Monday, November 14, 2011


For many pet owners, the last several years have provided an almost perfect storm of rising expenses.  On the one hand, the arena of veterinary medicine has been rapidly expanding its capabilities for diagnosis and treatment, which have then led to increasing fees for such services.  On the other hand, many pet owners have either found themselves out of work or with fewer working hours available.  A lot of people that do still have their jobs have found that their wages are not keeping pace with their expenditures.  As a result, many pet owners are having to make uneasy decisions about how and where to spend their money.  Historically, most pet owners will sacrifice something in their life in order to keep their pets healthy and fed.  However, is there a point beyond which that sacrifice cannot go?

Helpful Buckeye will present some background discussion on both sides of this difficult situation, followed by some timely suggestions that might help you make your decisions with a little less uncertainty.

The Rising Costs of Pet Companionship

If Wall Street protesters ever figure out how much is spent on pets, their next protest may be on the edge of the doghouse.

For as cute as Fido or Fluffy may be, they also demand a variety of services that show no sign of getting any cheaper. A recent report from the American Pet Products Association shows that Americans are expected to spend $50 billion on their pets by the end of the year. The amount spent has steadily increased over the past 10 years, with a 5 percent increase from last year.

Mounting pet costs come at a time when many pets are being abandoned and left in the streets. In south-central Idaho, it’s not uncommon to find shelters filled to capacity with abandoned animals.  “Really, it’s the lucky ones getting pampered,” said Debbie Blackwood, director of the Twin Falls Animal Shelter. “It’s alarming the number of owners getting rid of their animals.”

Blackwood said her shelter is filled with abandoned pets that are in need of expensive medical services or high-maintenance grooming. And as more people recover from the recession, she’s also seeing more people ditch their pets because they can no longer afford to feed them.  “A lot of people would love to own a pet but they are completely overwhelmed at how to pay for everything when things get hard,” she said.

Americans may be spending more on their animals because pet health care services are also climbing. The APPA report shows that the average surgical vet visit for a dog costs owners $410 and the regular vet visit costs close to $250.

Dr. Zsigmond Szanto of Twin Falls Veterinary Clinic & Hospital says he sees clients traveling from Boise and Salt Lake City to his office in hopes of finding a better deal.

As pet medical researchers require more money to fund their projects, vet supply companies are required to raise their prices. Veterinarian offices must then pay higher amounts to fill their supply closets and in turn, charge their clients higher rates.  “We may not charge the same as Boise does but we have to pay the same price for the same supplies,” he said. “We’ve been lucky to not raise our rates lately.”

And while payment plans can be an option for some, Szanto says that it’s unrealistic to pretend the vet’s office is similar to a bank.  “Payment plans are tricky,” he said. “We understand emergency situations, but our margin is so small that we can’t give out loans to everyone.”

However, as costs continue to climb, it appears that Americans will continue to spend large amounts on their pets.  “Pet lovers will find the money, they will do whatever it takes because it’s a family member,” Blackwood said. “That’s what you do, sometimes that means you don’t have Christmas but it means you have your family.”

Adapted from:

The Dog Maxed Out My Credit Card

Paying for the health care of pets can be tough for many people who are struggling with other bills.  Pet owners often spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year to keep their furry friends healthy, observes Dr. Debbye Turner Bell, resident veterinarian of "The Early Show" on CBS. And in this economy, especially, they're often forced to make difficult choices....

...Price hikes are also part of an active push by the veterinary industry to improve the bottom line of its practices. Addressing the disparity between rising tuitions and stagnant salaries has been a top priority of the veterinary association, which represents 81,500 vets.

For one New York family, it has been a pricey few years at the doctor's office: Jake was treated for a malignant tumor on his eyelid—for $7,000—and Daisy recently swallowed a rock that cost $3,100 to remove.  Bernese mountain dog Daisy, owned by the Onichimiuk family in Staten Island, N.Y., has recovered after eating a rock.  "It's hard, the money, but they are part of the family," says Agnieszka Onichimiuk, whose family lives in Staten Island with their two Bernese mountain dogs.

Pet owners are feeling sticker shock at the vet. The average household in the U.S. spent $655 on routine doctor and surgical visits for dogs last year, up 47% from a decade ago, according to the American Pet Products Association. Expenditures for cats soared 73% over the same time frame—on pace with human health-care cost increases. Expenditures for people in the U.S. were up 76.7% between 1999 and 2009, according to the U. S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

More advanced-care options in areas such as ophthalmology as well as treatment of conditions such as cancer are driving up costs for owners, as well as higher standards for routine care.

