We can do things so much quicker, so much less invasively, with less cost, frankly, and less morbidity," Robertson said.

He proudly showed off the CT scan, an imaging machine used for diagnosis. Linus, a beagle with sinus problems, got a scan to determine if the cause was a tumor or something else. Cost: $1,000-$1,100.

"So we do the CTs and then we have a board-certified radiologist -- not on site -- but we send through telemedicine -- who reads the films," Robertson said. "So we have one of the top experts in the country reading our CTs."

Veterinary medicine is advancing right along with human medicine. At VETMED pet patients also have access to:

 - Cardiac catheterization, a machine that creates video images of the heart.
 - Lithotripsy, a non-invasive procedure that zaps bladder or kidney stones.
 - Digital radiography, creating high tech x-rays that are and cheaper than film.
 - Surgery, including neuro and orthopaedic
 - Computerized, automated pharmacy system.
 - In-house lab
 - Critical Care, including 24-hour care.

Dr. Nichole Hooper is VETMED's specialist in critical care and on the day we visited was examining a 3-year-old labradoodle named Diego with beautiful, but very sad, eyes.

"Diego likes to get into the laundry and he's eaten at least two pairs of socks that we know of," Hooper said.

Dr. Robertson's quick ultrasound with Diego confirmed a dire diagnosis.

"He needs surgery right away," he said.

His owners gave the go-ahead and the labradoodle underwent successful surgery that day, socks removed, and back home, doing well.

"We know that the human-animal bond, you know just petting a dog and having that relationship, and having them happy when you come home from work, you know, that just makes people feel good," Robertson said.