Kenny Rogers the German Shepherd has a fibrosarcoma, a lump a bit smaller than a golf ball, on his snout. My dog has cancer. My big, handsome baby is dying. The vet says he has three to six months to live.
I found him last year on Memorial Day, wandering, sick. Based on the damage to his ears and the calluses on his body, he was probably neglected and abused for the first eight or so years of his life. He was in and out of the shelter seven times before I picked him up. I didn’t go out looking for this dog. But I found him, no one else wanted him, and I’ve given him a good life. I take him on long walks. I play with him. I give him treats and squeaky toys, and I rub his belly until his legs twitch. I feed him pretty good food, certainly the best I can afford. I’ve cleaned up his diarrhea more times than I care to remember. He has two beds. I let him sit on the couch. I’ve done my best. And now he’s going to die, and I’m worried I can’t do enough.
We found the tumor in January. It was a five paycheck month for me, and knowing that I’d have a little extra at the end of the month, I set aside money to get Kenny’s teeth cleaned. I took him to our usual vet for dental cleaning. They saw the lump on his snout, and that was the beginning of the end. A veterinary surgeon inspected the lump the next morning, and after I explained that I didn’t have thousands of dollars, he backed away from the idea of CT scan and agreed to do fine needle aspiration of the tumor. I spent $538 on Care Credit for the biopsy, and in a panic, I agreed to take on the higher interest, longer-term payment plan. I was prepared to spend more for surgery, so much that I wouldn’t be able to pay it off in six months. But radiation and chemo would be thousands. I knew I couldn’t afford that, even on credit.
In the end it didn’t matter that I couldn’t pay. The biopsy results came back; surgery, radiation, and chemo will not help him, not really. Extremely aggressive surgery and radiation might give him another year. But what kind of year would it be? I want to let him die a happy dog. But I’m also relieved. Knowing that there is nothing that I can do makes me feel better in a way, or at least less guilty. If I go on the internet that good feeling abates. Am I not trying hard enough, not spending enough? Someone on a poorly laid out Geocities page claims to have cured his German Shepherd’s cancer using fish oil. A couple in Minnesota spent $15,000 on surgery and radiation for their dog. Bone marrow transplants and experimental therapies. Maybe I should try a holistic cure? But I don’t have thousands of dollars to throw at this tumor.
In a masochistic move a few days ago, I read old emails I’d sent my friends about Kenny. I originally brought him home as a foster, and one of my friends who found him with me agreed to help pay for some of the associated costs. I brought him home on June 12th, and on June 18th, I wrote my friend that I’d spent $355.12 on Kenny. I felt bad asking for help. It had been less than a week, and I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to be able to give up Kenny that easily. He fit into my life so well. He made me so happy. He seemed grateful for all the love I gave him, and he was so much fun to have around.
I don’t want to tally up the total since then, but I’ll start. I spent $200/month on a dog walker, roughly $35/month on food, maybe an additional $25/month on miscellaneous dog stuff. And while Kenny is a mellow, older dog and not a destructive puppy, he’s eaten several pairs of my underwear and broken a few things that got in the way of his wagging tail. Vet bills never got too out of control. I spent $160 on blood work and roughly $80 on exams when poor old Kenny was having digestive problems and trouble gaining weight, another $80 when he ate a tinfoil wrapped burrito off the sidewalk. I felt a little ridiculous spending eighty bucks for a vet to make my dog throw up, but knowing that he had a physical exam recently and there was no apparent tumor makes me feel better. If I didn’t notice the lump, well, a vet and two vet techs didn’t, either. That lump appeared out of nowhere. So it goes.
There have been other costs. $150 for pet sitting over the holidays, $60 for stairs so that he can get on my bed, $50 for a crate I bought off Craigslist. My dog has been my greatest luxury. I’ve gone from an almost totally unbudgeted, financial idiot to someone with a strict line-item for everything I want and need each month. I’d rather go out less and pay my credit card debt off slowly than not have the love of a dog. I have often questioned this decision. But I have no regrets, not the money I’ve spent, not the heartbreak I feel.
The tumor doesn’t seem to bother him yet, but it will. His wonderful veterinary surgeon has talked to me about the future—about end of life and knowing when it’s time to let him go. The cost benefit pet analysis questions go all the way up to the end. I don’t really want to think about this now, but I’d rather have Kenny put to sleep at home—maybe on his favorite spot on the couch or in his bed—than at the vet’s office. I also know that I will regret not springing for cremation. It would be cheaper to have him euthanized at a vet’s office and cremated with other dogs, but I’d rather spend the money, put it on credit, pay the interest. I am prepared for these end of life costs, but the questions hanging in the back of my mind—Is this really necessary? Can I afford it? Can I not afford it?—make me feel terrible. How much do I love my dog? A million trillion dollars of love. How much money do I have? Not that much. But maybe just enough.
Jordan Kurtzman lives in LA. // photo by Jordan Kurtzman
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