The Difficult Task of Putting a Price on Our Pet’s Health

Winston

Winston is due for more sessions.

She said this with a smile.

Do you want to buy a package?

I was flustered. I didn’t want to buy a package. I didn’t want to be spending thousands of dollars on another round of physical therapy for my five-pound Pomeranian.

Sure, uhh, How many sessions do we usually buy?

Let me take a look here … six.

I asked how much that would be.

One thousand, fifty.

She paused. I nodded.

Great. I’ll run it through.

She said this with a smile, a smile that made me wonder if she thought she’d said “Free.”

We call our little guy, Winston, our Problem Child, our Money Pit. As a puppy he broke his leg roughhousing with my brother. Seven grand later he’d undergone emergency surgery, had metal plates implanted into his leg, and was healing in a hard cast. During this time he also suffered from seizures, and despite the money we spent and the vets we visited, we never figured out why. He grew out of the seizures.

Our female Pomeranian, Luda, was a healthy pup and a pretty good-looking specimen, despite her bulldoggedly bowed legs. When she was about three she had knee surgery to correct her luxating patella, a common problem with Pomeranians, we were told. A few thousand dollars later she was back at it, jumping on the couch and tearing down the sidewalk. When our vet suggested that Winston undergo the same surgery three years later we thought: another expense, but a worthwhile one. Only Winston healed but stubbornly refused to use his leg. He kept it bent up off the ground as he walked. Weeks passed. Months. Our vet reported to the surgeon, who claimed surgery had gone well, so why then, we wondered, did our attempts to correct Winston’s discomfort result in him no longer using his hind leg. I felt like the worst kind of mother. I was angry with the vets who weren’t helping us, and myself for agreeing to surgery in the first place.

So that’s how we were referred to Dr. A, the rehab specialist. And that’s how we spent upwards of $3,000 last summer taking Winston to his weekly rehab appointments. We took a break in winter, and not only did his hind leg get worse, but his front leg, the one with the metal plates, started twisting in an odd way.

Now back in weekly rehab sessions, he was fitted last month for a state-of-the-art leg brace that cost another thousand, on top of his cocktail of daily medications and supplements: codeine for the pain, an anti-inflammatory called Rimadyl, Metacam, fish oil, Dasaquin, and now two new ones, one injectable and another chicken-flavored Amantadine, being delivered this evening. The doctor adds the medications, we give the reluctant okay after once-again reviewing the list of all his other medications, and they run our credit cards.

Somewhere between Winston’s broken puppy leg and his patella surgery, pet insurance grew in popularity. We got on board too late. Full coverage for dogs can, depending on the breed, run under $50 a month.

Last fall Luda vomited for days on end, and we noticed a growth on her foot. We rushed to buy Trupanion pet insurance, but a week later our vet verified our fears: Luda had Cancer. We were referred to an oncologist and rejected by our insurance plan. This appeared to be a pre-existing condition, they explained, and besides, we were still within the 30-day window during which they wouldn’t cover us. By now both of our dogs had pre-existing conditions that were continuing to grow to be a financial obligation.

Oh Luda, you’re so perfect.

My wife sang to her as she filled a syringe with Winston’s chicken-flavored codeine.

Well, aside from your $10,000 cancer scare.

I laughed. The surgery and vet bills had not cost quite that, but they grew close. After Luda was cleared and her oncologist explained to us that there was an experimental drug called Palladia that we could try for six months, we were cautious. He told us the drug might not be necessary, and that it would cost us around $5,000. I asked him point blank: If she were your dog, would you do it? He wasn’t sure. We declined the drug, knowing that if she was screened for cancer in the next quarter and the cells were discovered, we would feel terrible. We’d finally put a price on our love for our dogs.

A friend, who doesn’t particularly like dogs, tells me a story. Her childhood friend Jackie lives in my neighborhood with her husband and their two Cavaliers. One night one of the dogs was ill, maybe it was seizures, or shortness of breath—something was definitely wrong. They raced their dog to the same hospital where Winston goes for rehab. The doctors worked on the animal. The couple remained there all night, and eventually cost came up.

Suddenly they were presenting me with these numbers; if you love your dog this much, this is what you get, if you love her this much, which is an added thousand, then this is what you get, and on and on. I felt like these people were judging me, asking me how much I love my dog. Did we love her enough to go thousands of dollars into debt?

