By NANCY KEATES
For Mary Cotter,> the first sign of concern came when her 7-year-old, Logan, appeared dizzy. His regular doctor said everything was fine, but Cotter insisted Logan be seen by a neurologist, who after an MRI found a tumor in his inner ear. An operation followed, and for the next month Cotter took Logan on a four-hour round-trip trek every day from her home in Ledyard, Conn., to a specialty hospital in Boston for radiation therapy.
The total bill for the tests, blood work, surgery and radiation came to $14,000 not surprising in this age of sky-high medical costs. Except for one thing. Logan is a golden retriever. After another surgery for an unrelated illness, the total cost of Logan's care is approaching $20,000. Today Logan is healthy, but he has a new nickname: "20K."
It's no secret that Americans love their pets. But these days, all that love is leading to an unprecedented level of expense for millions of owners, who are only beginning to understand the pet-world concept of sticker shock. Caught up in a wave of new medical options and lured by an increasingly sophisticated cadre of veterinarians, pet owners across the country are forking over thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars to treat illnesses that would have gone undiagnosed or untreated just a few years ago. And then doing it again if they have to. Of course, pet owners and most vets have the animals' best interest in mind. But that doesn't make it any easier: With health insurance covering the humans in many families, it's not unusual for pet owners to spend far more money on health care for their cats and dogs than for their sons and daughters. Even the Great Recession failed to take a bite out of Fido's health care tab. According to a report by market-research company Packaged Facts, Americans spent $20 billion on veterinary bills in 2010 an 8.5% increase from a year earlier and more than double the amount spent just a decade ago.
Much of that money is being spent on new medical technology. With some of the advances in human health care spreading to the animal kingdom, pet owners have many more options for treatment and many more chances to fork over money to cure their pets or at least prolong their pets' lives. Dogs and cats can have pacemakers implanted at a cost of $1,000 to $1,500, while pets with kidney failure can get a kidney-clearing procedure that runs $20,000 to $25,000 for just the first few weeks. Not long ago a vet would most likely have recommended euthanasia for a cat or dog diagnosed with cancer or another serious illness. Today high-tech procedures and equipment, such as chemotherapy and MRIs and yes, CAT scans allow for better diagnosis and more-advanced treatment.
They also require highly trained specialists. In the past three years, the percentage of veterinarians who are board certified for small-animal surgery has more than doubled, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Until the late 1980s, there were no board-certified veterinary oncologists, for a simple reason: There was no program for certification. Now vet schools offer oncology-specialization programs and have full-fledged cancer centers, while dozens of private centers have opened across the country with board-certified staff. At the Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University, 14 veterinarians specialize in medical, surgical and radiation oncology. They're supported by a full nursing staff, residents and even a clinical-trials team focusing on diseases from canine lymphoma to feline sarcoma. Add it all up and "it's a revolution," says Stephen Withrow, the center's associate director.
Of course, expensive technology wouldn't be of much use if no one wanted to take advantage of it. That's where an equally powerful trend comes in: the increasing tendency of Americans to humanize their pets. All those people paying for pet massages and buying designer doggie clothes find it all but impossible to say no when the health or life of their pet is at stake. And like anxious parents with a sick child, these pet owners aren't about to argue when a vet recommends treatment for a beloved pet. Indeed, in a recent survey by the Associated Press and Petside.com, 35% of pet owners said they were very likely to pick up $2,000 in vet costs to treat a sick dog or cat, while 22% said they'd pick up $5,000 in vet costs.
Empty nesters, who make up a growing percentage of dog owners, are particularly vulnerable. As a former "helicopter parent," Vicki Parker, 55, of Scotch Plains, N.J., admits that she's turned her hovering tendencies toward her dog. "It gives me something to worry about," she says of her chocolate lab, Bear, who has become her constant companion since her son moved out three years ago. More than a year ago, when Bear received a diagnosis of hemangiopericytoma, a type of soft-tissue tumor, Parker paid $1,800 for the surgery. Since then, Bear has had chemotherapy, blood work and oncology visits, for a total cost of about $4,000. "It was really scary," says Parker. "But I felt like I couldn't say no."
That's small change compared with what some pet owners end up shelling out. Gary Nice, president of the National Canine Cancer Foundation, says he spent progressively more to care for three golden retrievers, each of whom developed cancer. First, Nice spent about $3,000 on tests for Bailey before finding out that cancer had spread to his lungs and there was nothing more to do. After that, Ashby developed a brain tumor. At the time, there was no treatment (there is now), and shortly after MRIs and tests that totaled about $3,500, Ashby died. Fast-forward to 2008, when an X-ray revealed Duncan also had a tumor. "By this time we were watching our dogs like a hawk," says Nice, of Longview, Texas. Duncan had his spleen removed and underwent a host of other procedures, for a total cost of $5,000. Although Duncan died 45 days later, Nice, 57, would do it again. "What would a parent of a child say if someone asked them how much they'd be willing to spend on a cancer cure?" he asks. "They'd probably hit you."
