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Pets, Vets and Debts

In recent months, as the economy has teetered and money has tightened, Greene says she has seen "more and more owners who are feeling guilt" about what they can or can't afford for their pets and "a lot more people who are reluctant to throw extra money around."

Liz and Nick Chandler of Leesburg fell hard for Sadie, the shepherd-Lab mix they rescued seven years ago. But Sadie was also "a money pit from the very beginning," says Liz Chandler, 64. The dog suffered from separation anxiety and had to be taken to a pet day care that started at $300 a month and eventually climbed to $500. There was also obedience training and treatment for heartworms and Lyme disease.

"The bills came in a flash every time she had a little crisis," Chandler says.

In December, Sadie became sick. She was diagnosed with cardiac cancer, and the illness progressed quickly. So did the bills. Overnight hospital stays, ultrasound and blood tests: $2,400; fluid drained from chest and overnight monitoring: $1,100; platelet count check, antibiotics, herbs to jump-start her immune system: $800; ultrasound and fluid analysis: $735.

Cha-ching. Cha-ching. Cha-ching. Cha-ching.

As satisfied as the Chandlers were that Sadie was receiving excellent care, it didn't lessen the financial impact. "It cost a fortune. But we were worried about her and didn't want to think about the money," Chandler says. "This was our child to us." Six weeks of expensive treatment, and Sadie's outlook had only worsened. The couple ultimately decided to euthanize their beloved pet.

The next time the Chandlers adopt a rescue dog (and, yes, they say they want another one), they will take a closer look at potential medical problems and will investigate whether pet insurance is worthwhile.

Veterinarians say that they are offering more options (including treatments previously available only to humans) because pet owners are demanding better care and want more, even if it adds to the cost.

"Consumers are able to seek out the level of care they are comfortable with," says Peter Glassman, a veterinarian and director of the Friendship Hospital for Animals in Tenleytown. "If a pet owner really wants human-level care . . . then it follows that they are going to have to pay for it."

Glassman says that vets have a responsibility to explain choices and treatment options to pet owners but that it's not always possible for them to predict the result of treatments or how much additional care will be required.

"It's not like taking a car in and changing the muffler," he says. But, he adds, pet owners who can spend more on their pets are likely to get better results. "For those who can take advantage of it, the value is there," Glassman says.

Not all of the nation's 83,730 veterinarians, however, think that spending more and more is the answer. Nor are they all pleased with the direction their field is heading in or comfortable with the explosion in pet health-care costs. Perhaps none is more outspoken than James. L Busby, the author of "How to Afford Veterinary Care Without Mortgaging the Kids" (Busby International, 2005) and a Minnesota veterinarian.

"The trouble is that many veterinarians don't give you all of your options, only the most expensive ones," he says. "And they shame you if you don't want to pay for them. They say, 'Don't you want what's best for your dog?' "

Busby insists that vets are over-vaccinating, overtreating and overcharging for their services. He rails against what he says are unnecessary vaccines for Lyme disease and takes vets to task for advocating the maximum care in all instances. He is not exactly Mr. Popularity among his colleagues.

"I'm a lone dog," he says. "I've had three or four vets say good things about me, and the rest of them throw rocks. If I wasn't 68 years old and didn't give a damn, I'd be in a tough spot."

Busby recognizes that most owners don't have enough information about their pets to know when to accept a vet's recommendation and when to challenge it. His book and Web site ( http://www.oldcountryvet.com), he says, give owners "the knowledge to say no to their veterinarians. People have got to say no."

Ultimately, individuals have to sort through the ethical, emotional and economic dimensions of owning pets to determine how much to spend on them -- and when the cost is simply too great.

"The embarrassing answer is that if I had to do it again, I would probably continue to pay," Jennifer Freeman says about treatment for her four cats. "I accepted responsibility for these cats, and some of those responsibilities aren't pleasant. Now, do I have any plans of getting more cats? Absolutely not."


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