Paying the Price of Vet Care - How Much is Too Much?

10 years ago

My Boston Terrier and a couch are the only two things besides my education that I can remember purchasing with my graduate student loan money. And whereas I often say he was the best money I ever spent that didn't belong to me - and he died owing interest to the Federal government, I'm sure - my dog was an expensive little guy. 

Like human beings, animals have health issues. Some crop up in young animals, and others - like cancer, respiratory and cardiac conditions - are more commonly associated with aging. Dogs, cats and other pets age more rapidly than humans, and when these animals are part of our families, caring for them throughout their life spans is a financial as well as an emotional and physical responsibility. 

My father estimates the cost of care for my dog's various health problems over the past eight years at around $10,000. He was diagnosed with epilepsy at five years of age, and took medicine twice daily to manage seizures for the rest of his life. The meds themselves were expensive, and the regular blood monitoring required to make sure the dosage was correct was over $100 per bi-monthly visit. Without the help of my parents as co-caregivers, there is no way I could have afforded the chronic care he needed without going to debt. Frequently when I was writing the check at the vet counter I'd look down and remind him - hanging on my every word, as usual - that he got better health care than I did. 

For some pet owners, the question becomes, "How much is too much?"  

The Washington Post ran an article Sunday called Pets, Vets and Debts, detailing the struggles of many pet owners to provide good care for their pets without going bankrupt. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that Americans spent more than $24.5 billion in 2006 alone on health care costs for pets. Post readers who made up a chunk of that total shared their stories in an addition to the article. 

Pam Robbins of Mid-Atlantic Shar-Pei Rescue wrote:  

As an animal owner and rescuer, I can tell you that just about every
pet owner out there has had to face the horrible decision of having to
put their pet down because they couldn't afford the vet bills to treat
their animal. Our rescue gets calls daily from people who have to give
up their pets because they have been told the vet bill will be
astronomical. When I get a call from a big-hearted person asking to
adopt, the first thing I want to say is: Do you have a savings account
available to use for unexpected vet bills? Because you will have them.

I personally have limited the number of dogs I own due to the vet
costs that I have experienced. Last year I spent several thousand
dollars on my pets (vets, food and kenneling).

Our rescue vets give us deep discounts, yet our costs continue to
increase. We must presume that advanced technology is driving these
costs. Without these discounts, our rescue could not survive. How does
the normal pet owner overcome these expenses? They give up their pet!

Anne at An Undone Calm is a veterinarian who gets irritated when people complain about the bills.  

Second, don’t get a pet if you aren’t prepared to pay the associated
costs. Just as you wouldn’t (responsibly) have a child without being
able to afford their care, you shouldn’t have a pet if you can’t afford
one. Or, you can have the pet, but you have to realize that you might
encounter a financial liability that you can’t take on. You can’t
expect veterinary care as a right, free ofcosts.

Riayn, a self-described "thirtysomething lesbian geek" in Australia who blogs at Dancing About Architecture  thinks you'd better be prepared for the costs of pet ownership. (Estimates are clearly her interpretation and will vary depending on the pet.) 

If you can not afford the initial cost of an animal then you have no
business owning one. Yes, I know this sounds harsh, but owning a dog or
a cat is expensive. You have to be able to afford not only food but
their vet bills as well. In the first year, the vet bills for a dog is
approximately $600 - that is for three vaccinations and desexing. It
does not include flea treatment, worming or heartworm treatment - for
that add on about another $150. So, all up, you are looking at about
$750 in standard vet bills for the first year alone and then about $200
a year for the next 15 or so years. If your animal gets sick, this
amount will increase quite substantially. For food you are looking at a
minimum of $30 a month, which is $360 a year. Therefore, in the first
year of your dog’s life, you will pay no less than $1,110 for its food
and medical bills. However, this is something that impulse buyers do
not give a single thought to when they see the cute puppy in the window
and the staff at the pet store certainly do not inform them.