This is essentially what Jackie told my friend, the one who doesn’t particularly like dogs, and she laughed as she reported it to me, laughed at how ludicrous it all is. But I understood, as a pet owner, a dog lover, that we are responsible for these little guys, that we want to throw credit cards around and tell them to do anything and everything to maintain our animal’s quality of life. But most of us can’t.

Dr. A suggested Winston continue rehab twice a week. Like with the Palladia, we’ve had to put a cap on this. We cannot afford twice a week rehab, and we cannot afford rehab for the rest of his life. He’s only seven. Pomeranians can live to be around 17. I cannot go back in time and undo the damage, but I worry about what his life will be like, how long it will be, and how sad we will be when we lose our little Pommies.

I tell my wife we have only ourselves to blame, that we should have bought pet insurance years ago, that we should have found a better surgeon for Winston’s knee, that we should have taken better care of him. Old ladies stop me on the street in my neighborhood:

What’s wrong with his leg?

They burble. Some think I haven’t noticed.

Something’s wrong with your dog’s leg.

They think they are the first to bring this to my attention. I explain. They tell me they had a Pomeranian once, best dog in the world, lived to be 18. A champion, some say. One woman produces a stack of photos from her handbag: Her dog among the newly blossomed spring tulips.

I keep the conversations short. I don’t mention that Winston is famous at rehab. I bring him in the mornings.

I’m in ripped jeans, an old tee shirt, my face free of make-up.

Winston, my man, shouts a man I’ve never seen, as a woman emerges from the elevator. She gasps.

Yay, Winston’s here.

They take him inside, tell me they’ll see me in an hour. While I’m getting coffee and reading the paper a few blocks away, Winston is on the underwater treadmill, then Winston is receiving a massage. Sometimes Winston gets laser therapy, warming gel, ice packs. He is coaxed to walk on uneven surfaces scattered with treats. I watch him limp toward me when I pick him up from rehab.

My little Money Pit.

I scoop him up. A second opinion at the hospital has confirmed that Winston needs another surgery. I nudge my wife, “Can we ask your dad for the money?” They tell us this one should be the one, the final one, the one that ends his leg saga. They “seriously suggest” post-surgery rehab. But I’m scared. I swallow hard when they call him “lame.” So instead I think about what the women of the neighborhood will say when he hobbles down the street in his adorably tiny, top of the line OrthoPet carpus leg brace.

What’s wrong with his back leg, and why’s his front leg in a brace?

I’ll want to warn them that dogs are expensive, that insurance is key, but instead I’ll just shrug and say,
Worth every penny.

 

Laura Leigh Abby is a freelance writer and blogger at 2Brides2Be.com. She lives in New York City with her wife and their two Pomeranians.

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39 Comments / Post A Comment

Kate (#1,408)

I LOVE (love, love, love) my pets but this is so many thousands of dollars that my mind is a little boggled.

CaitlinChats (#7,168)

My dog is having knee trouble and needs $4,000 surgery on one knee and likely will need it on the other knee down the road. My vet acted like this was the only option and we’d be crazy not to get her the surgery (she’s only six). It’s way too much money for us to spend right now, but at the same time, this is not a life threatening illness, so the other option is for her to be uncomfortable for the rest of her life? It’s very hard. Oh, and the painkillers or anti-inflammatories we have her on now are costing us about $100 a month and that’s not nothing. :/

erinep (#4,236)

@CaitlinChats I am so sorry about your pup – it is so hard to see them in pain. Is it luxating patella? My dog had that about eight weeks ago now. It was a few weeks before we got him into the vet for diagnosis and then he had to wait 5 weeks for surgery and he was clearly in pain towards the surgery date. I’m not sure what else you can do -our local pet shop suggested the homeopathic chiropractic vet and even they told us there’s not really an alternative once it hits grade 3. Then it just makes the other leg worse more quickly.

Also – on what planet does a doggie dose of anti-inflammatory cost that much? Is it something you can get at a people pharmacy? Costco has a lot of canine meds and while it’s cheaper if you’re a member, you can still get meds from them without being a member and it’ll still be way cheaper than the vet. We save 75% on one of his drugs over the vet’s office.

Finally, look into Care Credit for the surgery. We have 0% interest for 6 months, and after pet insurance, we have a manageable balance that we can pay off over 6 months. I can’t remember which commenter tipped me off to it, but they have to run the whole balance at once otherwise you’re have “two” balances with two different interest rates. We were supposed to pay a deposit the first day (when he got his confirming x rays) and then the rest on check out but the woman checking us out also knew this secret and swiped it the second day. And check with the provider you go to – ours only has 6 months at 0%, but some providers offer 18 months at 0%.

