THE DAYS OF minimal trips to the vet, letting nature take its course, and burying Squeaky in a shoe box in the backyard are gone. Now pet ownership comes with choices and costs that our little-kid selves could never have imagined. Chemo, transplants, a lifetime of insulin injections, and having Fido posthumously transformed into a Zircon ring are not what any of us could have pictured when we picked out that puppy at the pound. So how do we stay sane and solvent when our heads say, "Does she really need a $3,000 pacemaker?", but our hearts murmur, "Lassie, come home"?
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 72 million dogs and 82 million cats populated U.S. homes as pets in 2006, with an estimated 43 million reptiles, birds, and other species filling cages, aquariums, and additional habitats. But perhaps the most compelling stat from the AVMA is that 49.7 percent of those who own pets consider them members of their families. Which might be why we spent over $24.5 billion on our furry, feathered, and finned loved ones in 2006— a remarkable sum given that the 2008 gross national product for Haiti was $11.5 billion.
Why so much? Certainly the cost of kibble, along with everything else, isn't what it used to be. The ASPCA estimates that food, sanitary supplies, and non-illness-related medical fees come to $470 annually for a medium-sized dog, $495 for a cat, and (call Farmer McGregor!) $730 for a rabbit. Those figures don't include leashes, toys, carrying cases, other basic supplies, and spaying or neutering, which bring the average first-year cost of owning a healthy dog to $1,355 and $860 for a healthy cat. But what can really run you into the red is medical care.
Veterinary fees have increased sharply over the last ten years for many of the same reasons that human health care costs have risen. Medical school tuition is just a minor part of what's being offset by your bill at the doggy doctor. Research for advanced procedures and medications, the cost of equipment to administer cutting-edge tests, as well as the price of the tests themselves, staff and administration fees are cited as the major reasons for ever-increasing invoices. Vets also argue that they're simply meeting the demands of clients who want as many care options as possible for their ailing animals, and that their fees have been disproportionately low for decades. And believe it or not, more and more vets are being sued for malpractice in what seems to be an ever-increasing desire to assuage loss with litigation.
There are, however, a number of veterinarians who claim that unnecessary testing, medication, and surgery are ways in which pet owner bills are being routinely padded by many of their colleagues. Needless vaccinations are a particular peeve of Dr. James L. Busby, whose book How to Afford Veterinary Care Without Mortgaging the Kids reveals that a single shot can often last an animal's lifetime while others are ineffective at best. Busby maintains that unless mandated by local law, which shots for rabies may be, a number of "yearly" vaccinations as well as ones for ailments such as Lyme Disease, are unwarranted. (To learn more about which vaccinations may not be needed by your pet visit CritterAdvocacy.org).
And of course veterinarian suggestions of new, costlier treatments that involve higher, long term costs, and iffy prognoses are often made when pet owners are particularly distraught and more likely to opt for extreme measures. The emotional state of an animal owner is definitely part of the equation. When New Yorker, Valentine Rogers learned that one of her two cats had cancer, she listened carefully to her vet's suggestions for treatment all of which ended with "If it were my cat I'd go for surgery." Rogers knew that the additional months of comfortable life that the vet said might await her cat after surgery weren't guaranteed, but that conversation ender was an emotional zinger, so she scheduled the operation. When the cat died two weeks and $2,000 later, the newly unemployed Rogers saw the experience as a pricey lesson learned. When she recently noticed that her second cat, Juniper, who suffers from a thyroid disorder and needs special food as well as daily medication, had begun to markedly lose weight, she philosophically resigned herself to the necessity of euthanizing the cat if its condition should become more acute.
Rogers isn't alone in having to confront putting an ailing pet down, but there's been a shocking rise in what vets call "economic euthanasia" since the end of 2008. Perfectly healthy animals are being put to sleep and abandoned because their owners simply can't afford to feed or care for them in the current economic climate. Many vets counsel owners to leave pets at shelters vs having them put to sleep, but with limited funding and a striking drop in donations, shelters are overcrowded, and many end up having to euthanize animals anyway.
