Time was that the veterinarian was a one-stop shop for animal maladies from guppy to gorilla, and that elaborate surgeries were performed only on exotic zoo specimens or precious thoroughbreds. Time was that the notion of health insurance for pets was the stuff of stand-up comedy on late-night TV. And that whatever you paid to heal Fido or Felix was a fraction of what you paid to heal yourself. No more.
Amaretto’s saga began shortly before his second birthday. The smallest (less than 3 pounds) and the youngest of my three toy poodles, he was chasing his two canine relatives when suddenly he fell to the floor unconscious. I was headed out to a business dinner, but dropped everything and rushed him to the pet emergency room of Friendship Hospital for Animals in Washington, D.C., where he was put in triage and his vitals were taken. His heartbeat was slow, and his temperature was slightly elevated, but by this time he was alert and responsive. The emergency vet examined him, gave him fluids intravenously and attempted to draw blood to test liver function. When the vein in his leg collapsed, she went for the jugular. Amaretto was brave but bled profusely, and the vet told me that his blood took an extraordinarily long time to clot. When they finally stopped the bleeding, he was left with a big swollen bruise on his neck. The vet wanted to keep him in the intensive care unit overnight, but I opted to take him home and watch him closely for the next 48 hours.
That was the beginning of many veterinarian visits over the next six months. It was also my introduction to the state of animal medicine today, which resembles in both cost and services what is available to full-fledged humans.
I’m a professional woman with an overscheduled life, but my dogs are my family and take priority over all else. Regardless of time, inconvenience or cost, I persisted in pursuing diagnostic tests until we found the cause of Amaretto’s problem. (It would end up costing $1,500 when all the visits and tests were added up.) After several more episodes of spontaneous shock, my dog was referred to a vet neurologist, who suggested possible causes, among them hydrocephalus, epilepsy and vestibular disease. He did an electrocardiogram (EKG) to eliminate the possibility of cardiac problems, and suggested a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) under anesthesia to rule out dialated ventricles in his brain. But in Amaretto’s fragile conditions – he had lost a pound, one-third of his body weight – I feared having him anesthetized.
Finally, Dr. Lee Morgan of Georgetown Veterinary Hospital – Amaretto’s general vet, a family practitioner of the animal world – confirmed through a blood test a severe case of von Willebrand’s disease. With his reassuring pet-side manner, Morgan explained about this genetic clotting disorder, which is rare in toy poodles. It’s similar to hemophilia in humans: Amaretto is missing a substance that helps the platelets form clots.
Without diagnosis and treatment, he would likely have bled to death following routine surgery or a minor injury. Now, when Amaretto needs surgery, Morgan knows to first give him an infusion with platelet-enriched plasma. There’s an upside, too, as it were: Amaretto won’t lose his manhood, because neutering is too risky for him. So is having his teeth cleaned, or even a simple blood test.
Veterinary care is the largest single pet-related expense an owner will face during his or her companion’s lifetime. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, pet owners spend $11.1 billion annually on healthcare for their companions. Vet bills for the average pet are $900 a year, but the welfare of the animal matters more than the money to most owners – and it shows.
“We’re seeing animals live to older ages,” says Dr. Julie Smith, a board-certified veterinary anesthesiologist and medical director of the Iams Pet Imaging Center in Vienna, Virginia. “It’s not uncommon to see patients 12 and older, even up to 17. These animals are not just kept in the backyard. They are family members.”
A veterinarian is typically trained in radiology, surgery, dermatology, opthamology, dentistry, obstetrics, anesthesiology and pharmacy. But now, Morgan explains, “When the diagnostics and treatment become more sophisticated than my training, or I don’t have the equipment, I refer the animal to a specialist.”
As the sophistication of animal medical care has caught up with that of human medical care, so has the price. Eye surgery is almost the same cost for pets and people. Bilateral cataract surgery, for example, costs about $2,000 for a dog, just a few hundred dollars less than for a person. Costs match up on many diagnostic procedures, too: MRIs, X-rays, ultrasound scans and blood work are all similarly priced for animals and humans. MRI for your sick grandmother is one thing, doubters might say, but an MRI for a mutt? In fact, veterinarians may recommend such technologically advanced procedures more often than a doctor would for a human patient. Grandma can tell you where it hurts, but dogs and cats can’t. “Other diagnostic tools are limited,” says Smith. “MRI needs to be used earlier and as an alternative for exploratory surgery of the abdomen and chest.” Smith adds that technology can save dollars in the short run by eliminating the need for exploratory surgery, with its weeks of painful recovery and possible complications, and in the long run by identifying and treating maladies earlier.
For some procedures, the difference between the cost for pets and the cost for people remains great. A total hip replacement in veterinary medicine – yes, it’s available – costs about $5,000, and in humans about $50,000. A feline kidney transplant costs about $5,000 – a bargain compared with the same procedure on a human which, including doctor and hospital costs, can come to as much as $95,000. Still, paying $5,000 for a pet’s care is an astronomical expense for some people – one they may choose not to afford, or one that requires a great sacrifice to fit into a budget.
The solution for an increasing number of the 137 million dog and cat owners in this country is animal health insurance. Pet health insurance is able to cover both routine care (like vaccinations) and catastrophic procedures. Although under 1 percent of U.S. pet owners now have such policies, companies such as Maryland-based Amerix Corporation, eBay, Blockbuster and Miller Brewing Company recognize the significance of offering pet health benefits as a perk and offer it on a voluntary basis to employees.
Like its human counterpart, pet insurance stipulates deductibles and co-payments, and pays within the limits of the policy. Premiums are based on age, type and number of pets per plan. The policy for my oldest poodle, 11-year-old Cappuccino, has an annual premium of $395, while Amaretto’s is $188 per year with exclusions because of his disease.
If you’re willing to pay, the same procedures and quality healthcare you seek for yourself are available to your pet. I can’t help but wonder what’s next. Perhaps a proposal to extend universal healthcare to our dogs and cats?