CaitlinChats (#7,168)

@erinep Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. My dog has cruciate tears, degenerative, apparently. I do need to look into cheaper alternatives for her medication. One is a narcotic which makes it more difficult to get elsewhere. And, I will look at Credit Care, thanks!

erinep (#4,236)

@CaitlinChats ooooh that stinks. They thought he might have cruciate tears in addition to luxating patella but he didn’t. He’s on people narcotics for his seizures and we get them at Costco. We used to get them at Walgreens and they were twice as expensive there. If there’s a generic there is a way! Good luck!

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

@CaitlinChats Recent survivor of my dog’s cruciate surgery reporting for sympathy! I’m assuming since you mention the 4K the vet nixed extracapsular and is insisting on the TPLO? Ugh. I got lucky; since my pup is 11 and pretty sedentary the vet okayed the extracapsular, so it was only (ha ha “only”) $1500. Is getting a second opinion an option at all? Especially if you’re going to have to do another one down the line, it’s not an insignificant price difference.

Money aside it is sad to see your buddy hurting/having mobility issues; mine is using her back leg about 30% of the time now but I’m about to start her on PT that (thank god) costs about 1/2 what the author of this piece was quoted, yay not living in NYC, I guess? Hopefully she’ll be back to herself soon.

As a heads-up, if it’s Tramadol that yours is on, the vet just told me that it’s about to be reclassified as a…something harder to get, and is going to go up in price accordingly. So, seconding @erinep that it might be worth shopping around.

erinep (#4,236)

@BillfoldMonkey Wait whaaaat to the tramadol? Buster is on diazepam (valium) for anxiety. Like legit anxiety, likely a combo of his past life before we adopted him and a 2 month string of seizure clusters last summer. We get that for $5.50 for 45 10mg pills that last almost 2 months. He gets a half tramadol with it when we get home from work because he’s extra spazzy then and the diazepam only makes it worse. We get that from costco too for about $6 and it lasts two months too. We were getting it at the vet for $15. He’s on phenobarbital (Don Draper’s sedative of choice) for seizures and that is the one that fluctuates. It’s $21 a month now, but it was up to $35 a few months ago. Everything is twice as much as Walgreens.

The surgeons (at a different practice than our vet) told us that tramadol isn’t the most effective for these kinds of things as we had upped his dosage while he was in pain, and sent us home with extra strength doggie ibuprofen.

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

@Erinep Haaaa oh god my vet charged me $14 for 14 pills of tramadol (although likely a higher dose than Buster’s, Bailey is 50 lbs). Shop around indeed. Gotta say, though, it was $14 of WORTH IT; it made her so chill and snugly that week! I secretly wish she was on it all the time.

I don’t know much more about the price increase but the reclassification is happening as of August 18, so reorder now if you can! http://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/fed_regs/rules/2014/fr0702.htm

CaitlinChats (#7,168)

@BillfoldMonkey My dog is also a big girl, 70 pounds, so I’m sure that accounts for some of the cost. Tramadol is indeed her drug of choice. The thought of it going up in price is scary. I will definitely check Costco, as my mom has a membership there. Also, I do need to get some second opinions. I plan to shop around with her x-rays since I wasn’t a big fan of this vet who acted like I was some kind of monster for thinking perhaps a $4,000 surgery wasn’t in my girl’s future. I really appreciate all the insight and concern.

morecakeplease (#6,311)

@CaitlinChats My 8-year-old beagle just had the TPLO surgery on both hind legs (80% tears in both). It ended up costing around $4,000. There was definitely a cost savings to getting them both done at the same time (you only pay for anesthesia once!), plus you only have to go through the long process of rehab once.

The vet gave us a booklet with detailed instructions for how to perform 10 weeks of (free!) at-home physical therapy. It worked like a dream – she is back to full use of her legs and is as active as a puppy again. It was a tough decision (especially since we’d just spent $5,000 the previous year for “exploratory surgery” that resulted in the removal of her gall bladder) but totally worth the money to see her not limping in pain anymore.

