Behind the scenes at Chester’s pioneering Animal Hospital
PUBLISHED: 16:47 27 February 2014 | UPDATED: 16:47 27 February 2014
At an animal hospital near Chester, Professor John Innes sees a steady stream of pet owners who want the best specialist care for their four-legged friends
In decades past, the prospects for your poorly pet were often bleak.
‘If a dog was very lame, there weren’t many options for treatment, says Professor John Innes. ‘Attitudes might have meant that euthanasia was considered. These days, there are lots of options for treatment, and the great British public are happy to consider them.’
As UK referral director at ChesterGates Referral Hospital, discussions with dog and cat owners over specialist treatments are part of his daily round.
‘I see a range of expectations from clients, from a pragmatic approach at one end, to a serious intent to do everything possible,’ says John, aged 46. ‘Sometimes we encounter extremely wealthy people who go globally. I’ve spoken to clients who were thinking of putting their dog on a private jet to California.
‘There are also clients who want to do absolutely everything they can, but financially it’s not possible. That’s a difficult conversation, because there’s a financial implication to everything we do.’
Elbow replacement surgery for a dog, for instance, would cost around £5,500, and cruciate ligament surgery typically around £2,700. For around 90 per cent of the clients coming to the ChesterGates Referral Hospital, on Chestergates Road, close to the M56, that cost is met by pet insurance.
John has done more than his share to open up the possibilities for longer and healthier lives for our pets. He was inspired to work with animals having spent summers with family in the west of Ireland, shadowing his cousin, a vet, as he went around farms, performing procedures such as Caesarean sections on cows. During his 12 years as professor of small animal surgery at University of Liverpool, John researched arthritis in dogs and cats, developed tools for vets to diagnose the condition, worked with engineers to develop an elbow replacement for dogs and a 3D-printed titanium implant for cruciate ligament surgery, and was also co-inventor of a prescription diet for dogs with arthritic joints, produced by Hill’s Pet Nutrition.
‘It sells millions of pounds worth across the world,’ says John. ‘I signed away all my royalties. As an academic, that’s what you do.’
John is also the co-founder of the Veterinary Tissue Bank, based in Chirk, Wrexham. Storing donor bone, ligament and other tissue for use in veterinary surgery, it is the first of its kind in Europe.
How far do we go to save our pets? In the USA, there have been kidney transplants for cats. UK vets have been less comfortable with the ethical implications of taking organs from healthy live donors, says John. And then there is the prospect of cloning beloved pets - not only a fairly pointless exercise but also, says John, ‘really expensive’.
There is more worthwhile work for this vet to do in alleviating the suffering of animals with arthritis and other joint problems.
‘It’s a major problem. We think arthritis affects about a million dogs in the UK,’ says John. ‘It’s surprising to people that dogs can develop arthritis from quite a young age. They can suffer from developmental joint problems that give them secondary arthritis - things like hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia.’
John’s most common patient is the Labrador.
‘Labradors are the most popular pedigree breed in the UK, but also they do have a predisposition to elbow arthritis,’ he says.
Of the 28 dogs to receive John’s cobalt-chrome and titanium elbow replacement, 24 have been labradors. It’s an expensive decision to make, but John can easily put himself in the shoes of the owner faced with such a decision. Back home in Heswall, he and wife Caroline, a dentist, and their three young daughters cherish their 12-year-old Jack Russell terrier Arthur.
‘He’s a cancer survivor,’ says John. ‘He had oral melanoma, which is a really aggressive cancer in dogs. A specialist oncologist treated him with radiotherapy and a melanoma vaccine. Before radiotherapy came along for melanoma in dogs, the average survival was five months. It’s two and a half years on and he’s perfectly healthy.’
Alfie – a 15 month-old cross-breed rescue dog from Sandbach – was the first dog to benefit from a hip replacement operation at ChesterGates Referral Hospital.
He had always displayed an unusual gait, but owner Tanya French had not realised this was a symptom of hip dysplasia.
‘Then I noticed that he would limp occasionally on the same back leg, so I took him along to our vet and they referred us to ChesterGates Referral Hospital,’ she adds.
Alfie’s hip replacement surgery was a success and within a few weeks he was back on his feet again, without limping and without the need for pain relief.
‘Hip dysplasia is common in dogs, especially in larger dogs such as Labradors, German Shepherds, and Retriever types,’ says Professor John Innes. ‘It is a painful, sometimes crippling disease that causes a dog’s hip to deteriorate and become arthritic. For those dogs with severe pain, hip replacement surgery can offer the prospect of a return to pain-free, athletic function, which is, of course, what dogs live for. These days, we can even offer hip replacement for painful hip conditions in smaller dogs too. The technology just gets better and better.’