By C.G. Worrell | Photography by Kelvin Andow
When Kathy Lee of Rochester noted a rapidly-growing mass on the thigh of her beloved adopted cat Elvis, she had no idea its eventual removal would involve a team of veterinary specialists. She didn’t even know such doctors existed, so like most concerned pet owners, she started by placing a call to her family vet.
Dr. Marlys Kraus of the Vetmobile examined the 11-year-old tabby and biopsied the mass to establish the diagnosis: a sarcoma—a very aggressive cancer of connective tissue.
“The news terrified me,” said Kathy. “I’d just come off a cycle of loss with three other pets and I couldn’t face losing Elvis, too.”
So Dr. Kraus launched the cat’s journey to wellness by referring him to BluePearl Veterinary Partners, a specialty practice in Minneapolis.
The Triad of Care
The vast majority of veterinarians are general practitioners who handle a wide range of medical conditions and emergencies. Roughly 10 percent of veterinary graduates, however, pursue an additional three to five years of training to become board certified in one of 41 recognized specialties that range from Anesthesia to Zoo Medicine.
Today more than 12,000 board-certified, veterinary specialists practice in the U.S., and demand for their expertise and skills is on the rise.
In fact, the relationship between an informed pet owner, the primary care vet, and the specialist has been dubbed the “triad of care,” a combination that delivers more advanced treatment options to animals and their owners.
Kathy experienced this firsthand when she consulted with Dr. Brian Husbands, the veterinary oncologist at BluePearl, who focused on treating cancers with chemotherapy and radiation. He ran more tests and concluded that although Elvis’s tumor hadn’t spread, it wouldn’t respond to the therapies he could offer, but surgery was still an option. So he tapped his colleague Dr. Andrew Jackson, a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons.
“When I saw Elvis,” Dr. Jackson recalls, “the mass was the size of a tennis ball and painful. We either needed to put him to sleep or try removing it. I considered Elvis a great surgical candidate for three reasons: 1) he had a laid back personality and didn’t stress in the hospital environment; 2) the owner was motivated to provide the highest level of care; and 3) surgery had the potential to be curative if I could get 2-cm clean margins.”
But reaching healthy tissue meant amputation of Elvis’ rear leg and half his pelvis.
It’s Now or Never
The degree of surgery required stunned Kathy. “I could hardly wrap my head around it,” she says. “I worried that I was being selfish and putting Elvis through too much. But Dr. Jackson reminded me that small animals generally handle amputations well; they have 3 other legs to walk on.”
So Kathy gave the go-ahead.
In May of 2014, Dr. Jackson performed the three-hour surgery at BluePearl’s Eden Prairie hospital. “During the procedure, what surprised me the most,” he says, “was just how deep I had to cut to reach clean margins.” Unfortunately, he had to reroute Elvis’s urethra, but in the end, all borders were free of tumor cells.
Elvis struggled with a picky appetite during his month-long recovery, but with the help of appetite stimulants, Kathy’s devotion, and Dr. Jackson’s advice, he pulled through and was soon back to his frisky self.
Love Me Tender
Today Elvis is almost three years out and cancer free. The 11pound tabby has a strong chin, a face full of whiskers, and a mischievous twinkle in his green eyes.
He hops when he walks, and Kathy has modified her home with carpeted stepstools to assist him with climbing. His tripod status, however, doesn’t impede his ability to zoom through the house when he frolics with the other four cats who share his home.
Elvis loves napping by the fire, cuddling with Kathy, and watching birds on his kitty TV (the side window).
“Every time I hear him purr, I have no regrets,” Kathy says with a smile. “His quality of life is much better than I expected, and I’m glad veterinary specialists were there to give him a second chance.”
All Shook Up? If you think your pet has a condition that could benefit from referral to a specialist, ask your primary veterinarian and visit VetSpecialists.com.
Can’t Help Falling in Love To see Elvis in action, check out his video at
11 Examples of Veterinary Specialists
Conditions they commonly treat:
Behaviorists: aggression & anxiety
Cardiologists: heart failure & arrhythmias
Dermatologists: chronic skin allergies
Internists: liver, kidney, endocrine issues
Neurologists: spinal injury & gait disorders
Oncologists: lymphoma & other cancers
Ophthalmologists: cataracts & glaucoma
Procedures they routinely perform:
Dentists: root canals & oral surgery
Pathologists: necropsies & reading biopsies
Radiologists: advanced imaging & ultrasounds
Surgeons: fracture repair & soft tissue operations
C.G. Worrell is a freelance writer and part-time vet at Heritage Pet Hospital in Rochester.