1. "I'm a breeder all right . . . of health problems for pets."
People should spend as much time researching a pet as they do when they buy a refrigerator or a car, says Dr. Jerold Bell, a geriatrics professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. But they don t; it s usually an impulse decision, he says.
Without a thorough check, the owner is risking a great deal of expenses and emotional strain.
When I diagnose preventable genetic disease in my patients, we re all living with that the rest of the pets lives, Bell says. Common problems are hip dysplasia or cardiac conditions that are breed-specific. They are often detectable in the pets that breeders use to breed the pets they sell.
There are no regulators for breeders, so it falls upon the buyer to do their own quality control. Breeders should be able to provide prospective pet owners with genetic testing information for the parents of the animal they re selling.
Check the Canine Health Information Center s web site, www.caninehealthinfo.org, for a list of disorders for which each breed should be tested.
You can increase your odds of getting a healthy purebred by choosing breeders who use the services of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, a nonprofit foundation that aims to lower the incidence of genetic disease. The OFA performs pre-breeding health screening services for many inherited diseases, including hip and elbow dysplasia, congenital cardiac disease, patellar luxation, autoimmune thyroid disease and others.
Parents known to be free of genetic disorders are much more likely to produce healthy offspring. You can learn about health testing and specific breeds health issues on OFA s web site, www.offa.org.
2. "Your cat's fine, but your wallet might need a transfusion."
It s midnight. Your Siamese suddenly falls violently ill, and your regular vet s office closed hours ago. Going to an emergency animal hospital may not be your best move, says Dr. Jeff Werber, a veterinarian who owns the Century Veterinary Group in Los Angeles. Yet such clinics can charge hundreds of dollars for non-emergency X-rays, blood tests and overnight stays, he says.
Before you find yourself in such a situation, establish an emergency plan and keep in mind that the vast majority of emergencies that happen after hours are not life-threatening, Werber says. Before hightailing it to a 24-hour emergency clinic, remember, many charge extra for off-hours visits. Instead, Werber suggests paging your vet. Often a phone consultation is sufficient for your pet s regular caregiver to assess the situation and advise on whether a trip to the animal hospital is necessary.
Emergency veterinary care costs more because the hospitals providing them must pay additional overhead to keep them open 24 hours, says Dr. David Wohlstadter, senior emergency clinician at NYC Veterinary Specialists. However, Wohlstadter says such care doesn t always break the bank. In cases in which a pet has already been treated for a condition and it s simply been aggravated or gotten worse, an emergency visit could cost less than $50 initially. However, if a patient presents with a problem that hasn t been diagnosed, the visit will start with physical exams and a consultation ranging from $100 to $150. From there cost vary, depending on the illness.
NYC Veterinary Specialists also allows pet owners to talk to a doctor before coming in to ask whether the concern warrants a visit. For instance, if a pet owner calls because a Labrador has eaten a Hershey s kiss, the doctor would spare them the time and cost of a visit. Vets can t treat patients or make diagnoses over the phone, but they can give assistance, he says.
Sometimes, care is administered to a pet before the costs are made clear. NYC Veterinary Specialists always stabilizes the pet first before a billing discussion. If the pet owner can t afford the treatment on the spot, the hospital will find a plan that works for them. After the pet is stabilized, the hospital will provide a detailed estimate and find the best plan for the pet owner, including transferring the pet back to their primary vet in the morning if it makes more sense.
If possible, choose a vet affiliated with a veterinary hospital accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association, which will have been evaluated on 900 standards of quality of care, diagnostic and pharmaceutical services, management, medical records and facility. You can find one near you at www.healthypet.com.
3. "Ready for your annual cash-draining?"