Of course, all the new pet-care options still make for some difficult decisions. Davis Magnus, director of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics, says that these cutting-edge medical treatments for pets raise some of the same issues faced in human care: At what point do we decide it isn't worth it to prolong life if we're not also improving its quality? The difference with pets, he says, is that they can be euthanized, so owners can ensure that their passing is painless and fast. Mike Bachman, a 27-year-old from San Diego who works in insurance finance, had to face those issues in August 2008, after his wife's cat was diagnosed with lymphoma of the liver. After all the blood work and biopsies, they decided against chemotherapy and chose steroid injections instead. That's partly because they didn't want their cat to have discomfort from the chemo, but the potential price difference of nearly $3,000 was also a factor. "That cat was part of our family," Bachman says. "But there is a line in the sand."
With all the growth, critics say, the market for pet health care lacks some of the checks and balances of the system for human health care. For starters, the federal government doesn't regulate health insurance or treatment for pets. And while health insurance companies have long pressured providers to keep costs down for humans, that check is lacking in the world of pets. Drugs can be another gray area. Only a few cancer drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use on animals: The majority of the dozens of drugs used by vets are prescribed "off label," meaning they're approved only for humans, though vets are still allowed to prescribe them.
None of those issues is about to get in the way of businesses drooling over the new opportunities. The Freedonia Group, a research company, predicts that spending on veterinary care, including services and retail products, will reach $33 billion in 2014 and $44 billion by 2019, up from $24 billion in 2009. Giant pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer (PFE),
The rising cost of pet health care is providing a new boost to another corner of the market: pet insurance. Once considered an afterthought at best and a joke at worst, insurance for cats and dogs is appealing to more consumers as a way to ease the financial bite of pet care. The number of companies insuring pets has doubled in the past five years, to 12, with premiums growing an average of more than 20 percent a year over that time, to $350 million in 2009. Loran Hickton, executive director of the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, says he's been getting more calls lately from venture capitalists looking to get into the pet-insurance business.
Laura Bennett is a step ahead of them. Bennett, who won a business-plan competition at Wharton Business School for her pet-insurance concept, attracted angel investors and venture capital to help start her company, Embrace Pet Insurance. The idea is to allow pet owners to customize their plans by choosing the amounts of their deductibles and co-pays concepts all too familiar to consumers of health insurance for humans. "It is an incredible opportunity," she says.
The Treatment Trail
Diagnosing and treating a pet for cancer and other diseases can be a complex and expensive journey. Some key stops along the way.
Cost: $200 to $450
To the surprise of some new pet owners, many pet clinics now send technicians to get a case history before the vet even steps in the room. Then the whole process gets repeated with the vet. "It's like going to a doctor's office," with the technician playing the role of a nurse, says a spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association. It can get even more complicated, with blood tests, X-rays and ultrasounds to help pinpoint the problem.
Cost: $1,500 to $2,500
The magnetic resonance imaging scanners used for cats and dogs are the same as those for humans, and the range of image quality can vary depending on the type of MRI. Pets typically are put under general anesthesia, which adds to the cost of the procedure. In most cases, the pet's MRI is read by certified veterinary radiologists, but there are no set standards. Some places use veterinary technologists to administer the test instead of radiology technicians. "It's all over the board right now," says James Stuppino, chief executive officer of AnimalScan, a chain of MRI-imaging centers for pets. For bone lesions, a vet will often decide on a CT scan instead of an MRI.
Cost: $500 to $6,000
The percentage of veterinarians who are board certified for small-animal surgery has more than doubled in the past three years, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. The most common surgeries are to remove skin tumors; others include mastectomies, amputations and partial jaw removals. The Web site of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons provides explanations (with graphic photos) of the various surgeries.
Cost: $1,500 to $10,000
As with humans, X-rays, gamma rays and other sources of radiation destroy the cancer cells in the treated area. In most cases, radiation therapy is given as a series of doses. Some specialty veterinary hospitals now use a "linear accelerator," which allows doctors to limit the damage to surrounding tissue. The Animal Medical Center in New York recently added "intensity modulated radiation therapy," which uses multiple small beams of radiation to deliver high doses to specific tumors.
Cost: $200 to $1,000 a month over three to six months
Experts say the chemotherapy given to dogs is the same as the chemo used for humans, with one exception: Since dogs weigh less, they need less chemo. Given as a series of treatments, chemotherapy is essentially medicine that is taken by mouth or injected into a dog's vein or under the skin. The drug used and the length of treatment depend on the type of cancer. Some pet owners decide against chemo because of its potential side effects: nausea, diarrhea, appetite loss, weight loss, skin discoloration, urine discoloration, low white blood cell count and fatigue.