"All of the innovations on the human side [of medicine] have come on over to the vet side, from MRIs and CAT scans to chemo and radiation," says Dennis Drent, president and CEO of Veterinary Pet Insurance Co.  Last year, VPI policyholders submitted 51,927 claims costing more than $1,000, up 64% from four years earlier. The average annual payout per pet for cancer therapy rose 14% to $2,821.16 last year, according to insurance provider Petplan.

"Prices have gone up much quicker in the last 10 years than in the past 30 years, and it's hitting consumers in the face," says René Carlson, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "Liability-wise, we now get in much more trouble if we've cut corners" on routine matters, she adds. That often translates into more X-rays, more blood work and other tests.

There are about 165 million pet dogs and cats in the U.S. When asked how much they'd spend to save their pet's life, 70% of owners said "any amount," according to a 2006 survey of 5,200 VPI policyholders.

Ms. Onichimiuk, a 33-year-old physician's assistant, and her husband doled out thousands of dollars on oncology treatments, X-rays, medications and lab work trying to keep Jake, their 5½-year-old dog, alive. After he died, she says, "I couldn't imagine losing another dog," so the couple spent whatever it took to save 2½-year-old Daisy after her rock-eating episode.

High student loans and lower salaries than other advanced-degree professions, such as dentistry and law, are putting pressure on vets to raise fees. The average 2010 graduate of a U.S. veterinary college earned a starting salary of $67,359 in private practice but carried roughly double that in debt, according to a study this year by Bayer AG's Animal Health Division.

Higher fees create a separate issue: People tend to take their pets to the vet less, according to the Bayer report, which can lead to costlier long-term health problems if ailments are left untreated.  To discourage such behavior, more vets offer or participate in third-party discount plans that for a monthly fee give pet owners price cuts on treatments or perks, such as unlimited office visits.

One is Pet Assure Corp., a Lakewood, N.J., company that sells discount plans to consumers who then receive savings at participating vets. The plans offer an average 25% discount on most procedures for $7.95 to $13.95 a month, depending on the type and number of animals covered. Pet Assure has signed up 1,700 clinics and 300,000 pets since its 1995 launch, according to Charles Nebenzahl, chief executive.  Rick Katz in Overland Park, Kan., saved almost $200 on an $800 bill through Pet Assure when Max the Wonder Dog, his 14-year-old black Labrador-golden retriever mix, suffered a seizure eight months ago. "We brought him to the vet and had that all-important question you have with pets, which is, 'How far do you go?' " Mr. Katz says. "The vet said he still had life in him, so we went and had him treated." Of the savings, he says, "It's a big deal. It adds up."

..."The human-animal bond is stronger than it's ever been," says Dr. Rene Carlson, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "And so people are really attached to their pets, and they want the best quality care for them"

The average cost of veterinary services and surgery for a dog in 2010 was $655 -- a 47 percent increase since 2000. Vet costs for cats rose 73 percent in the last decade, to $644.

"Veterinary care is expensive," admits Dr. Jennifer Welser, medical director of Bluepearl Veterinary Partners, which has locations in six states, " ... (but) everything is at our fingertips."

More and more veterinary clinics like the Bluepearl veterinary hospital in Manhattan can offer CT scans, MRIs that can image the entire body, complex surgeries, even radiation and chemotherapy.

"Pet owners are definitely willing to go that extra step for their pet," says Welser, "and we can offer it now...."

Other plans are designed to encourage owners not to skimp on preventive care. Enrollment in the "Optimum Wellness Plans" has jumped 15% over the past five years at Banfield Pet Hospital, a chain with 780 offices that is a unit of Mars Inc., the candy manufacturer that makes Pedigree and Whiskas pet foods. Pet owners pay on average between $17.95 and $49.95 a month for adult animals. They receive unlimited free office visits, vaccinations, heartworm tests, two comprehensive exams, annual blood work and in some cases dental cleaning, X-rays and more.  "We're trying to avoid the long-term illnesses," says Harry Smith, a South Carolina veterinarian and a medical director for Banfield. For clients not on the company's plan, dogs averaged 1.4 visits last year, versus almost three visits for those on the plan.

Sandra Fain of Kingwood, Texas, keeps her three pets on Banfield's Wellness plan, including six-year-old JoJo, a Maltese. Without the plan, she says she couldn't give her pets "the kind of care they've been getting." That included a $1,500 surgery discounted from $2,500 to repair JoJo's torn ligament and dislocated kneecap earlier this fall. Amputation was the other, cheaper, alternative, she says.

