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.
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Nine Lives, With the Bills to Match
Pennye Jones-Napier lost her dog Elijah Blue, an Akita husky shepherd mix, to lupus and anal sac cancer last year. He was not a candidate for chemotherapy, so Jones-Napier decided on surgery to remove the tumor in his anal sac. She chose a surgeon in New York renowned for the procedure. Elijah Blue initially seemed to respond well, but weeks later, he fell ill again. Jones-Napier agreed to a second surgery at a D.C. hospital to repair a hole in his bowel and a hernia. He died a month later at the age of 8.
The District resident, who is co-owner of the pet-supply store Big Bad Woof, said she did not regret the first surgery. She is not so sure about the second one. "I thought he might be able to beat it," she said. "In hindsight, I might not do it again. It took a terrible toll on him."
It also took a terrible toll on her finances. All told, Jones-Napier spent about $14,000 for both surgeries plus food supplements. She had enough cash for the first procedure. Not so for the second. "That one really hurt," she said. "I had worked really hard to pay off my credit cards."
Often pet owners are faced with a difficult dilemma: Spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars on a treatment that may or may not work, that may or may not make the animal suffer more, or let go?
Davis, an acupuncturist, had to make that choice with one of her cats. Chuckie was 14 and a diabetic. Then he developed a thyroid problem. Then he started having seizures. He was on all sorts of medications and couldn't walk. "At that point, do you let them go?" she asked. "I did."
He died last summer. "I have limited resources," she said.
But she also had a moral quandary. "It's a balance for every person with their pets," she said. "For some people, it is their lives, and they're willing to do heroic measures they would do for a spouse or child. We just have to be realistic. For other people, it's just probably more like myself, where you give them a great life and share wonderful times and allow them to be the animals they are."
To manage pet costs, Mark A. Collar, chief executive of Collar Financial Strategies in Illinois, suggests stashing at least $50 a month in a U.S. government bond or a fund that invests in Treasurys. Or you can simply set money aside in a savings account, other planners and vets said.
Another option is to pay for pet health insurance. Policies vary in price but typically cost about $30 to $50 a month. Fewer than 4 percent of American pets are insured, according to a study by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association released last year. But the industry is growing, with more than two dozen companies offering plans. According to Consumer Reports, the industry sold $230 million in policies in 2006.
Vets and financial planners warn pet owners to be wary of policies. Many have restrictions, such as not insuring older animals or breeds that are prone to certain ailments. They also do not operate like human health insurance. Typically, the pet owner has to pay the bill upfront and request a reimbursement. "Everybody is different, and pet insurance may not be for everyone," Worth said. "Read the fine print. Understand the exclusions. Understand what the deductible is. Make sure you can go to the vet of your choice."
Gary Jankowski, a real estate agent who lives on Capitol Hill, has no insurance and ended up spending about $15,000 on two operations to treat his miniature dachshund Nico for ruptured disks. The healing process was long and difficult. "I started thinking this is unfair for everyone, owner and pet. I said to myself: 'I am not going to have any more operations. This is too much,' " he said.
He said pet insurance might have helped, but it is too late because his dog is already sick. He thinks more about his finances now as the real estate market struggles and his future income remains unclear. "Last year was a great year in the real estate market, and that helped. I would say this year, it's making me think a little more closely about my spending."
For those with limited financial resources, seeking help from a nonprofit organization is an option. Some, such as the Washington Animal Rescue League, provide low-cost care. "There's a lot of organizations that can offset the cost, but you have to know where to find them," said Boone, the Adams Morgan vet.
There is also plenty you can do to keep your pet from getting seriously ill. The most important thing, Boone and other vets said, is to take your pet in for regular checkups, preferably twice a year.
"The earlier you can detect a problem, one, the better the treatment outcome and two, cost-wise, it may not be as expensive," Boone said. "It's like preventative maintenance for your automobile. If you do those things, you're less likely to have problems."