There are some organizations that will pitch in if an owner simply cannot afford the care a pet needs. Itchmo posted a piece by Patty Richard in March about financial assistance for vet bills.  Patty included links to groups like the Feline Veterinary Emergency Assistance Program and the Rhode Island Companion Animal Foundation, whose mission is to provide assistance with the health care of pets of low-income owners. Patty says:

Now, I’ve heard all the arguments about why the poor should not own
pets, but whether you think this is so or not, the reality is that poor
people do own pets. Saying that they shouldn’t doesn’t help those pets
one little bit. This article is about finding the means to service
animals in crisis, and not about whether their owners deserve to be
helped. For me, it isn’t even a debatable question. I decided to do
some research to find out just how extensive a safety net is available
to low-income pets.  

The Humane Society of the United States has a good list of tips and resources for financial assistance too . 

The AVMA has an FAQ section on Internet pet pharmacies.  

Some people opt for pet insurance, including Jennifer at Operation Pink Herring who asks, "I Can Has Medicare?"

Hey, guess what I bought this week?   PET INSURANCE.   Crazy Cat Lady bridge, officially crossed! 

Between Max, The Cat With A Thousand And One Problems (Food
allergies?  Check!  Obesity?  Check! Sensitive stomach?  Check! 
Crippling anxiety?  check!  Cancer?  DOUBLE CHECK!) and Henry, The Cat Who Ran Away And Then Came Back With Three Parasites
And A Mangled Paw, I've wondered from time to time if I should have
considered pet insurance.   But in general, I dislike insurance -
surely a mindset I inherited from my mother, who describes insurance as
"betting against yourself".   I've had terrible experiences with my own
bastardly insurance company, and I just don't trust that paying for
insurance will actually guarantee that I won't be slammed with bills
because of some loophole or fine print.  

Nolo's Employment Law Blog says that according to the Society For Human Resource Management, 5 percent of employers offer pet insurance coverage as a benefit.

Because many pet insurance policies are chock full of exclusions,
they don’t always make financial sense for pet owners. Still, they make
it possible for many pet owners to afford life-saving treatments that
would otherwise be out of reach.

Claudia commented on the Washington Post article at Pet Knows.

As any pet lover knows, our pets are so much more than “pets.” They are really part of our family. When
they look up at you with their sweet eyes, wag their tail, or nuzzle up
against you, you know what they are thinking and feeling. You love them and would do just about anything for them. But vet bills can be pretty rough on the wallet. So where do we draw the line? That is a tough question to answer, and one that I have never been able to resolve for myself. I
have been very lucky with Mosby but also realize that he is almost 14
and I could be faced with some tough choices as his age catches up to
him.

 

So do you know where you would be willing to draw the line? Or are you like me and can’t bear to think about it until you are faced with the choice?

Catherine at Frugal Homemaker  blogged about "Saying No To Your Vet" by Emily Yaffe on Slate.com.

The Salon and Slate articles have been weighing on my mind since I read
them. Our dog, who we love so very much, is getting older. I know that
these bigger vet bills may be an issue sooner than we want to think
about. How much is too much? And if it becomes too much, will I have
the courage to say no to my vet without feeling like an absolute
monster? I think that if she was suffering and the treatment would not
make that suffering less, I would be able to put her down without too
much guilt. But if that $1300 treatment would cure it, what would I
say? I will have to cross that bridge when I come to it.The Salon and Slate articles have been weighing on my mind since I read
them. Our dog, who we love so very much, is getting older. I know that
these bigger vet bills may be an issue sooner than we want to think
about. How much is too much? And if it becomes too much, will I have
the courage to say no to my vet without feeling like an absolute
monster? I think that if she was suffering and the treatment would not
make that suffering less, I would be able to put her down without too
much guilt. But if that $1300 treatment would cure it, what would I
say? I will have to cross that bridge when I come to it.

Have you been in this situation? How did you decide that it was too much?

Tough question. My parents and I both agree that we would do the same things for Punkin all over again if we had to. Because we could, we were wiling to cook the turkey and pay for the blood tests, even though it was a serious budget stretcher - but that was us. Some people can't or don't want to spend the money or time, resulting in some difficult and very personal choices. So no matter how unsatisfying, the ultimate answer to "How much is too much?" is "It depends." 

Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites, where she misses her expensive dog so very much.  

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