"But that's my baby, and I wouldn't just cut off his leg, the same way I wouldn't with a child," Ms. Fain. "Pets need just as much as humans do."

...The best way to keep vet costs down is preventive care, but every pet owner should understand that having a pet is a responsibility -- and that includes providing proper medical care when the need arises....

Adapted from: and

In addition to depicting another situation in which a pet owner runs into unexpected expenses, this article starts you in the direction of working your way through those unexpected veterinary bills:

Pet debt: How animals cost you: Steps pet owners can take to avoid excessive pet care debt

By Erica Sandberg

If only all our beloved pets were as lucky as former hotel magnate Leona Helmsley's Maltese, Trouble. Bequeathed millions after Helmsley's death in 2007, Trouble passed away in December 2010 after living in the lap of luxury. Vet bills? No problem. Round-the-clock care? Covered.

It's the rest of us bourgeois pet owners who routinely fall into debt as we struggle to pay for the care and feeding of our beloved furry, feathered or other nonhuman friends. And this upkeep can sometimes push us over the edge financially.

Upkeep versus over-keep

The real cost of a pet just begins at acquisition. In fact, Americans spend vast sums keeping their animals happy and healthy. The American Pet Products Association estimates that U.S. citizens will drop more than $50 billion on them in 2011, a figure which includes food, supplies, over-the-counter medicine, veterinary care, grooming and boarding.

"I think one of the most important things people forget is how to be a knowledgeable consumer," says Chicago based veterinarian Bruce Silverman. "After working in a huge number of [pet] hospitals, I've seen fees for services, medications and products vary all over the board."

Lynn Edwards, owner of Dirty Dogs Pet Services in Highland, N.Y., has observed the spending habits of pet owners for more than 14 years and notes that some owners go to selfless extremes. "People will give up something like taking their families to a movie or getting their own hair done so that they can get their dog groomed," says Edwards. "People will actually cook for their dogs or buy them a special diet to keep them healthy when they can't afford it."

Prepare for daunting veterinary bills

Of all the expenses that go into caring for an animal, it's the unexpected medical procedures that can derail a budget the fastest. Romping with Fido? A pet's torn knee ligament costs an average of $1,578, says a June 2011 analysis of claims filed with Veterinary Pet Insurance Co., which insures 485,000 pets in the United States and compiled a list of the 10 most-expensive pet injuries.

To get the best care, many pet owners sacrifice their financial stability. For example, Betsy Lampe of Highland City, Fla., says she willingly went into debt to pay for her dog Cheech's renal disease treatment, even while struggling with her own medical bills from her kidney cancer. "My efforts kept him alive for almost two years after diagnosis," says Lampe. "He lived to be 14." Her costs included Cheech's regular erythropoietin shots, which were $70 each, expensive lab work to assess his anemia and kidney function, and a constant stream of vet visits for examinations.

And as Tobi Kosanke, owner of Crazy K Farm in Hempstead, Texas, knows, it's not only mammals that can inspire overcharging. "I spent nearly $4,000 on the chicken love of my life," says Kosanke of her bird Lucy, who was ill and needed several exploratory surgeries to determine what was wrong. She had a specialist flown in, and his bill alone was $2,600. "Would I do it again?" asks Kosanke. "For Lucy, yes. I do not regret spending the money. I only wish she had survived. I am still paying down that credit card debt."

Still, big vet bills can be avoided. Silverman asserts that while top dollar can buy great pet health care, comparative shopping makes sense. "Pet care needs to be a team effort between pet owners and their veterinarian. In this way, people may avoid excessive debt," he says.

Pet insurance to the rescue

Kosanke learned from her experience. Today she has pet insurance policies on most of her animals, which runs just $12 per month in premiums per bird. "I have since had two chickens with similar problems to what killed Lucy, and one passed away under anesthesia, but the insurance covered 90 percent of her $800 bill."

Greg McFarlane, author of "Control Your Cash: Making Money Make Sense," is an advocate of these pet wellness plans. "The small monthly investment can save you from getting into big debt if you don't have the savings to cover something as common as a teeth cleaning," says McFarlane, who credits the insurance for saving him nearly $5,000 in pet care bills over the past three years.

According to Dr. Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services at the pet insurance company Petplan, the average premium for a dog is around $30 per month and $17 for a cat. As with all insurance policies, you're hedging your bets. If your animal doesn't need expensive care, you're out the money. But if it does, the benefits can be monumental. "We have clients who have been reimbursed over $40,000 for their pets' health problems," says Benson. "It's simply not realistic to think these families would have been able to stay out of considerable debt -- or even afford the treatments at all -- without pet health insurance."

