There’s a bold, expanding world out there, animal lovers: pet organ transplants and donations.
For Karthik Ramachandran, it’s the future, and the purpose of his start-up company devoted to pet organ research, Likarda. The company focuses on the development of cell-based therapies for companion animals. In practice, that means pet owners (whose cat, for example, has been euthanized), may donate their pet’s healthy pancreas for research. Specifically, the company is working on a cure for feline diabetes.
The program has been so successful, Likarda is forming a non-profit, the Pet Organ Donation Network, in order to manage donor organs. “In the last two years, we’re seeing growth in Kansas City,” says Ramachandran. The increased national attention has lead to new challenges, such as the “logistics around pet organ donation.” In humans, those logistics are formalized, regulated, and often paid for by insurance companies. In pets, he says, “we’re trying to add in partners across the country” to make donation more accessible.
Likarda is located in the heart of the fly-over states, in what is known as the Animal Health Corridor, a region that follows I-70 from Manhattan, Kansas to Columbia, Missouri and is home to the “largest concentration of animal health interests in the world.” Ramachandran says his company and this concentration are part of the “changing animal health industry, which recognizes pets are part of the family.”
Outside of Kansas, you can head to the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, where Dr. Lillian Aronson is professor of surgery. She’s also highly regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on pet organ transplants—kidneys, in dogs, and especially, cats.
The way the U-Penn program works, she explains, is that cats that are actually donors are from the York County animal shelter that would otherwise be euthanized. So the program is actually saving two cats—the one that needs the kidney, and the one that is the donor. Just like humans, cats can live with one kidney.
They are trying to save the life of a shelter animal, and Aronson says they follow the donor cats for the rest of their lives, to insure they are well taken care of.
“We have found over 100 cats great homes. We have cats we adopt from the shelter, and they live in our hospital, and if they are a match they are adopted by the recipient family.” If there’s a health problem with the cat and they are unable to donate, they adopt them out. “We always find homes for them,” she says.
Kidney failure is the main problem the felines in need of the transplant face, and there are a number of reasons why a kitty kidney might fail. For families who consider the pet a part of the family, they’ll do anything to save its life.
This can mean two surgeries, an ICU stay, two weeks in the hospital, and $15,000, in addition to the medication the cats are on for the rest of their lives, and regular vet visits. Add in potential complications, and travel to a facility that does the procedure, and no insurance, and the expenses add up quickly. It’s not uncommon for pet parents to spend north of $20,000 on the transplant, borrowing from 401ks, second mortgages, and money for a home downpayment to do so.
Right now, says Aronson, there are three main facilities in the U.S. performing kidney transplants: The University of Wisconsin, the University of Georgia, and U-Penn. There are none internationally, so U-Penn has had patients from other countries. “We average 10-12 a year,” she says. “Since 1998, we’ve done 150.”
And while the number of transplants hasn’t necessarily grown in recent years, the number of inquiries they receive about the procedure has gone up. They evaluate a lot of patients, she says, and see many different scenarios. Kidney transplants aren’t always a solution, especially when the pet has a number of other health issues going on.
There are no other types of organ transplants—yet. At this time, kidneys are the only organs that pets can receive. And if your cat passes of natural causes or is euthanized, they do not accept kidneys for transplant.
“What some people don’t appreciate is pets are family members,” says Aronson. “The emotional and physical effect on people can be significant with the loss of a pet. They want to do as much as they can for their pet, to save the life of a family member. That’s why people go this route. It’s not for every cat. They’re not all good candidates. That can be hard to understand, because they want to save the life of their pet.”
Aronson also notes that, for the amount of medical treatment involved in a transplant, $15,000 is reasonable for the care that is given. “It does work,” she says of the kitties who do receive a new kidney. “And our goal is to give them a good quality of life.”
As of Spring of 2014, the longest a cat lived after a transplant was 14 additional years.