An annual checkup for your pet should include a head-to-toe exam, along with vaccines where necessary and lab work for older pets. Recurring annual costs medical costs average $260 for a large dog and $160 for a cat, which are reasonable when they include the right care, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
An annual visit is important because it helps owners identify some problems early and prevents others, but just what is required at a yearly checkup remains a matter of debate among veterinarians and researchers. Some tests might not be necessary for every pet, says Werber. Although the annual visit has become more standardized and most clinics have a protocol, it should be customized. Werber says he tells his clients upfront which tests are necessary and which he suggests but are less important. For instance, he might hold off on an electrocardiogram if a pet is young and healthy.
If your vet gives you a standard checklist used for all pets, ask him or her what s important for your pet s individual needs. If the test really is essential and you can t afford it, ask for a payment plan.
4. "We can ensure that it will be costly insurance or not."
The average first-year cost of owning a large dog is $1,843, and for a cat, it s $1,035, according to the ASPCA. How much you spend after that will depend on the health of your pet. An unexpected illness or an accident can mean thousands of dollars in unexpected medical costs. A boom in pet-care services and veterinary specialists and recent advances in veterinary medicine have resulted in the availability of more extensive and costly procedures. With them came the advent of pet insurance, but a policy does not always make good financial sense.
As of 2009, roughly 1 million pets in the U.S. were insured, with a total written premium of $330 million, according to Embrace Pet Insurance. Embrace predicts the market will grow to about $664 million by 2012.
Plan costs can vary. Veterinary Pet Insurance plans start at around $30 a month for a basic medical plan for a young dog, or $25 a month for a young cat. Premium plans tack on around $12 to $22 more. Prices rise as pets age, so an older dog s monthly insurance bill could be as much as $45 to $50.
If your pet is young and healthy, insurance is a bit of a gamble. And, as in humans, some policies doesn t cover the biggest procedures, says Werber. It s one of those things that you are going to need the most when you don t have it, he says.
As an alternative to pet insurance, Werber suggests setting up a medical care fund in your pet s name and depositing regular sums comparable to premiums. If you don t use it, which is what the insurance companies are banking on, it s still yours. The fund should cover most costs outside of a major disaster, he says.
A spokesman for VPI says that if a pet has a serious emergency or a chronic ongoing condition, the owner will typically get back more in care than they pay in premiums. Common conditions that can make pet insurance worthwhile include cancer, anterior cruciate ligament surgery and skin allergies, he says, adding that buying in at an early age can be beneficial because the diagnosis of a pre-existing condition can render a pet uninsurable.
A savings account is definitely a good idea, but if something happens and you just started saving, there might not be the money available, he says. VPI encourages pet owners use pet insurance and maintain a separate savings account or dedicated credit card because, even with pet insurance, owners are required to pay upfront for treatment and seek reimbursement later.
Werber recommends pet owners interested in insurance pursue options that provide coverage based on the treatment, not on the diagnosis. The same diagnosis can cost vastly different amounts to treat, depending on the animal.
5. "Go ahead and sue me. You'll get chicken feed."
No lawsuit has established a precedent for damages beyond the replacement value or market value of a pet, says Dr. James Wilson, a veterinarian and lawyer from Yardley, Pa. Because animals are deemed property under almost all state laws, owners can generally be compensated only for the market value of a pet which isn t much.
Several recent cases have also included the costs incurred as a result of prior negligence when assessing the pet s worth, making more damages recoverable, says Wilson. Nevada and Maryland have drafted laws that allow for damage recoveries up to $5,000 and $7,500, respectively, which is far greater than the value typically ascribed to a pet.
Because the courts have thwarted most efforts for pet owners to sue their veterinarians for monetary damages, most owners must file complaints with the state board against the license of the veterinarian involved, says Wilson.
Every state government is in a budgetary crisis regarding the administrative agencies, so the biggest problem right now with state board complaints is the amazing lag time in the investigation and legal action, Wilson says. Even if legal action is taken, owners don t recover damages. Instead, an action is taken against the veterinarian.
As a first step, Wilson recommends asking your vet for an in-person meeting. If he agrees to use a mediator before further action is taken, sometimes an agreement can be reached, saving both parties time, money and emotional turmoil.