Good luck! I hope everything works out in a way that gets your pup up and about again, without breaking the bank!

erinep (#4,236)

@BillfoldMonkey We just refilled on Saturday! I wonder if it’ll go into the phenobarb level of cost, about $20 a pop? I think he gets the 50mg pills but only takes half at a time and a bottle lasts two months.

erinep (#4,236)

@morecakeplease Holy crap both legs at once?! Good on you for the patience it undoubtedly took to do all that work with her. We are at the end of week eight and yesterday he got his “swagger” back. He really misses his toys – the jumping and shaking and throttling – and he has his follow up Xray on Monday so I am hoping they’ll give him the go ahead to resume some of his fun stuff.

grobel (#3,631)

I loved this! Hope your dogs stay happy and healthy (at hopefully low expense)!

erinep (#4,236)

OMG your dog has THAT much PT and it costs THAT much and it’s taken them this long to “figure it out” that he’ll supposedly be fine after this surgery? Second opinion. It sounds like they are perfectly happy to have him keep coming back as long as you’ll shell out. And that luxating patella surgery must not have gone as well as they claim it did if he won’t use it. My pup is finishing week eight and got his swagger back – no limp – just this morning.

also, while I appreciate when our vet shows us low end-high end, I too get the vibe of “if you care, you’ll go high end”.

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

@erinep Agree. Second opinion for sure.

Oof. It escalates so quickly with pets. I somehow managed to get in a pickle with my guinea pig, and thousands of dollars of vet bills later found myself staring at this little smelly, furry potato that I had gotten for $35 and wondering where I went wrong. It is so hard to draw the line in the sand and say, this is the point at which my love for you does not outweigh my desire to pay other bills.

potatopotato (#5,255)

@bowtiesarecool: I too have guinea pigs. Part of my savings cushion is earmarked for them. I lost one of my girls about a year ago, and she ripped my heart out when she died. I took her to multiple vets, all of whom insisted there was something wrong with her teeth, that’s why she was losing muscle mass, and they wanted to knock her out and sand her teeth down one more time, or maybe the others were keeping her from eating… We never figured out what it was. I’ll always wonder.

Since then the remaining two (rescues, but we think about 6yo?) are getting lumpy. Ask me again when I’m calling for an emergency appointment, but I keep telling myself that next time around, I’ll just let them go peacefully and not put them through ridiculous $$$ procedures.

#teamfurrypotato<3

garli (#4,150)

So I’m not a dog but is there any way you can remove the metal? Drs (vets too I guess) will look you in the eye and tell you that you can’t feel the metal in your body but none of them have metal in their bodies. I had a metal plate on my tibia that hurt or just felt weird every second of every day and my life was made 100 times better when I had it removed.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@garli “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

garli (#4,150)

@Lily Rowan Woof.

Thursty (#7,023)

This is so expensive! I feel like it’s a really emotional decision and clearly I am not ready for a pet, because I couldn’t go into debt for one.

andnowlights (#2,902)

@Thursty See, I debate with myself about that (I wrote a long comment below about it). I don’t think being willing to go into debt makes you a good pet owner. As long as the pet isn’t actually in pain, I don’t know that there’s much vets can *actually* do to extend the life of a pet that statistically might live only a few more years anyway. However, I’m also one of those people that will always donate to a homeless person cause before a homeless pet cause; my dollars are finite and I value people above pets any day.

Aconite (#6,401)

@andnowlights This is something I think about, too. I love pets and some days I long for one of my own (I pick cat), but I don’t think that I would be willing to get one unless I was well-off enough that I didn’t have to worry about even very large vet bills. I know I would not be willing to go into debt for a pet, and because of that knowledge I don’t have any. There are other very good reasons for not having one (I travel a lot; I live in a small flat and don’t like the idea of house cats) but the money is the overwhelming reason. I don’t think it makes me a non-animal person, I just don’t want to be responsible for an animal I can’t take care of to the extent that I’d want to. I see it as being equal to not getting a dog if you haven’t got the space. Incidentally we had lots of pets when I was a child and my parents must have spent a fortune on vet bills – they were also very strict about having the appropriate environment (i.e. guinea pigs were only allowed if they had a vast amount of run space plus a hutch).

guenna77 (#856)

my parents wouldn’t let us have pets for a long while. finally around middle school when my friend’s gerbil had babies, i was allowed to adopt one of them. being a pretty solitary introvert, i spent more time with the gerbil than anyone human. one night while they were out she crawled into the gears of a recliner and got cut on her head, badly enough that her tiny eye swelled shut. i called my parents at their friends house, bawling, afraid my best friend was going to die. they came home right away and took her straight to the emergency vet. she came back with a single stitch in the top of her head. she was so small, that’s all that would fit. it didn’t dawn on me until i was older that they must have spent a fair chunk of money on emergency stitches for a rodent, just to make me happy. they told me later she’d bitten the vet hard. but my parents never mentioned the cost.

