Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article misspelled the names of Mark A. Kollar and the company of which he is chief executive, Kollar Financial Strategies in Illinois.

Nine Lives, With the Bills to Match

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By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

Susan Davis has three cats, two dogs, guinea pigs and a bearded dragon. She estimates that in the past five years, she has spent $10,000 on visits to the veterinarian and on medications. If you throw in vitamins, organic pet food and other items intended to promote a healthy lifestyle for her pets, she has probably spent twice that.

"I try not to look at my credit card bills very often," said the Takoma Park resident. "My strategy is denial. There's vacations I might have taken, but I thought, 'Wow, there's not so much money these days. I wonder where it's going.' "

Here's where some of it went: It cost more than $1,000 to have one dog's stomach pumped after it discovered, and quickly devoured, a pound and a half of raisins, which are toxic to dogs. It costs $400 each time her arthritic Labrador retriever sees a specialist in Pennsylvania. And it cost more than $1,500 to treat her son's bearded dragon for a mysterious ailment that required a hospital stay. "Oh, my gosh, I was horrified," she said.

Health-care expenses are rising, not only for humans but also for their pets. According to the 2007-08 National Pet Owners Survey, 63 percent of U.S. households -- 71.1 million homes -- include a pet. Many of the pet owners are baby boomers no longer burdened with the cost of raising children and are willing to use whatever disposable income they have to increase the quality of life of their furry -- or scaly -- companions. "As we become a more pet-friendly environment, people want to take care of their pets more," said Jerrold Boone, a veterinarian at Adams Morgan Animal Hospital.

Veterinarians and financial planners said that anyone thinking of buying or adopting a pet should consider the potential costs beforehand, especially if they want purebred dogs, which tend to have more health problems than mixed breeds.

"It's not unusual to have bills over $1,000, and that can have a major impact when people are not ready for that," said Anna Worth, a veterinarian in Vermont and president of the American Animal Hospital Association. "Not only do you need to feed and house and water this wonderful new pet in your family but you have to figure out how much it's going to cost to do preventative care each year, and what if something major happens?"

According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, pet owners spent $10.1 billion on veterinary care and $9.8 billion on supplies and over-the-counter medicines last year. The American Veterinary Medical Association found that owners spent $24.5 billion on veterinary medicine in 2006, more than double what they paid 10 years earlier.

One reason for the higher costs is not altogether a bad one. It used to be that a seriously sick animal would have to be euthanized. Now, MRIs, ultrasounds and CAT scans are regularly used to detect illnesses in pets. Heart surgery, kidney transplants, laser surgery and even chemotherapy are among the many viable options. Alternative treatments such as acupuncture are also widely available. And there are more veterinary specialists to handle complicated conditions. With that expertise, however, comes a higher price tag.

"Certainly we have seen an increasing level of sophistication in the last five or 10 years. As we see the bond between pet owners and their pets grow, they are demanding more sophistication," said Ron DeHaven, an officer of the AVMA. "It rivals human medicine."

A pet's health can be as complicated as a human's. Consider this: According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 45 percent of U.S. pets are overweight or obese.

Pets also need more attention these days simply because they are living longer, a result of better preventative care, medicine, vitamins and food. In 1987, about 32 percent of the nation's dogs were over the age of 6. Now, 44 percent have passed that threshold, DeHaven said.

Longevity, however, breeds problems. As is the case with humans, pets' bodies wear out the older they get. And they're not just experiencing the typical aches and pains of old age. They are also developing chronic diseases, such as cancer and diabetes.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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