No insurance? You have alternatives

So what happens if you don't have pet insurance, but you're faced with a large bill that you can't cover with cash? Most veterinarians have partnered with companies that offer no-interest payment plan options.

CareCredit, for instance, offers people a way to pay for vet bills over six to 24 months, finance-charge free. Mind, though, that to qualify you must have good credit and that GE Money Bank (the company offering these credit lines) will assess an annual interest rate of 26.9 percent to the balance if you don't pay in full within the agreed-upon time.

Of course, you can charge the expenses with your credit card, too, and many do. "No one wants to be cheap when it comes to possibly saving a pet's life, and when faced with that choice without an emergency fund there, most pet owners are going to turn to credit cards to plug the hole," says Kelley Long, a Chicago CPA and personal financial coach. If you do charge the bill, delete the balance within a few months to minimize interest from increasing the amount you owe.

Prepare for unexpected pet expenses

Above all else, develop a comprehensive cash flow plan with your pet in mind. Food, regular "wellness visits" to the vet, grooming and even pet-sitting services are easy to predict and need to be budgeted for -- just like one would budget for their own groceries, annual visits to the doctor and dentist, says Long.

Open a separate savings account for your companion's out-of-the-ordinary needs, too. "As far as budgeting for the unexpected illness, accident or even necessary dental cleanings, I advise at least a $500 pet savings fund to help with those times," says Long.

In the end, building the wide spectrum of animal care costs into your budget will go a long way toward avoiding crushing pet debt.

Top 10 most-expensive pet treatments

Condition--Number of claims--Cost per claim

1. Intervertebral disc disease--879--$3,282

2. Stomach torsion / bloat--372--$2,509

3. Ruptured bile duct--102--$2,245

4. Laryngeal paralysis--126--$2,042

5. Intestinal: foreign object--1,005--$1,967

6. Tumor of the throat--124--$1,677

7. Broken leg / plate--350--$1,586

8. Torn knee ligament / cartilage--6,831--$1,578

9. Stomach: foreign object--954--$1,502

10. Ear Canal Surgery Ablation--104--$1,285

Source: VPI Pet Insurance, June 2011 analysis of 14,000 claims submitted by its 485,000 pet insurance policyholders in the U.S.

Adapted from:

As you have just seen, there are some ways to put yourself into a position to be able to deal with unexpected veterinary expenses.  Helpful Buckeye will pursue these and several other methods of watching your pet dollars in next week's issue of Questions On Dogs and Cats.

The Pittsburgh Steelers had to go to Cincinnati this week to play the division-leading Bengals...on the heels of that last minute loss to the Ravens.  The Steelers overcame a good effort by the Bengals to win by 7 points.  Combined with the upset of the Ravens by Seattle, the Steelers are, at least until next Sunday, 1/2 game in front of Baltimore.  Thank you...(for not being sleepless in) Seattle! 

Sorry to say it...Helpful Buckeye came to the conclusion 2 days ago that not only had my calf muscle not regained sufficient strength, but also my stamina hasn't returned to the level to which I am accustomed.  Therefore, the Tour de Tucson 79-mile ride will have to wait until next year.  Needless to say, it hasn't been a very good year for my planned athletic events...the only one completed was the 70-miler to Mormon Lake Village and back.  The other three events of the 2011 Quadathlon had to be canceled due to circumstances beyond my control...or, as I prefer to look at it, they were merely postponed until a later date...hopefully 2012.  Thanks to the many of you who expressed your support for my efforts this understand that those missed opportunities were important to me.  I'll be back....

As our friend, Mark Twain, was fond of saying:  "A man may plan as much as he wants to, but nothing of consequence is likely to come of it until circumstance steps in and takes the matter off his hands."  From:  "The Turning Point of My Life"

~~The goal of this blog is to provide general information and advice to help you be a better pet owner and to have a more rewarding relationship with your pet. This blog does not intend to replace the professional one-on-one care your pet receives from a practicing veterinarian. When in doubt about your pet's health, always visit a veterinarian.~~


  1. You created a great post with excellent information, i learn a lot of stuff from this article.

    Pet sitting Frisco


  2. As human needs regular check ups to there health and in same way the pets also needs regular check up there health. there are many service providers provides the best services of pets health. for more info check .

  3. I've quiet enjoyed the experience of reading your blog so far. Thanks so much for sharing.
    Houston Pet Sitting