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Should I spend thousands of dollars on cancer treatment for my pet?

As a clinician specializing in financial behavior, Amanda helps people live empowered, engaged, and educated financial lives.

Can a single mother with two college-age children afford to spend thousands on veterinary care for the family dog?

Dear Amanda:

Our beloved 9-year-old German Shepherd mix, Holly, was just diagnosed with osteosarcoma. Our veterinarian presented all of her treatment options including surgery and chemotherapy. On the one hand, I want to do everything that would keep her with us for even one more day. But on the other I worry that with a daughter in college, a son in high school and facing retirement myself in the near future, it would be irresponsible to simply close my eyes and say yes to the tens of thousands of dollars this treatment would cost. Holly is already an older dog, and such expensive interventions may just end up causing her more pain and suffering. Still, I lay awake at night feeling like a horrible person for even considering the expense factor. How do I figure out the right thing to do?

Agonized Mom of Three

My heart goes out to you, mama. Our animal companions can be as dear to us as children. But carving out a little bit of thought for practical responsibilities does not in any way diminish your love for Holly. If anything, it demonstrates how complicated it is to be truly responsible for others' care.

I've worked with a number of people whose lives were seriously impacted by costs of medical treatment for their pets, or whose grief after a pet's death was made worse by having to face a mountain of debt. Your worries about how these costs affect your other financial responsibilities are real and justified.

Gather information

Before you even consider making a decision, focus on gathering all the facts you can. Make an outlined list of everything the vet has told you may be involved in treating Holly: the costs of various procedures, medications and other treatments. What additional arrangements might need to be made for her care? For example, would you need to take time off work after her surgery, or for chemotherapy appointments? Would you need to hire help? What can the vet tell you about how these treatments would affect Holly, how long they might continue and her prognosis? The goal here is to put together a comprehensive picture of everything that you can possibly know and to make sure all questions that can be answered have been answered. You can't know what the future will hold, but you can make sure you know as much as possible.

Partner up

Ask a friend or family member to act as your supportive sounding board. This person should know you well enough to understand what Holly means to you, but not be as personally involved as you and your children. Your partner's job is to comfort you, ask you questions and listen to you as you process. He or she will not tell you what to do, but more importantly, you will hear yourself start to voice what you believe is the best course.

Look for the money

As you start to explore options, consider how each one will affect the other parts of your financial life. Are there extras you can trim, or activities you can cut back on? Other expenses may be affected anyway. For example, if your family usually takes a trip over the holidays but Holly's health would now prevent that, consider it money that can be put toward her medical care. Next look at your emergency fund, but be careful that you don't deplete it entirely, leaving yourself unprepared for other emergencies that may come up. It's unlikely that you would be able to absorb the full brunt of her care costs into your budget, but the idea is to control what you can and to minimize the amount of debt you potentially take on. Speak with a financial advisor before you even consider taking money out of retirement accounts.

Make room to feel

Feelings of stress, worry and grief are natural prompts that make us want to take action. We look for something we can do that will make that feeling go away. But in this case, emotions may cause you to embark on a knee-jerk "more is better" course that would not be good for either Holly or the rest of the family. Treat your feelings directly by making space for them: Be compassionate with yourself, connect with friends and loved ones, and allow yourself to worry and grieve without needing to tie it to a decision or activity.

Making a decision about a pet's medical care is never going to be easy. They give us their unconditional love and trust, yet we cannot ask them how they would want us to care for them in return. I am glad Holly has a mom who cares so much and wants to do the right thing. At the end of the day whatever you decide will be best.

And for those who have not yet encountered a major medical issue with their animal, taking preparatory measures now can save you some of the suffering and second-guessing that comes from having to deal with a situation in crisis. First of all, have a budget and an additional emergency fund for your pets. Look into pet insurance (though note that there are a lot of uncovered expenses and loopholes, especially for conditions associated with specific breeds). When selecting a veterinarian in your area ask about prices for routine procedures and tests, which can really add up. Finally, do a little research into the range of costs for common conditions and treatment courses, and think about how you might make care decisions relative to the cost and age/health of your pet. Having a plan in place greatly diminishes the anguish of making a decision under duress.

Photo credit: Paul/Flickr
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