6. "We'll give your pooch more than just kennel cough."
Most kennel operators are well-meaning animal lovers who have turned their passion for pets into a business. However, because the industry is largely unregulated, kennels can vary widely in their standard of care.
So how can you know whether your pet will be housed in cramped, unhealthy conditions or put up in four-star luxury?
Ideally, you should pick one of the few kennels that are members of the American Boarding Kennels Association and have been accredited by the group. They must comply with standards, including providing an area where dogs can be exercised at least three times a day. You can find such kennels at www.abka.com.
If there are no ABKA-accredited kennels in your area, tour any facility before booking. Also, ask what health concerns pet supervisors are trained to detect runny noses or urinary problems, for example. And inquire about warranties: Many kennels offer warranties in their contracts, sometimes at an extra cost, which will reimburse vet costs for injuries a pet sustains due to negligence on the behalf of the facility.
Just make sure they require the appropriate upper respiratory vaccines and check them out yourself, says Werber. He recommends visiting the kennel in person, talking to other owners as they drop their pets off and asking them how long they ve been using the kennel and whether they have complaints.
7. "I'll train your dog, even if I haven't been trained myself."
Many pet owners fork over as much as $300 an hour for obedience lessons, only to wind up with a dog who does little more than sit and stay.
Part of the problem is that anyone can call himself a dog trainer. You ll find trainers in pet stores, but sometimes you ll discover they were a cashier last week and then they read a book on training, says Babette Haggerty-Brennan, head trainer for Babette Haggerty s School for Dogs in Palm Beach, Fla.
www.apdt.com, or is a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals. Also, ask how many years of experience the prospective trainer has training the family dog as a teenager doesn t count and how many dogs he s worked with professionally. Then ask for client references.
for instance, outside of a Starbucks (SBUX),
8. "Before we examine your pet's head examine ours."
Before calling a pet psychologist, you might ask your vet to recommend a less costly alternative. For example, sending a dog to day care two or three times a week might give your pet the physical and mental outlet it needs and alleviate separation anxiety. However, pets who are exceedingly aggressive or suffer from severe separation anxiety can benefit from animal psychologists provided they re certified professionals.
If your pet has a behavior problem, just like if you had one, would you go to your psychologist or your workout trainer? says Werber. Behavior problems need to be evaluated properly by someone with the knowledge behind them, preferably with a degree and a board certification.
9. "Gourmet food, chow, same thing."
Pricier food is not necessarily better food.
The most expensive doesn t mean the best, Werber says. Be especially wary of diet foods, which can be packed with added fiber to make pets feel full. Cutting back on regular food is a good way to achieve the same weight loss, he says, as long as owners supplement it with vitamins.
As a general rule, look for pet foods tested and approved by members of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, an industry watchdog group that sets standards for animal-feed manufacturing.
The key is, Does your pet really like it? Werber says. Does he have a shiny coat, healthy stools and lots of energy? If that s the case and the food meets the AAFCO s standards, Werber recommends sticking with the food you re using.
10. "As your pet walker, I may walk all over you."
Former New York City attorney Charlotte Reed came home from work early one day to find her dog walker ignoring her two dogs, Katie and Kidder, and blaring music as he danced in front of a mirror in Reed s new $700 dress from Saks (SKS)
I walked in, and he stopped midway through a twirl, Reed says. The incident infuriated Reed enough to leave her law career shortly thereafter and found Two Dogs & a Goat, a pet-sitting and walking company in New York.
Many pet owners with demanding jobs rely on walkers and sitters, but selecting a trusted one can be daunting. Look for someone certified by the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters or Pet Sitters International, which offer training in animal first aid, pet behavior and diet and exercise routines. You can search their listings at www.petsitters.org and www.petsit.com.
Next, check references and ask your walker or sitter about backup care should he become ill.