Veterinary Care Costs Skyrocket

Pet owners spend billions every year caring for their pets.

June 12, 2009 — -- Until and unless health care reform finally arrives, there's little choice but to grit your teeth and pay up when the doctor's bill arrives. Medical care is simply not an optional expense when it comes to your own health and your family's health.

But what about your pet?

The same things that have driven up the cost of human health care are making some veterinary bills astronomical.

Cutting edge care is available for animal companions, just as it is for humans. But it tends to be pricey.

Americans spent $24 billion on veterinary care in 2006, the most recent year for which reliable statistics are available. That's more than double what they spent a decade earlier.

Even during the recession, many pet owners refuse to treat animal health care as an optional expense.

At The Life Center, a veterinary care center in Leesburg, Va., they have modern diagnostic tools that rival anything you're likely to find at a human hospital -- MRI machines, ultrasound, and, of course, CAT scans for cats.

Little Norma Jean, a Shitzu, wasn't half as nervous as her owner was during a recent cardiology appointment. Norma Jean had suffered heart problems so severe she had to have a stent installed to relieve the pressure in her little chest. This was a follow-up appointment.

Cardiologist William Tyrell performed an ultrasound on Norma Jean using the same machine familiar to anyone who has ever had a pregnancy scan.

The good news was that the dog appeared to be on the road to recovery. The bad news: The overall price tag for her care is liable to be $15,000.

"It has been a traumatic three weeks, but I never lost faith," said Norma Jean's owner, Caryn Jacobs, who was visibly relieved. "I am just so happy. I know I did the right thing."

Veterinarians insist the cost of treating a dog is merely a fraction of what it would cost to treat a human with the same diagnosis.

The diagnostic equipment in pet hospitals tends to be secondhand, bought from human hospitals that have upgraded to newer, more expensive models.

But the prices are staggering. Pet owner Patricia Moore recently spent $9,000 to treat her dog Charlie for a ruptured disk in his spine. Moore's 2-year-old loves the dog.

"I would never forgive myself for not giving him a chance to walk again," said Moore. "I couldn't [have] left him paralyzed. That's just not Charlie."

Most pet owners have no health insurance for their animals. According to veterinarians, 95 percent of people pay out of pocket.

Pet insurance is not necessarily such a great deal, either. Premiums can be high and payouts often are capped. And insurance companies have broader leeway in refusing claims than they would if the patients were human.

For instance, the fact that German shepherds are predisposed to hip dysplasia means most pet insurers would consider that a pre-existing condition.

For a human patient, it's illegal to use genetic predisposition as a reason to deny a claim. For dogs, not so much.

Pet owners have options, though. Euthanasia would be inconceivable -- and illegal -- for human patients suffering from a painful terminal disease.

For pets who suffer, owners sometimes consider euthanasia as the most humane option.

Jacobs would never dream of that. Her dogs are her kids.

"You don't say goodbye," she said. "You don't give up. It is a soul that has been trusted to me."

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