washingtonpost.com
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
As medicine enables pets to live longer, costs add up.

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.

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."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company