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Pet owners face rising health-care costs for animals

| Monday, Dec. 19, 2011

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.

Monthly premiums for pet insurance can run from $11 to $50, adding up to roughly from $2,000 to $6,000 or more over a pet's lifetime. And some medical procedures for pets can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,500, depending on the severity of the case.

While some experts argue the pros and cons of pet insurance -- the premiums generally are cheaper than most other insurance, but the deductibles seldom, if ever, cover costs of more serious ailments or injuries -- having it makes sense in an emergency, she says.

"In the U.K., Sweden and other parts of the world, people know (pet insurance) is a financial instrument when they need it," Lynch says. "Pet owners in North America are starting to see its not a (return-on-investment) product. If a pet gets ill, they're seeing it's a good thing to have to help with expenses."

In many cases, pets can safely use insurance-covered medicine that is prescribed to humans, even generics.

Jason Hominsky grew concerned when Bindi, the deaf Staffordshire terrier-boxer mix he rescued from a shelter a few years ago, began to show symptoms of anxiety. "She would shake and shiver like she was freezing all the time," he says.

A vet prescribed 20 milligrams of Prozac. Hominsky buys $4 generics for his dog. The symptoms wore off "almost immediately" after Bindi started on the drug.

"Most people get suckered in to believing that large retailers sell quality pet food just because it says 'all natural' or 'top quality.' This could not be more untrue," says Hominsky, 36 of Glenshaw. "I'd prefer not having to do it at all. But since we've done it ... we've pretty much gotten our original dog back."

Pet Poll

Vet visits cost pet owners an average of $505 dollars last year, according to a new poll, with those whose pets faced serious illness spending more than $1,000 on average.

Eight in 10 pet owners took their animal companion to a veterinarian in the past 12 months. And cost was an obstacle for a third of those who did not visit the vet.

The bulk of pet owners faced costs below the average. Sixty percent of those who did take a pet to the vet spent $300 or less on their animal's care, the average expenditure was boosted higher by the one in eight (13 percent) who spent $1,000 or more.

About one in six pet owners say their pet faced a serious illness during the year, and those pet owners spent an average of $1,092 on vet care. One percent say they took their pets to the vet and spent no money.

According to the poll, most pet owners have faith in the treatment vets recommend. Overall, 52 percent say vets do not often recommend excessive treatment, 26 percent say that happens moderately often, 17 percent extremely or very often.

Among those who did not take their pets to the vet last year, 52 percent say they only take their pets to the vet "when they're really sick."

— Associated Press

Total U.S. Pet Industry Expenditures

Year Cost (In billions of dollars)

2011 $50.84*

2010 $48.4

2009 $45.5

2008 $43.2

2007 $41.2

2006 $38.5

2005 $36.3

2004 $34.4

2003 $32.4

2002 $29.5

2001 $28.5

1998 $23

1996 $21

1994 $17

* 2011 figure is an estimate

Typical costs

Care, dogs, cats

Surgical Vet Visits: $407, $425

Routine Vet: $248, $219

Food: $254, $220

Kennel Boarding: $274, $166

Vitamins: $95, $43

Source: American Pet Products Association

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