Some people though, are willing to go into debt for a furry family member, and many are opting for pet health insurance with the hope that it will offset potentially steep vet costs. Unfortunately, neither the New York Times nor Reader's Digest have much good to say about insurance policies that are likely to cost more in premiums per year than your pet's lifelong care will ever necessitate. Pet insurance has also been faulted for having ridiculously limiting caveats and large amounts of qualifying small print.
But even if you're able to afford an $8,000 kidney transplant for your Persian, sometimes the inevitable comes to pass, and depending on where you live, the options for disposing of a deceased pet vary in complexity and cost. If you're a country dweller or suburbanite check with your local humane society before assuming that it's legal to bury your pet in the backyard. Cremation, required in many cities, can cost anywhere from $55 to $350 depending on the size of the pet, with additional charges for fetching an animal's remains, allowing the owner to be present at the cremation, and individual vs communal cremation. Should you choose to have your pet's ashes returned to you, the choices for an appropriate receptacle are many. PerfectMemorials.com offers everything from urns to photo casks to jewelry. Having your animal buried at a pet cemetery can be appreciably more expensive depending on the type of interment, marker, service, etc. (Visit the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement for a list of local pet cemeteries and crematoria). And of course technology has provided even more unusual ways of keeping a lost loved one close by. Having a pet freeze-dried generally costs between $350-$3,000 and can produce uncannily lifelike results as evidenced by the photos at Pet-AnimalPreservation.com. But perhaps the most rarified way to remember Rover might be having 1-2 tablespoons of his cremated remains transformed into a natural Zircon by Pet-Gems.com. Unset, shaped, and faceted stones range from $275 to $350.
These last options may seem extreme, especially to non-pet owners. But as anyone who's ever cuddled up with a kitten, lounged with a Lab, or even listened to the familiar squeak of a hamster wheel can attest, the love that pets send our way is about as unconditional as it gets, and that's nigh onto priceless. Which is why selecting less-congenitally-plagued, mixed breed animals, feeding them well, keeping them safely leashed or enclosed, and giving them plenty of exercise can prevent the difficult, cost-based decisions that accompany animal illness. As for the hereafter, just how you choose to keep your pet's memory alive is up to you, but most of us will cherish our cost-you-nothing recollections more than anything else.
CHOOSE A VET CAREFULLY Selecting a vet is serious business, so take the time to cull recommendations from trusted friends, make sure that vets you consider are board certified and state licensed, and visit the office or clinic of at least one or two to comparison shop. The waiting and treatment rooms, as well as boarding areas and cages, should be clean and uncrowded, and the demeanor of the staff should be caring and unharried. If possible, bring your pet by for a visit to see how it responds to the doctor and vice versa, and inquire about a variety of possible fees.
NEARBY ISN'T NECESSARILY BEST Don't assume that the vet or animal hospital closest to your home is your best option. Most emergency procedures, from surgery to setting broken bones, are scheduled a day after a pet is first seen, which means that except for the direst situations, traveling to the most qualified vet or facility is better than running to the nearest one.
ASK ABOUT WHAT GOES ON OVERNIGHT Most pet owners assume that a qualified doctor or at least a trained attendant will be on duty when a pet is left at a clinic or vet's office overnight. Sadly, this isn't always the case. If a licensed doctor isn't on the premises your pet may very well be safer at home overnight, so be sure to inquire about post-office-hours care.
SUSS OUT SPECIALISTS Don't assume that your vet, even a trusted one, knows everything about a particular condition from which your pet may suffer. Referrals to specialists should come from your pet's usual doctor, but ask for more than one so you can compare facilities, costs, and bedside manner.
HIT YOUR LOCAL PHARMACY FIRST Believe it or not, the most affordable place to get pet prescriptions filled is at your local pharmacy not your vet's office, and if your vet insists otherwise you may want to start shopping around. Your doctor should also be willing to prescribe cost-cutting generic drugs whenever possible.
COME PREPARED WITH QUESTIONS Don't be afraid to ask if a treatment or medication is needed. For instance, check the list of potentially unnecessary vaccinations at CritterAdvocacy.org before a related visit. Prepare a list of questions about long term costs, complications, drug interactions, if a change in diet might help or exacerbate a problem, if exercise should be limited or increased, etc. The more informed you are, the more able you'll be to ask for and facilitate your pet's care. And if you've got a good vet he or she will appreciate your high level of involvement.