Creature Comforts
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/16/2005 12:40:32 PM ET 2005-05-16T16:40:32

If you’ve taken your dog or cat to the veterinarian lately, you may have suffered sticker shock when presented with the bill.

I know I did recently when it cost $172 for my dog’s ear mites: $45 for the office visit, $30 to have the crud in her ears looked at microscopically, $28 to have the vet tech clean out and medicate the ears, and $23 for the medication — plus another $46 in medication for the two dogs at home (ear mites are highly contagious). And my veterinarian runs one of the more moderately priced clinics here in the greater Los Angeles area.

Like everything these days, the cost of veterinary care has increased, fueled not only by rising costs for education (most young veterinarians enter practice with $100,000 or more in student loan debt), land, construction, drugs and staff salaries, but also by improvements in technology and the greater number of procedures that veterinarians can offer. From chemotherapy to MRIs, pets can now receive a level of care comparable to that available to people — and at a fraction of the cost, no matter how much your eyes may bulge when you see the bill.

One of the reasons veterinary expenses may seem high is because people often have health insurance to help defray their own health care costs. If you go to the doctor for strep throat and you have health insurance, you may pay only $10 for the doctor visit and $15 for the medicine to treat it. Without insurance, your cost might be $175 for the doctor visit and $125 for antibiotics.

Is pet health insurance a good buy?
Pet health insurance has been available for many years, but nationwide only about 5 percent of pet owners carry it. Most people can afford the routine costs of pet veterinary care, such as annual exams, vaccinations, one-time spay/neuter surgery, and the occasional ear or urinary tract infection.

It’s when a dog or cat is diagnosed with a serious and costly condition such as cancer or severe hip dysplasia (in which the head of the femur doesn't fit snugly into the hip socket, causing inflammation and sometimes severe arthritis) that requires hip replacement surgery that costs can soar into the thousands of dollars. Even something as relatively simple as a dental cleaning and removing a few teeth can cost up to $850 when you take into account anesthesia, safety monitoring during surgery, and pain meds during and after.

Having pet health insurance can mean the difference between life-saving treatment and the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize a pet because treatment is unaffordable. “Vets hate the ‘it’s-cheaper-to-kill-it-than-treat-it’ dilemma,” says Joanne Howl, a veterinarian in West River, Md.

Nonetheless, pet owners and even some veterinarians have mixed feelings about pet health insurance. Jo Helms of Fox Valley, Wis., has had insurance on her dog Kodi since he was a puppy and describes herself as thrilled with the coverage, especially after having had to pay for the cancer treatment of her Siberian Husky, Grizz, without the benefit of insurance.

But the cost for insurance over an animal’s lifetime can range from $2,000 to $6,000. Not everyone will need to spend that much on veterinary bills throughout a pet’s life, and exclusions for breed-specific conditions can mean that many expenses won’t be reimbursed. Deductibles, caps and other limitations of coverage can also limit reimbursements.

Vanna Condax of Chapel Hill, N.C., purchased insurance for her two Scottish Deerhounds when they were puppies. One of the puppies turned out to have been born with a liver shunt. That condition is known to be a problem in deerhounds and the insurance company excluded it from coverage, so none of the $5,600 in veterinary bills was reimbursed. The second deerhound fractured his pelvis in the coursing field at age 3. At that point, Condax had spent $1,296 on insurance premiums for him. The cost of diagnosis and treatment came to $6,050, but after deductibles and other limitations, she ended up being reimbursed only $112.

Howl says that pet health insurance often restricts the drugs and techniques that can be used in treating a pet, just as HMOs restrict care for people. “Several owners that I have worked with have presented me with their policy, and the drugs chosen per that policy were alright, but not first choice for me,” she says. “I don’t mind starting that way, usually, but there are medical reasons why the pet might need an alternative, non-covered drug. And some covered medical and procedure lists are incredibly restrictive.”

Cutting costs
However you feel about the issue, the good news is that you can take some simple steps to reduce your pet’s veterinary expenses without compromising on care. Preventive medicine is key, starting with the basics of responsible pet ownership.

“We don’t see anywhere near as many animals hit by cars as we used to because of leash laws and people keeping their animals confined to fenced yards, and we don’t see as many complications as far as reproduction is concerned because most people spay and neuter their pets,” says John Hamil of Canyon Animal Hospital in Laguna Beach, Calif., who has been in practice for 37 years.

Some other tips:

  • Feed a high-quality food with meat as the first ingredient, and limit your pet’s intake so he doesn’t get fat. Because the ingredients are more digestible, your pet’s body can use more of the nutrients, and he will actually need to eat less of it than he would a lower quality food, so your wallet benefits too. Keeping weight off helps prevent obesity-related conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.
  • Take your pet in for problems sooner rather than later. “When an animal comes in that has obviously had an ear problem, a skin problem, a dental problem for days, weeks or months, it’s going to be much harder to care for, you’re going to have a poorer result, and the owner is going to have a much greater expense,” Hamil says.
  • If there’s no way your budget could stretch to cover a pet’s catastrophic accident or illness, consider purchasing pet health insurance. Shop around; some plans cover certain congenital and hereditary diseases as long as they aren’t pre-existing conditions (meaning they haven't been diagnosed by the time you purchase the insurance).
  • Start a pet health savings account when your animal is young. Because pets are living longer, thanks to better care and nutrition, the majority of veterinary expenses occur in the last part of life for cancer, kidney disease, heart disease and other geriatric problems, Hamil says.

That’s been the experience of Kathy Diamond Davis of Oklahoma City, Okla. “By putting the money for the insurance premiums into a savings account for each dog during its younger years when expenses are lower, I’ve had that money when it’s most often needed,” she says. “I also have full control of how it’s to be spent, with no insurance company administrative clerk second-guessing me or my vet on what is the best thing to do.”

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

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