womb bat (#3,498)

Does anyone have any recommendations for pet insurance? We recently adopted a 5 year old lab and I’m a bit freaked out after reading this.

erinep (#4,236)

@womb bat We have ASPCA Pet Insurance. Our dog has *pre-existing conditions* – epilepsy and hypothyroidism and at the time was 7 years old, so they would only give him accident coverage. Which worked out for us because he fell off the bed and hurt his knee and they covered $1500 of the $2700 surgery. But the claim for was actually pretty easy to fill out. It’s about $16/month for him with a $100 deductible.

garli (#4,150)

@erinep I got trupanion after people I know who used it said good things and the vet’s office recommended that specific company.

clo (#4,196)

@womb bat @womb bat ugh pet insurance is bullshit, i wouldn’t bother. they only pay for preventative stuff and the premiums are more than just paying out of pocket. unless your dog has cancer, i would just take care of them, have them see the vet once a year and you’ll be fine. my 5 year old lab vet costs feel reasonable.

andnowlights (#2,902)

I want a dog like some of my friends want babies, but at the same time, hearing stories like this make me rethink my decision. I’m just not willing to spend thousands of dollars (outside a dog fund that I’d set up with $x amount going in a month) on vet bills, much less go into ANY kind of debt (even those %0 interest vet credit cards). Growing up, pets were not members of the family, they were pets. They were animals. Obviously, we didn’t want them to be in pain, but spending thousands of dollars was an illogical use of money on something that might not survive the procedure anyway. Does this mean that maybe I’m just not a pet person? I’m not sure anymore.

There was an incident in which my parents rushed my parakeet to an emergency vet at 9 PM, but it was more to quell my hysterics than out of concern for the bird (which I’m pretty sure was already dead, now that I’m thinking about it).

garli (#4,150)

@andnowlights I don’t think it means you’re not a pet person. I waited until I owned a house and had enough in my savings that I felt I would want to spent on a pet if it comes up.

At some point you’re putting your animal through needless pain and yourself through expenses for things that might not work and it’s ok to say no to that.

Allison (#4,509)

@andnowlights my family is still in mourning for a dog that passed away in 2009, but even with him my parents weighed “how much will we spend, how much will this add to his quality of life vs just extending it”. That cost-benefit analysis can feel cold, but I honestly think it worked out better for my dog. He just got to be spoiled and happy and barely noticed the tumor growing until he hit a point of needing to be put down at 13.

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

@Allison @garli @andnowlights That quality of life vs extending it question actually helps me feel a ton more capable about making money decisions about my dog. I’ve watched friends run up enormous debt prolonging the life–for several years– of a pet who was clearly just miserable and not living any kind of pleasant life. I am 100000% a pet person and will be more heartbroken than I’ve ever been when it’s time for my little one to go, but part of being a pet person for me is knowing that I won’t make my pet suffer. Which has the parallel benefit of not bankrupting me.

garli (#4,150)

@BillfoldMonkey I mentioned somewhere that good friends of mine are vet techs. They both have final say in the other friend’s dogs treatment. That way there will be an informed opinion about if the treatment is a good idea or not.

For what it’s worth they’re both pretty anti any chemo for dogs ever. Even if it was free.

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

@garli Yes, chemo is on my “I will not do that to her” list. And having an outside evaluator of the situation is a good idea.

CaitlinChats (#7,168)

@garli Yeah, I would never do chemo for my dog. I don’t think not being willing to go into debt for your dog (again, even the 0% interest kind) makes you a bad pet person. My dog was a rescue and even if, heaven forbid, we have to put her down in the next few years instead of spending thousands on treatment, we gave her some really good years in between.

clo (#4,196)

@BillfoldMonkey this is exactly how i feel.

potatopotato (#5,255)

@garli: Any pet owner should have a friend like that.

Susan Tidebeck (#5,691)

Oh, the picture of little Winston in that cast is priceless. Indeed, it is easy to shell out amazing amounts of money for pet care and I have done it. This changed my attitude about pets. Now I consider keeping a pet similar to imprisoning them and I no longer do so. Zoos are strictly avoided.

Aunt Scar (#5,377)

I have a diabetic cat, and he is expensive. Worth it, but expensive. $33/mo for diabetic food. $300 for the expensive human grade insulin that lasts ~5 mos. 2 vet trips with special blood work a year at $200 each. I was figuring out my money and realized I should be saving $150 PER PAYCHECK to cover their costs and fainted.

This did not include fancy Dutch cardboard scratchy houses.

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