During those moments of procrastination or weakness, I can be found clicking away on the site of the boxer adoption shelter where Ottie and Portia came from. I scroll through the photos of all available boxers, read the cleverly cobbled together stories under their fictitious names and brood, thinking that I should be giving another dog a chance at a better life. I have the space, and cranky Ottie could be coaxed into loving a brother. What stops me every time is the thought of footing more veterinary bills. It’s not that my dogs have been sicker than most but it does feel like veterinary care has become unaffordable, at least in the States.
When I look at my happy dogs, I often wonder who, in their right minds, let them go. Ottie was found wandering the streets, with no collar, and both came home with severe cases of mange. Abandonment is the single most traumatic event in the life of a pet, such a stressor that their immune system is weakened and, often, disease ensues. I cannot imagine any life circumstance in which I would relinquish one of my dogs but I also know I am not in a position to judge somebody else’s life.
More responsible pet owners who find themselves in difficult circumstances will seek out no kill shelters and voluntarily sign away their dogs or cats, in the hope of securing a better future for them. Others, maybe out of ignorance or embarrassment, just dump them. Often, the trigger is finding out that needed medical costs are out of their reach.
A few years ago, after a pleasant evening with some girlfriends, I noticed Ottie was acting strange: he was restless, refusing to sit or lie down, and trying to make himself vomit, unsuccessfully. As an eighteen year veteran pet owner, I have learnt to manage many conditions and to evaluate how serious an ailment could be (my plastic surgeon neighbor also comes in handy in case of scrapes that require stitching, without having to rush to a vet – bonus: the scarring is invisible!) but I did lose a dog to stomach torsion, otherwise known as bloat, and I wasn’t taking any chances. By the time I got to the emergency clinic, there were no visible signs of bloat but an x-ray revealed my suspicions to be correct: Ottie required immediate surgery to save his life (bloat, for which there is no known cause, mainly occurs in large breeds between the ages of 6 and 10, and you can read more about it here). I quickly signed a resuscitation order – if needed – and on the dotted line where a list of blurry expenses totalled $6,000. What choice did I have? Let my dog die in unbearable pain? I was offered a way to finance the cost, interest free, for 6 months, which I did, but what is a more cash strapped pet owner to do?
Surgery can be costly and I was paying for a surgeon who sank a lot of money in her education but I still can’t believe that operating room expenses for a pet equals those for a human. And, oftentimes, a trip to vet feels like highway robbery.
In the U.S. alone, 164 million people, or 65% of American households, own at least a pet and I am convinced a large proportion of us is taken advantage of. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the cost of pet healthcare has increased 64% between 1998 and 2006.
The website pets.webmd, tries to rationalize the rising costs with the increased specialization of veterinary doctors: the same way we tend to see more and more specialists to cure what ails us, our pets are going the same route. And specialists are doctors who dropped even more money – and years – into their education, money that has to be made back somehow. I am not entirely buying it.
Ottie and Portia are fully fledged members of my family and, of course, they will be treated as such, insofar as it makes sense when it comes to their health. Should I find out tomorrow that Ottie, at the venerable age of 11, had cancer, I would not opt for surgery or chemo. But what if he were a 2-year-old puppy? Each pet owner needs to take such eventualities into consideration before adopting, and think of the financial consequences.
Pet insurance, widely available in the States, does help but a complete coverage can amount to close to $100 a month. And, often times, when I am at the vet, I feel like I am talked into procedures or tests that are not strictly necessary.
“You should test for giardia, it’s on the uptake in this area” was the latest.
“But the dogs do not have any symptoms”. It turns out it can be asymptomatic for a while but I will wait for the diarrhea, thank you very much.
And don’t get me started on the teeth cleaning or the unnecessary x-rays or a $70 physical to get shots if the pet hasn’t been seen in a year. I might have become more savvy and knowledgeable but, inside a vet’s office, as owners we are often vulnerable to our fears and our pet’s silence.
A while ago, I started looking for lower cost options as my search for my very own James Herriot* of “All Creatures Great and Smal” memory was proving fruitless. What happened to the old county vet, with tons of experience and answers to everything, who, in a pinch, would take a live chicken as payment? James Herriot, sadly, does not practice in Los Angeles and, if he did, he probably would have sold out to the VCA, like everyone else.
But before relinquishing a pet because of health problems that are cost-prohibitive, know that there are some options. If you live in a town with a university that has a veterinary faculty, they might also have a teaching hospital that will take your pet and care for it at a much lower cost.
Recently I came across the FACE Foundation, a web non-profit that provides financial assistance to animal owners who are unable to cover the full cost of their pets’ critical or emergency veterinary care.
As a last option, the shelter where the pet was adopted from might be willing to share in the cost of treatment rather than taking the pet back.
Like anything else in life, sometimes it pays to ask.
And while I slowly turn into one of those old ladies obsessed with their pets, the ones I used to find so entertaining on my first trips to England, I’ll keep on dreaming of a third puppy to add to the cast of characters. One more funny face competing for attention, four more legs to take on walks and more cash in the bank for my vet.
PS James Herriot’s real name was James Alfred Wight and his real house in Thirsk, Yorkshire, can be visited. Let no one ever say the Brits don’t love their animals!
Images: James Alfred Wight courtesy of the Daily Mirror
The gorgeous pit bull is part of a photographic campaign shot by New York photographer Sophie Gamand, aimed at making pit bulls less threatening and more adoptable. You can see the entire shoot here