Pet Owners Face Rising Health-Care Costs for Animals

By Ramirez, Chris | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, December 19, 2011 | Go to article overview

Pet Owners Face Rising Health-Care Costs for Animals


Ramirez, Chris, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Things were touch-and-go for Vicki Shirley's puppy Buttercup four years ago.

A trip to the vet after a nationwide pet-food scare landed the usually playful golden retriever in the hospital for nearly a week.

Vet bills totaled nearly $1,000.

"It's gone up, that's for sure," Shirley says, referring to medical bills for her dogs.

Food costs often are the greatest expense in caring for a pet, but pricetags for medicine and trips to the vet have gradually climbed in the past 15 years. Pet owners are feeling the sticker shock.

The average U.S. household spent $655 on routine doctor and surgical visits for dogs last year, up 47 percent from a decade ago, according to the American Pet Products Association. Expenditures for cats jumped 73 percent in the same time frame, putting the rate of increase nearly on pace with that of health-care costs for humans.

The rise has sent pet owners clamoring to lower-cost clinics to treat their pets, updating up their pet insurance policies and turning to discount retailers, like 1-800-PET-MEDS, which typically sells medicine at below most pharmacies' pricetags.

Some veterinarians have been willing to work with pet owners by setting up payment plans to cover costs for some surgeries and emergency visits over a longer period.

Shirley, 47, of Avonmore became frantic when Buttercup and Shirley's four other dogs fell violently ill at the same time in March 2007. They were among the thousands of household pets across the nation that were sickened by tainted food that was traced to a food maker in China and touched off a massive recall. A trip to the vet's office followed. Blood tests and a battery of other tests cleared four of Shirley's dogs to go home the same day they were brought in.

Buttercup, then just a puppy, was the sickest and had to stay in the doctor's care to get intravenous treatments and fluids.

The ordeal for Buttercup lasted six days. The final bill was $989.

"Some of these costs we pay are just outrageous, and you wonder how and why that is," says Shirley, who acquired three more dogs since then, bringing to eight the number of dogs she owns. "But what can you do? They're health costs."

Doctors and other experts say while owners are shelling out more cash to treat their dogs, cats and other pets, they're also getting their money's worth. Medicine and treatment techniques have vastly improved in the past decade. And that means more costs to customers.

Several animal hospitals have opened in the Pittsburgh area recently, offering the latest in technology, specialized treatment and 24-hour medical service. Among them are Monroeville Pet Hospital, which opened in July 2007, and the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Clinic in Ohio Township, which began taking patients in June 2008.

"Fifteen years ago, dogs didn't get IVs and blood work. Today, that's standard," says Dr. Lawrence Gerson, founder of Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic and vice chairman of the State Veterinary Board. "Pet owners demand a higher level of quality for their pets. That all costs money."

The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates 72 million dogs and nearly 82 million cats were kept as pets in the United States in 2007. That same year, there were about 850,000 active pet insurance policies, according to the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues.

Kristen Lynch, executive director of the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, says more pet owners have reached out for pet insurance while medicine costs increased, but the trend has trailed off in recent years as the economy began losing steam.

"Pet insurance was affected just the same as other types of insurance were during the recession," she says. …

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