Pets, Vets and Debts

By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 27, 2008

In the bad-luck lottery for pet care, Jennifer Freeman hit the jackpot. Over seven bank-account-draining months two years ago, the D.C. resident's four cats came down with several ailments: urethra blockages, gum disease, constipation (hey, it happens). Before she knew it, Freeman, 31, had forked over more than $11,000 for surgeries and veterinary fees, was buying bottled water and prescription pet food for her feline charges and was wondering just how much more she could take.

"On my end, the cash register was just spinning," Freeman says. "Half of my take-home pay was going to pay vet bills." Upon receiving yet another $1,000 bill for a series of tests and procedures, a sobbing Freeman told her veterinarian that the next time one of her cats got sick, he should put it to sleep, because she couldn't afford it.

"The vet seemed a little stunned," says Freeman, whose cats are alive and mostly well. "I think he didn't think that money was a big consideration for me."

Money, it turns out, is becoming a bigger consideration for almost everyone when it comes to pets. Americans spend an enormous sum on health care for their dogs, cats, birds, fish, ferrets, gerbils, lizards, potbelly pigs and other assorted pets: more than $24.5 billion in 2006 alone, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. (If you're into comparing vast amounts of money, that's greater than the gross domestic product of more than half of the world's countries.) Though care for all pets is included in the figure, the nation's 81.7 million cats and 72 million dogs account for the majority of vet fees.

A generation or two ago, visits to the vet were limited to getting rabies shots and treating the occasional broken leg or bite wound. These days pet owners are offered an alphabet of treatments, from acupuncture, aromatherapy, behavior counseling and chemotherapy to prescription drugs, root canals, surgery and X-rays. Spot, heal thyself, is not an option.

And with veterinarians providing ever more medical solutions for all creatures great and small, owners find themselves having to choose between paying hefty bills and performing the moral and emotional calculus that leads them to decide to put down their pet. Many are finding it increasingly hard to make that choice.

"The human-animal bond has grown so much that people are often willing to spend the money instead of making the very difficult decision to euthanize the animal," says David Kirkpatrick, spokesman for the veterinary association.

Yet although pet owners welcome medical advances that may add months or even years to their animal's life, the associated costs often leave them feeling as if they are being asked to play God.

"There are so many options for people that it can create angst and guilt," says Anne Sweeney, 44, a pet owner who lives in Mount Airy with her husband and three children. "If there's a treatment out there, you feel like you have to do it."

Sweeney speaks from experience. Ally, the family's greyhound, died in 2006 after treatment for a bout with bone cancer that included drugs for pain control, a course of radiation and the eventual amputation of one of her legs. Ally lived for 2 1/2 years from the disease's diagnosis, and Sweeney doesn't regret the steps the family took to keep her alive and control her pain or the approximately $5,000 they incurred in health-care fees. But now a cancerous tumor has been removed from Coach, another of the family's dogs, and Sweeney isn't sure she would take the same treatment path this time if it becomes the only option. The financial implications of doing so certainly would factor into the decision.

"I'm a dog freak. I cry every time I see a commercial showing dogs in the pound," she says. "But I also know my limits. I do think you can go overboard."

The quandary for owners has grown as families have begun to see animals as integral members, says Lorri Greene, a San Diego-based psychologist and the co-author of "Saying Good-Bye to the Pet You Love" (New Harbinger Publications, 2002). And choosing to euthanize a pet can be especially traumatic for owners. "If they are thinking of it [the pet] as a child, it becomes a very difficult decision," she says.

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