Not too long ago, Snuggles' broken leg might have put an end to her existence. But thanks to a couple of tiny steel pins and the surgical expertise of veterinarian Gary Goldstein, Snuggles went home, intact, one happy ferret.

"We have a 100 percent success rate with ferrets," says Goldstein, who normally restricts his medical magic to dogs and cats at the Beltway Surgical Referral Center.

However, during his 10-year career, Goldstein has performed a Caesarean section on a snake, repaired a ruptured disk in an African antelope and pinned the fractured jaw of an 800-pound Bengal tiger that was roughed up by her son.

Specialization in a veterinary practice is becoming more common, giving pet owners an option to having their animals operated on or put to sleep.

There are about 50,000 veterinarians in the United States, but only about 5 percent go on to specialize in such areas as cardiology, internal medicine and surgery, says Dr. Arthur Freeman, executive vice president of the American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, Ill. He says, however, more vets are joining the ranks.

There are 27 schools of veterinary medicine in the nation and all offer advanced clinical specialty programs, says Franklin Loew, dean of the veterinary school at Tufts University in North Grafton, Mass.

This is what pet owners will do for love:

Cardiac pacemakers for dogs with faltering tickers; chemotherapy and radiation treatments for animals with cancer; total hip replacement for crippled animals; reconstructive surgery for animals with severe burns, and exploratory surgery to find the reason for Flossie's or Fido's chronic vomiting, chronic diarrhea or chronic whatever.

Goldstein, a lanky man, shares office space with an internal medicine specialist, a veterinary cardiologist and a radiologist. He does not offer traditional services like spaying, neutering, worming and vaccinations.

Goldstein says he chose surgery because he likes the gratification of physically fixing things, often with immediate results, but he is fully aware that it is pet owners' willingness to pay that keeps him in business.

"The so-called high-tech medicine can only develop when there is a market willing to bear the costs of such care," says Loew.

The United States has more pets living within its borders -- about 110 million of them -- than many nations have people, he says, and that's a lot of potential in pet dollars. "Of course, there are still people who will tell you, 'This cat's only worth $5 and I won't pay the costs of its medical care. Go ahead and put it to sleep.' "

But that scenario is changing, Loew says. "It wasn't too long ago that people were embarrassed to talk about spending money on their pets, like they thought they should be spending it on the poor or something." Today, more people are realizing that pets are helpful to their own emotional health, he says.

People generally don't say no to big price tags when it comes to their animals, Goldstein says. They may gulp and rejigger bills payable when they hear that Fido's surgery may set them back $800, but "the people who love their animals are going to go for it," he says.

Washington pet owner Susan Lihn can tell a few tales about little luxuries that never were.

"Oh please, I've spent a fortune on Rodney," she says, referring to her 10-year-old black standard poodle.

"I've taken him to an eye specialist when he had this gunk in his eyes, and he has a thyroid condition and has to take thyroid pills twice a day for the rest of his life" -- which she rolls in Rodney's favorite cream cheese to make them more palatable -- "and his spleen exploded."

The spleen condition, which required emergency surgery, cost more than $600. Rodney also swallowed a pair of heavy athletic socks. They had to be surgically removed to the tune of $150.

Lihn is not alone. Across the nation, Americans are displaying a willingness to spend big on pets.

"Pets are becoming more a member of the family all the time," says Donald Low, associate dean for public programs at the University of California, Davis.

"I have seen few services offered by vets that the public is not willing to buy, especially when they can anticipate reasonable odds of a good outcome," he says.

"The payoff is in companionship that people want and need. And this is especially true of childless couples or shut-ins, who don't have a lot of contact with other people," Low says.

Without the benefit of pet insurance, Susan Lihn has shouldered alone the financial costs of Rodney's medical mishaps over the years.

Has she ever been tempted to save her money, cross her fingers and hope for the best?

"I balk at spending the money, but I spend it anyway," she says. "What choice do I have?"