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Should You Pay Up For That Expensive Pet Surgery?

by Heather Morrison
May 16, 2019 | Living

Getting the news your dog or cat is sick or injured is a nightmare for pet parents — one that is followed by difficult questions, gut-wrenching decisions and, oftentimes, a large bill.

In 2017, the American Pet Produce Association estimated that U.S. pet owners spent $70 billion on their pets. More than $17 billion of that was on veterinary care.

Just like in human medical care, new treatments are continuously being discovered for Fido and Fifi. At first glance, this seems like a good thing — and oftentimes it is.

But, when it comes to treatments for your sick pet, more isn’t always better, said Jessica Pierce, bioethicist and author of "Run Spot Run" and "The Last Walk."

“It’s really hard to say, ‘We don’t want these treatments,'” Pierce said. “Because it sounds like you’re refusing care or refusing the best when that’s actually not the case at all.”

So, how do you know which treatment, if any, is the best option for you and your pet?

Unfortunately, Pierce said, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But there are ways to prepare and questions to ask to make sure your pet's quality of life is the best it can be.

Asking the right questions

It’s important to fully understand your pet’s illness or injury before making a decision.

Illustration of man sitting on a couch with his dog. Expensive Pet Surgery pbs rewire
It's key to take care of yourself, too.

“Always ask for an explanation of what is wrong with your dog,” said Laurie Kaplan, founder of the Magic Bullet Fund, a nonprofit that helps provide financial assistance for people whose dogs have cancer.

It sounds simple, but it’s an important step in knowing what treatment is going to be best. Then ask for treatment options.

A veterinarian might give a pet owner one option, but there are always others, said Joshua Louis Lachowicz, veterinary oncologist at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in New York City and co-founder of Joshua Louis Animal Cancer Foundation.

“There’s rarely, if ever, a situation where there’s only one approach to anything,” Lachowicz said. “The most expensive option does not always mean it’s the best.”

It’s also a good idea to get a second opinion, he said, adding that veterinary offices usually partner with specialists that can provide a good next step.

Just because an illness isn’t life-threatening doesn’t mean pet owners should take too long getting second opinions or making a decision. Lachowicz suggested giving yourself a two-week window to get all the information you need.

One good way to make sure you get all the information you need, he said, is by giving yourself a night or two to reflect, think about all your questions and concerns and then write them down.

Even after getting all the information, it can be difficult to know what’s best. Start by asking yourself these questions: What is in the best interest of this animal? How burdensome is this for my animal? And how beneficial will this be?

Some pets might be extremely fearful of the vet or have high energy. Certain prolonged tests and treatments won’t give those pets a great quality of life, while other pets might do just fine.

It also comes down to what pet parents can afford and the time commitments the treatments require.

Pierce said it’s important for veterinarians to think outside the box to help patients.

And sometimes, she said, tests and treatments won’t change the outcome. She figured that out when a large tumor was discovered in her own senior dog.

“It wouldn’t have benefited her to spend an excessive amount of money doing these interventions,” she said. “It would’ve been for us.”

Insurance isn’t just for old pets

Lachowicz recommends that pet insurance be part of pet owners’ monthly budget.

According to one study by the Animal Health Institute, owners spend $9,000 to $13,000 for medical treatments over their pets’ lifetimes, with only 12 percent having pet insurance. And treatments for one illness could costs $4,000 to $14,000, Lachowicz said.

“Not everyone has that spare change — myself included,” he said. “No one wants to say no based on the fact that it might not be affordable.”

Insurance, he said, can help offset the costs of these treatments.

Diagnostic tests, especially for illnesses or injuries that aren't straightforward, can drive up veterinary bills, Lachowicz said.

“You don’t want to skip on it,” he said. “But money should go towards treatment rather than diagnostics” when possible.

Which is why it’s important, Kaplan said, to know what your insurance will cover and what it won’t.

And if those costs aren’t covered, then you can have conversations with the veterinarian about whether those tests are going to change the outcome or treatment options, Lachowicz said.

But don’t wait until it’s too late to get insurance. The right time to get insurance is now.

“It doesn’t matter if its a young animal or an old animal,” Lachowicz said. “They can all get sick. They can all break a leg. They can all get injured.”

Getting help

As the vet bills pile up, many turn to GoFundMe or other crowdfunding sites.

GoFundMe even has a blog post dedicated to offering tips to get the most out of the fundraiser, including creating a unique hashtag and how best to tell your pet's story and needs.

While that’s a good option for many, it doesn’t always pan out.

Kaplan’s Magic Bullet Fund receives about 25 to 30 applications a month from pet parents hoping to get help with bills. Almost all have already tried raising the money through crowdfunding sites.

There are a number of nonprofits offering assistance based on breed, injury or illness.

If you’re lucky enough to have a healthy pet, consider donating to the Magic Bullet Fund or a similar nonprofit, Kaplan said.

“People can donate to the general fund,” she said. “Or they can choose a dog in need of assistance to donate for.”

The importance of self-care

Making these decisions plus taking care of a sick pet can be exhausting.

It's key to take care of yourself, too, Pierce said.

“You can give the best care when you’re OK,” she said.

It can be hard to leave a sick animal, even for a short time, to run errands or take a walk, Pierce said. She’s found that many people feel guilty or nervous every time they leave the house when their pet is sick.

Friends can help by petsitting for you. They can give you peace of mind while you take care of other things.

When enough is enough

Making a decision to euthanize a pet is never an easy one. Pierce said it’s important to center these decisions around quality of life.

Once you’ve made the decision, she said, it’s important to not blame or dwell.

Through her research she’s found that, no matter what, people feel guilty about making this decision, she said. They worry they euthanized their pet too soon or waited too long.

“There is no perfect time,” she said. “You do the best you can.”

Heather Morrison
Heather Morrison is a freelance reporter based in Los Angeles. She reports on religion and disability rights. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for photos of her dog.
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