The perky-eared silhouette of a dog graces the facade of the low-slung, bright red building in São Paulo, Brazil—the local mark for a neighborhood vet—but this is no ordinary clinic: It’s the headquarters of Dr. Edgard Brito, the world’s preeminent plastic surgeon for dogs.
At first glance, with gray curls and blue eyes, 50-year-old Brito looks like a telenovela villain. He’s been a veterinarian his entire life, after growing up on a farm surrounded by animals. It was only after breeding Doberman pinschers as a hobby that his career took its cosmetic turn. “I started to play with plastic surgery and began to look for the correct ears,” he says. “It’s important for us as a show-dog breeder that dogs have the right expression, the correct proportions.”
Brito’s first big success was Brutus, a miniature gray schnauzer. “One of his ears was in a peculiar place, and wrong, so that was the first time I used Botox to put less tension in the muscle of that ear,” says Brito. It perked up perfectly. “I use both Botox and Restylane to fix some broken cartilage. It’s a very good technique, you don’t need to cut the animal, only injections.” Brutus went on to be a dog-show champion, and eventually retired to a life of breeding. Since then, Brito has worked on thousands of other animals, usually costing $500 to $1,000 each time. He’s fixed the ears of his own five-year-old Doberman, and also offers eyebrow correction, wrinkle reduction, and even face-lifts.
Recently, Brito developed a new silicone-based procedure that permanently corrects excessive floppiness in ears, most notably for German shepherds. The procedure involves the insertion of a silicone wedge in the ear for several months until the cartilage reshapes, and then removal of the support. Little or no evidence remains of the operation, which—for show dogs—is part of Brito’s appeal. The American Kennel Club, the dog-show world’s governing body, “prohibits changes in appearance ‘except as specified in the standard for the breed.’” (The Pembroke Welsh corgi and the wire fox terrier, for instance, are both dogs that require the shortening of the dog’s tail, known as “docking.”) “You need to use a technique that the judges can’t feel or see,” says Brito, who is quick to brush off criticism. “Why not be beautiful? It’s very important. If the pet is beautiful, the owner is happy and wants to show their pet to their friends.”
Plastic surgery is a growing part of the U.S. pet industry, which was estimated to be worth a total of $50.84 billion in 2011 by the American Pet Products Association. According to insurer PetPlan, American dog owners spent $62 million on plastic surgery in 2011; the firm itself has covered operations on 158 pets and counting. But these surgeries aren’t about vanity. Rather, says PetPlan co-founder Chris Ashton, they focus on improving quality of life. Two conditions are increasingly common among purebred and inbred dogs. Shar-Peis, retrievers, chow chows, and bloodhounds—even the occasional Persian cat—can suffer from entropion, a problem where droopy skin turns eyelids inward and so makes lashes scratch the eye. “And there’s a bunch of breeds known as brachycephalic, which means they have squished-in faces—bulldogs, Boston terriers,” Ashton says. “So the tissue of the soft palate obstructs their airways.” A nose job for a dog like that is more about saving its life than slimming its profile.
Ashton credits several factors for the spike in these operations. “There are trends driving overall pet spending up. People are having human children later in life and pets earlier, so they’re a substitute,” he says. “Or empty nesters have the most disposable income and lavish the attention they used to on their kids on their pets instead.” And perhaps nobody anticipated that shift better than Gregg Miller, who’s made a fortune in the past 17 years selling Neuticles, silicone balls that can be implanted when the real things have been snipped.
These days Brito has expanded beyond just caninoplasty. He charged $10,000 for the reconstruction of an ear of a Brazilian breeding stallion called Mangalarga—in order to retain his stud appeal—and he’s on speed dial with certain TV and film production crews, whose menageries he’s called on to tweak to be more camera-ready. Once, he was hired to remove an eye tumor from a lion, which Brito says was a trying experience. “The anesthetist arrived late, and we didn’t have too much light in the place,” he says, “so I finished the surgery by car headlights.”