Questions About Pet Health Care

Decisions about end-of-life care for pets are heart-wrenching for their owners. That’s even more so now than 10 or 20 years ago because new technology and advances in medical treatments have made their way down to pet care, meaning there are more ways to save or extend your pet’s life. But it also means more expense, if you choose to do so.

Here are some questions to consider.

As a pet owner, am I a bad person if I don’t have the money to do whatever it takes to save or extend my pet’s life?

No, of course not. As long as you’ve given your pet the best life you could, that’s all they ask of you. It certainly is your responsibility as a pet owner to make sure you can provide and pay for basic veterinary care to your animal, along with food, toys, and lots of love. But not everyone can foot the bill for, say, a kidney transplant for their cat, or an amputation for their dog. Could you put it on a credit card? Would that hurt you financially? If you do pay for a high-cost surgery, will you be able to stay with and care for your pet while it recovers at home? You have to make those decisions, in consultation with your vet. But don’t be shy about asking your veterinarian about all the options available to you. You may want to set up a separate savings account, like a pet emergency fund, to prepare for inevitable medical costs for your pet(s).

What if I feel guilty about not going into deep debt to help my pet?

Again, this is a very personal decision that you have to make, and it’s where a pet emergency fund can help make those decisions just a little bit easier. But if you love your pet, and have given it a wonderful life, you have to trust yourself to make the right decision. As we noted in the story, you also need to consider what kind of life your pet would have even if you pay to extend it through extraordinary measures. You also need to factor in what kinds of spending and saving decisions you will have to make if you do go into debt to save your pet. There is no one right answer for anyone. At a certain point, your heart will guide you just as much as your wallet will.

Is there any way to keep veterinary costs down without sacrificing care for my pet?

Yes. The best way, just as with humans, is to keep current with annual checkups, and go to the veterinarian as soon as you think there may be something wrong. It’s always more expensive to treat an illness is advanced stages than it is to keep something from becoming a full-blown crisis.

You should also shop around for veterinary care. Call a few and ask what they charge for a basic exam (that is, to walk in the door). Ask friends who have pets what they pay for checkups and emergency care. Based on an admittedly unscientific survey (my friends), the average cost of an annual checkup in my area of Los Angeles is $50. It may be different where you live, but talking with other pet owners will give you a sense of what to expect. The ASPCA has a good breakdown of pet ownership costs, including medical.

One big medical cost for pets that humans can also relate to is prescription medicine. You can often save money, and avoid a significant markup at the veterinarian’s office, by ordering the medicine online. Or go to a store like Walgreens or Target to have the prescription filled. Target even has a special program called PetRx that includes $4 generics.

Emergency care is another story, though. When your pet is in critical condition, you won’t be in a position to shop around. So look up the pet hospitals nearest you and do some research on your own before something happens to your pet. And never be afraid to ask about cost before your pet is taken away for surgery or any other procedure. For most of us, cost has to be a factor in our decision-making around pet care, and veterinary care providers know that.

How do I decide whether pet insurance is worth it for my animals?

Pet insurance has had a bad rap for years. In its August 2011 issue, Consumer Reports compared three major pet policy providers and found that “only in uncommon cases, when a pet required very expensive care, would the coverage have more than paid for itself.” And those three providers represent 90 percent of the pet insurance market.

That’s because many policies have long lists of exclusions — illnesses the insurers won’t pay for — and most, if not all, do not cover pre-existing conditions or annual checkups. Pet insurance also operates on a reimbursement model, where you pay upfront and then are paid back after filing a claim.

As noted by Consumer Reports, there are exceptions, mostly when you face extreme situations like a kidney transplant or an amputation. In these cases, having pet insurance may make those decisions a little easier since some of the costs will be defrayed. But be sure you read the fine print if you decide to get a policy, because there are limits on how much the insurance company will pay. And you can guarantee the price of your policy will go up each time a pet needs critical care.

Tell us about your experience in dealing with the medical needs of your pet.