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Owners' finances have a big impact on veterinary care for their pets, survey finds


When a vet told Nancy Gates that her dog Arabella had heart problems, needed surgery and it would cost $500, she had no choice but to put her pet down.

"It was pretty straightforward because I had four young children to feed. The vet said surgery was my only option. I did not want my dog to suffer," she said.

Gates, 41, of Cotati, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, made that decision 11 years ago but said nothing has changed. She still can't afford high-priced healthcare for her current pets, an 11-year-old cat, Cocoa, and a 9-year-old golden retriever, Sadie. And Gates isn't alone.

Money is a consideration for the majority of people when dealing with the cost of healthcare for animals, according to an Associated Press-Petside.com poll conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media.

While 62% of pet owners, 62% would probably pay for veterinary care if the bill was $500 or less, the percentage drops below half when the cost hits $1,000. The number drops to 35% if the cost is $2,000 and to 22% if it reaches $5,000.

Only at the $500 level are dog owners (74%) more likely than cat owners (46%) to say they would probably seek treatment. In the higher price ranges, the two are about equally likely to seek vet care.

"Grief gets complicated when we can't do everything we would have liked to do for our animal," said veterinarian Jane Shaw, director of the Argus Institute in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University.

That's especially true in hard economic times, when spending money you don't have on an animal can have a lasting impact on children, the mortgage, grocery bills, heating bills.

"Euthanasia is always sad but when finances have to be considered, when you feel there is a possibility you didn't or couldn't do the right thing, you feel guilty," Shaw said. "We are at a point where we are talking about basic life needs or survival needs."

Terry Cornwell, 55, of Newport, Ore., has had to put down a couple of pets, but none was harder than a dog that was diagnosed with cancer.

"My income decides a lot of my expenses," she said.

So far, her year-old cocker mix, Buddy, and her 8-year-old cat, Boo Kitty, have had few health problems. Cornwell said she'd do everything she could, but if a vet told her surgery was her only option and she had to have the money upfront, "I would be done. There would be nothing I could do about it."

Cornwell does worry, though. She's among the 1 in 5 pet owners who said they fret a lot about being unable to afford seeing a vet. Dog owners are more likely to worry than cat owners, and women and low-income people are among the biggest worriers.

"If they start getting into expensive vet bills, there's nothing I can do. I have no options. If you are talking about something like serious cancer, you're putting the animal through a whole lot of stuff that's iffy anyhow and it's not fair to them," she said.

About 1 in 4 people, or 27%, said pet insurance is a good way to save money on vet bills, though that's five times the number who actually carry insurance on their pets.

Diego Negrete, 26, of Austin, Texas, has insurance on his 4-year-old fox terrier, Roxy, and his 2-year-old cat, Charley, but he's in the minority. Ninety-five percent of those polled said they didn't have insurance.

"It's a nice cushion to have," he said of the policy, which covers about half the cost of all yearly shots and checkups. It also pays part of the costs of health problems, he said, although he didn't know all the details.

But Negrete doesn't fear vet bills. "I'm not worried at all because the insurance would cover part of it and I am financially capable of covering whatever it costs," he said.

However, if you are looking upward of $5,000, "something must be seriously wrong," Negrete said. He would have to look at how much the animal would suffer through the problem, and how the recovery could go. And he would want some assurance that the pet would have a good life later.

Negrete had a 14-year-old dog who'd had a hernia removed twice. When it grew back a third time, "he was old and about done and he was in pain, so we put him down," he said.

Meg Fowler, 63, of Port St. Lucy, Fla., is a retired insurance agent, "so I know the risks."

If something catastrophic happened to leave her 10-year-old cockapoo, Jasmine, in a lot of pain, "We would have to put her down," Fowler said. "It would be much more humane. Jasmine is a huge part of our lives and we adore her. But she is a dog. It is hard to remember that, as much as I believe she has a soul."

Before Jasmine, there was Max, another cockapoo. When he was 15, he got a brain tumor. Their vet helped them come to grips with a decision that no insurance could have cushioned -- euthanasia.

For Fowler and her husband of 43 years, "It was the hardest day of our lives. We had no choice in that situation. There was no lifesaving surgery and the dog was way over his life span. It was a difficult decision, but it had to be done and we did it," she said.

When quality of life has diminished and there is severe pain and suffering, the time has come to start making decisions, Shaw said.

In the final hours, it helps some people to share one last special time with an animal -- a trip through a fast food drive-thru for a hamburger, a bath, a dish of homemade ice cream -- something familiar to the pet, she said.

Some will take a hair clipping or clay pawprint to help build a bridge and foster the grief process. Others will arrange for euthanasia to happen at home so the pet can be surrounded by every member of the family, including other animals, Shaw said.

But nothing will completely ease the ache, she said, because guilt is part of the cost of caring deeply.

The AP-Petside.com poll was conducted April 7 to 12 and involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,112 pet owners nationwide. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.

Poll: More than half of survey respondents say they plan to adopt their next pet from a shelter
One-third of married women say their pet is a better listener than their spouse, poll finds

-- Sue Manning, Associated Press

Photo: A veterinarian examines at cat. Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (3)

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The white little ears says it all.

Until the last few months the SPCA tv ads featured a white cat with skin cancer. (They've moved on to runny eyes.)

Whoa on you who care for a sick pet with a PETA/SPCA neighbor.

The officer, with gun and ticket book knocks on the door.

You must provide proof of treatment.

Love my cat and dog, but when the crazy starts to complain about whether you are doing enough?

Vet says yes but neighbor says no.

Putting them down (i.e. killed) is the last but only choice to keep the spca types happy.

By conflating two not-necessarily-related issues this "article" ends up making very little sense, except as a rationalization for owners not to treat animals they have assumed responsibility for.

The "article" starts out by addressing issues of affordability of needed vet services, particularly in difficult financial times. But then it veers off into issues of pet suffering versus continuing futile treatment, which has nothing to do with owners who just can't be bothered to pay for vet care. But the effect is to falsely conflate humane considerations, like when is it time to let a suffering animal go, with owners who like their animals when they're young, healthy and entertaining, but when the animal falls ill and requires treatment, all of a sudden "it's just a dog."

The real question is why people like Nancy Gates, who thinks $500 is too much to spend to keep a faithful pet alive, persists in getting animals she refuses to provide for medically. She could have learned a lesson with the unnecessary death of her dog Arabella; if she had anything resembling a conscience she would feel guilty about it and resolved not to do that to another animal ever again. But no, she just keeps getting animals she isn't interested in keeping alive if it calls for any kind of sacrifice on her part. How she can look her dog and cat in the face is beyond me. The only way I can ever contemplate the deaths of my animals is with the certainty that I have done everything I could to make their lives as long and healthy as possible. That's a life that depends on you -- and the kind of person who knowingly takes in an animal he or she has no intention of properly caring for is the kind of person who should stick to stuffed animals.

L.A. Voter, I agree with you 100%. These animals depend on us and trust us to take care of them and if we are not willing to take that responsibility seriously then we shouldn't have pets.


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