Featured in the Knoxville News Sentinel: August 21, 2018
Mabel is the youngest member of our family. She is 8 years old. We love her and she enthusiastically and unconditionally loves us.
She is a dog.
We bought Mabel on Craigslist – she is a 70-pound, mixed-breed. In July, Mabel began having violent seizures. As with many pet owners in a similar situation, we have been faced with difficult decisions about Mabel’s wellness and our finances.
Some people will immediately dismiss what I just wrote: “It’s just a dog, and there aren’t any difficult decisions.”
So, why do I care so deeply?
Human-animal bond, cost of that bond
The human-animal bond is meaningful. Pets provide companionship. They provide joy and entertainment. They teach us, by necessity, responsibility and caregiving skills. And, these days, the family pet has expanded well beyond Fido and Milo to include exotic birds, potbelly pigs, chinchillas, reptiles, rodents and more.
I asked my wife, “Why do you have a pet?” She replied, “I have never not had a pet. From birth on, my family always had pets and livestock.” It’s a lifestyle.
With all that said, how many of us actually do the math of pet health care costs before we purchase a puppy or kitten?
Regular medical care is important for the well-being of your pet. Initial and annual medical exams and vaccinations may cost approximately $100 to $300 per year. To spay or neuter, a dog or cat will cost $150 to $200.
Periodic teeth cleanings can run about $300. With regular care, your veterinarian can identify any potential health problems and help with flea and parasite control.
Even further, how many pet owners actually budget for these costs or the potentially significant expenses of emergency medical care?
According to the Veterinary Pet Insurance Company (VPI), several of the most expensive pet predicaments (based on claim payouts) are:
- Intervertebral disc disease: $3,282;
- Stomach torsion: $2,509;
- Laryngeal paralysis: $2,042;
- Intestinal – foreign object: $1,967;
- Torn knee ligament: $1,578
Around Knoxville, a pet medical emergency will take you to one of several animal emergency hospitals or to the University of Tennessee Small Animal Hospital.
The options, the indecision
Our regular veterinarian referred us to the UT facility after Mabel’s seizures began. We knew she would wind up with anti-seizure medication, but the costly decision was whether or not to figure out “why” she was having seizures.
For our dog’s optimal treatment plan, and our peace of mind, we elected for the diagnostic tests. It was expensive, and unfortunately, inconclusive. We eliminated several possible problems but identified a possible tumor. If our circumstances were replayed, would we follow the same path again?
Having owned multiple dogs and a cat, we sometimes wonder if we should have bought pet insurance a long time ago. Is it really worth it? In talking to friends and colleagues, I generally get mixed reviews.
According to one friend, “I had it on one of my pets years ago, and in the end, it didn’t really cover anything.” A colleague said she reviewed a pet insurance policy but, “When I read it, it really didn’t cover what I thought would be needed down the road.”
Still, it is likely that a pet owner will incur at least one $2,000-plus bill for emergency care at some point during their pet’s life.
It could be argued that purchasing a pet insurance policy makes sense IF you want to insure against an expensive medical emergency. The worst case scenario is that a pet owner can’t afford a critical treatment so they decide to euthanize their pet.
Pet insurance pros, cons
According to a Consumer Report study, for a generally healthy animal, pet insurance may not be worth the cost. In other words, the cost of insurance will probably exceed the cost of routine wellness care. Of course, you might elect to budget for those routine costs in your household spending plan (and yes, you may need to adjust some other expenses to afford owning a pet).
In a report for NBC News.com, Grant Biniasz, former spokesperson for VPI and now Director of Consumer Marketing for Nationwide Pet, said this about pet insurance: “It’s a way to manage risk. If you look at any form of insurance and try to run the numbers, you’re going to find that most people are not going to get back what they pay in premiums. But the people who do are happy they made the investment.”
An alternative is to build an emergency fund for unexpected pet health care costs. It is common to pay $300 to $600 per year or more for pet insurance. So, if you elected to build an emergency savings fund for your pet and added $300 annually, you would accumulate $1,200 after four years.
If you buy pet medical insurance or build a pet emergency fund and don’t need it, be happy for your pet. But with animals living longer these days, your chances of using either resource are greater than ever.
As Dr. Katy Malone Burton of Lange Animal Hospital in West Knoxville notes, “Exotic birds can live for 30 years or more.”
Perhaps with the exception of Toucan Sam, sadly, most pet owners will outlive their pets. Toward the end of their days, we begin to consider their quality of life in making healthcare decisions. Can they still eat, sleep, and move comfortably? Are they in pain? Has their personality changed?
How far to go
Again, I asked my wife how far she wants to go with Mabel’s medical treatment.
She answered with passion.
“I will go pretty deep pockets IF there is humanity in the treatment. But I will stop when it’s talk of brain surgery or something intensive. A round of chemo (with a prior pet) taught me that it lessens their life not saves it.”
Owning a pet is a significant responsibility. It impacts your time, emotions, and financial resources. Thus, it is not a decision to be made on an impulse (read: college students).