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The unforeseen cost of loving a pet

Posted in Health

Photo by Sophie Gamand. Please see at the bottom of the post for details

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.

Would they even try to make room for a third?
Would they even try to make room for a third?

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.

James Herriot
If you were a fan: this is the real “James Heriot”

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 


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  1. 6 pets also make me one of my vet’s best customers. Often it sums up, but they usually just let me pay the medication and I get the checkup as a discount. I have recommended that clinic that often that for them it definitely pays off. Every single one of my beloved buddies (cats, bunnies, tortoises) make every day of my life so much better that I would anyway always take care that they get the best treatment possible. It’s just what you do when you have fallen in love with them. I am now 31 and will also become an old lady spending her time happily ever after with her furry and shell friends.

    October 3, 2014
    • Support Support

      I agree with you – there is no length I would’t go for the health of my pets and I always find it unsettling when I see people neglecting or abandoning their pets for reasons that I don’t comprehend. I certainly commend you for the “little zoo” you are running in your household!

      October 3, 2014
  2. I think you are right: the difference between one and two is minimal but the between two and three it’s a lot more work.

    September 23, 2014
  3. Love the picture on the couch of the two of them. Though I adore Opa (our baby) three did become a crowd. I think just enjoy your two for now… 🙂

    September 23, 2014
  4. silvia

    I am forwarding this post to anyone who has\loves pets. Those pictures by Gamand are something.
    I’m not qualified to take part into this discussion on pets health insurances/costs but at least for this one thing I’m glad I live in Europe.
    E i Fanotti sono una delle cose piú tenere che io conosca. Che voglia avrei di vederli!

    September 20, 2014
    • Aren’t they beautiful? And such a great idea. Ottie is suffering from a bad bout of arthritis: today was coldish and damp and it got worse. He is rather unhappy right now.

      September 21, 2014
  5. A vet once told me they can do exactly the same treatment for dogs as they do people, the only limitation being whether or not you can afford it. Sigh. I’m with you though, I’ll do anything to treat my 4 legged family members well and will make sure they at least have good decent food in the house; I’m happy to scrounge for whatever is in the pantry. The idea of getting pet insurance seems more intriguing given the high cost of pet health care.

    September 17, 2014
    • I think decent food goes a long way for humans and dogs too. And not getting them overweight. This would merit a whole other post on the cost of decent dog food!

      September 18, 2014

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