Rising veterinary bills present pet owners with a painful choice
When an animal gets sick, owner faces dilemma: Pay thousands in pet health care or forgo treatment
By Josh Noel Tribune reporter
July 25, 2009
When Teresa turned sluggish and started wearing out her litter box four years ago, Rich and Cheryl Mealle brought their black, short-haired cat to the vet. The news was bad.Though just 4, Teresa suffered from advanced kidney failure. The one hope: a kidney transplant at the University of Wisconsin's veterinary school in Madison.The Mealles had the means to pay for the procedure, even if it meant living without a new car or postponing their oft-discussed trip to Italy for another year. But the Naperville couple wondered whether it was right to spend so much money on a cat -- especially with so much human suffering in the world.Such is the quandary of today's pet ownership. Veterinary care has become the fastest-growing sector of the pet industry, and its spiraling costs have left pet owners with increasingly expensive animals and tough decisions that previous generations never faced.
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"There were heart-wrenching questions," said Cheryl Mealle, 40, a physical therapist. "But my husband and I have not been blessed with children. God gives you other things to take care of, and we felt we had a responsibility to take care of her to the best ability we could."Fourteen thousand dollars later, Teresa was healthy again. The Mealles also came away with another cat: As part of the agreement with the university, they adopted the donor cat, which had been raised by a private company for organ harvesting or medical research.Not everyone can sign up for expensive pet care. After dropping $1,500 to have a malignant tumor removed from Misty, their 2-year-old beagle, Mike and Cindy Santay of Downers Grove opted against the follow-up $5,000 radiation treatments. Their three children attend private school, and they couldn't justify the expense."The first thing was the money," said Cindy Santay, 46.Added her husband: "A dog is a good companion, but it's not like our family couldn't go on without her."The Santays, first-time dog owners, have been lucky; a year later, Misty is doing fine without the radiation. But her illness was a jarring introduction to the increasingly high stakes of pet ownership. Fueled by an ever-growing slate of veterinary services -- from oncology to organ transplants to, yes, CAT scans -- vet care spending will reach an estimated $12.2 billion in 2009, up from $11.1 billion in 2008, according to the American Pet Products Association.The average dog or cat owner spends about $200 annually on vet visits, according to The Humane Society of the United States. But whether to fork over thousands of dollars more because Fluffy ate a bag of rubber bands can be complicated by factors such as the wobbly economy and the fact that unlike human medical care, pet care is usually paid out of pocket.Jacque Green of the Responsible Pet Owners Alliance, based in San Antonio, said she gets dozens of calls per week from desperate pet owners who say they can't afford their vet bills."I tell them the only thing they can do is ask their vet and see if they'll work with them," she said. "If not, call the vets around town and see if they'll work with you. That's all you can do."Veterinarians say their jobs have become more difficult, especially recently. Because of economic factors, pet owners are waiting longer to bring in their animals for visits, sometimes despite signs of illness, and conversations about finances are getting sharper."Cost is a huge part of the job I wasn't expecting and never wanted," said Amy Ujiki, 32, a veterinarian at Family Pet Animal Hospitalon the North Side, which solicits donations at the front counter for pet owners who struggle to afford care. "I'm not a business person, and I didn't go into this business to discuss finances."Ideally, Ujiki said, she'll run baseline blood work when diagnosing an ailment, but where a human doctor can run such a test as standard procedure, knowing that insurance will cover the costs, pet owners are increasingly balking."Some people are -- and I don't know where it comes from -- they're skeptical of veterinarians. If I offer blood work as part of our protocol, there are some clients that say, 'Why would I do that?' " Ujiki said. "We're having those conversations more and more frequently."Industry observers say there are likely some vets who are overanxious, resulting in more tests -- but so are some people doctors. A good vet will be forthright and open about costs, so ask questions, said Sharon Granskog of the American Veterinary Medical Association."With veterinary medicine, it's always been difficult because there's a lot that veterinarians can do for pets, but it is costly," she said. "It's important to talk with your vet about what tests they want to run and what they hope to accomplish."The cost spike has made pet insurance increasingly popular. The number of pet insurance policies in North America grew from 610,000 in 2005 to 850,000 in 2007, according to figures in a study commissioned by the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues. Policies can run from the low hundreds to thousands per year depending on the breed, age and sex of the animal.Christine Merle, an Indianapolis-based veterinary consultant and co-author of the study, said the policies should be thought of as more akin to car insurance than human health insurance: You're hedging your bets against paying out of pocket should catastrophe strike."It's like indemnity insurance," Merle said. "For individuals looking at how to reduce the cost of vet care, especially the accident and illness side, and who don't want to have to make a financial decision, it can be useful. Is it for everyone? No."Several vets said the backup plan for people without pet insurance is usually a service such as CareCredit, an emergency credit service for medical procedures, both human and pet.CareCredit -- and raiding her condominium fund -- is how Jessica Weiss, 27, of Evanston saved her cat, Oscar, two years ago after she noticed he hadn't eaten for three days. An X-ray showed his stomach full of the elastic hair bands Weiss used. She didn't hesitate to spend $800 for the surgery, but Oscar didn't respond well to the anesthesia, sending him to an incubator and ventilator for five days. She ended up spending more than $4,000 -- $2,800 coming from the condo fund and $1,500 from CareCredit. She's still saving for that condo, but without regret."I always knew I would pay it," Weiss said. "Everyone at my work said they wouldn't have done it. They said, 'It's just a cat!' I don't pay them a lot of mind. I tell them he's my family and that's what you do."Though not always. When her large goldfish of eight years, Bernard, developed a tumor on its eye, the vet told Weiss the growth could be removed and the fish kept alive with twice-daily shots to the eye socket.The fish's advanced age and her own squeamishness about sticking a needle in Bernard's eye led Weiss to have the fish put to sleep. It cost $firstname.lastname@example.org