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All Creatures Great, Small and Expensive

Why veterinary care is so costly, and rising

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While the love we share with our pets is indeed free, the care we insist our pets receive is increasingly more expensive. According to the American Pet Products Association, American pet owners spent a whopping $55.7 billion in 2013. Of that, 25 percent, or about $14.3 billion, was spent on veterinary care.

Vern Crouch and wife faced an agonizing decision earlier this year when their 7-year-old cat, Buddy, was diagnosed with kidney failure.

"We were devastated when we got the diagnosis" said Crouch. "Buddy had been part of our lives for years—he was quite the boy." The veterinarian who diagnosed Buddy offered a costly solution: daily kidney dialysis treatment for 30 days, at a cost of more than $100 per treatment.

"I did the math in my head and realized we were talking thousands of dollars," said Crouch.

Already faced with devastating medical bills of their own, spending that kind of money on Buddy simply wasn't an option.

"Within 36 hours of receiving the diagnosis, we had to put Buddy to sleep," said Crouch.

Their experience is hardly unique.

"Almost every single client I have has money concerns," said Boise veterinarian Dr. Linda Donerkiel, owner of Boise-based The Pet Doctor. "So there are a lot of things people are deciding not to do based on cost."

"For example, after a routine procedure like a lumpectomy, I always recommend blood work and that we send [the lump] into the lab to find out whether it's cancerous and whether or not we've gotten it all. But most owners choose not to—they just hope for the best," said Donerkiel. "And you have to totally respect that. You can't tell people to go ahead with a procedure if it means they can't pay their mortgage."

Several factors are to blame for the rising costs of veterinary medicine, including increased vet school tuitions and a greater need for vets to carry malpractice insurance.

Even Obamacare doesn't escape some of the blame, adding 2.5 percent to the cost of equipment such as X-ray and ultrasound machines—whether for human or animal diagnostics. In addition, advances in animal medicine have expanded to include things such as stem cell therapy and arthroscopy, laser surgery and prosthetics, according to Vet Tech, an online resource for veterinary technicians.

These advances have led to a new "standard of care" within the industry.

"It's a catch-22," said Donerkiel. "Each advance seems like a great thing, and it is great, except that the new treatment becomes the new standard of care. What used to be a straightforward surgery in the past now requires MRI or arthroscopic surgery, which ends up being five times as expensive."

The result?

"People wait longer to bring their pets in or they don't do as much preventative care as they used to," said Donerkiel. Other times, pet owners have no choice but to do the bare minimum for their animals.

It's a situation that has more and more pet owners considering animal insurance in the same way they think about insurance for their children.

"I always treat my dogs as if they were humans," said Sherri Smith, owner of three dachshunds. "And I'll probably keep them on the wellness plan for the rest of their lives—primarily for the teeth cleaning coverage since it's ridiculously expensive."

Smith pays an average of $343 annually, per dog, for coverage that includes routine expenses such as vaccinations and teeth cleaning but does not offer coverage for injury- or illness-related expenses. For that, she would need to purchase a separate health insurance policy.

But Smith isn't interested in a separate health policy, at least not at this point.

"You know, I looked into them a few years ago, and I didn't like what they had to offer—what you got for your money," she said.

Consumer Reports Magazine confirmed Smith's findings in a 2011 report that read, "Pet insurance [plans] generally cost more than [they] paid out in our latest comparison of policies."

To get an idea of pet health insurance premiums, Boise Weekly visited HealthyPawsInsurance.com, a top-10 provider of pet insurance policies. To purchase coverage for a 1-year-old male dog, Healthy Paws quoted a monthly premium of $39 for the best policy.

The catch is that many expenses are not included, such as veterinary exam fees, spaying/neutering, vaccinations, dental care, parasite control and any type of pre-existing condition.

Were Smith to purchase health insurance policies in addition to a wellness plan, she would be looking at around $2,400 per year—an amount that is simply out of reach for many pet owners.

But when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows veterinary care climbing at a staggering rate of 91 percent over the past 10 years, it leaves pet owners like Smith wondering, "Just how far can they can go?"

Perhaps the best advice comes from the Idaho Humane Society: "Be able to afford the pet you have, don't get too many, and save up for inevitable services."