The Cost of Pet Care: How Much is Too Much?
New, cutting-edge treatments have led to great advances in veterinary medicine. But with those advances comes tough questions for pet owners. How much is too much to spend on pet care?
The New York Times explored this debate in its recent piece, “One Sick Dog, One Steep Bill."
An August 2011 survey by Kroger Co. reveals just how much clients are willing to spend on life-saving medical procedures for their pets. Kroger polled more than 300 dog and cat owners and found that:
• Another 15% would be willing to pay between $1,000 and $3,000 for
• 10% of owners said they would be willing to pay $3,000 or more for
• 14% of those surveyed were unsure how much they would be willing
Is it Ethical to Spend $25,000 at the Veterinarian's Office?
Knowing that many humans die of preventable illnesses, or even considering that many dogs and cats are euthanized in overcrowded animal shelters, can a person justify spending $10,000-$25,000 to prolong one animal’s life? From The New York Times, April 9, 2012
“Anyone can find someone, somewhere who will judge any expenditure as frivolous because people have different values,” says Charlie Powell, Senior Public Information Officer, WSU College of Veterinary Medicine. “There’s no universal measure of frivolity.”
Adds Carrie La Jeunesse, DVM, CT, CCFE, “Clients making decisions to spend money on their animal companions would not view such care as frivolous, but more likely as the right thing to do. Ultimately, its their choice.”
Debate over paying for advanced procedures can’t be made without discussing the shared relationships between human and animal medicine, and the importance of medical advancement overall, Charlie Powell suggests.
“Technology advances in human medicine and animal medicine bounce between each other,” he explains. “For example, if people are unwilling to pay for a bone marrow transplant in dogs for a clinical application, then anything we would discover through that clinical application is likely lost.”
Powell also points out that most clients won’t have to face the decision of an extravagant expenditure. “When you’re looking at horses that are selling for less than $100 at auctions, there are not many people who are going to spend incredible amounts of money on that,” he says.
Should Clients Who Can’t Afford Such Treatments be Allowed to Have Pets?
Is it ethical to have a pet if you cannot afford such treatments? From The New York Times, April 9, 2012
Should people who can’t afford extremely costly procedures be allowed to have pets? Charlie Powell says yes, absolutely.
“It’s ethical, because most pets will never have to face that discussion or that decision,” he states. “Essentially, the same question is, ‘Is it ethical for people to have children if they can’t afford to send them to Harvard in 18 years?’”
Consider free pet care clinics held across the country each month, Powell suggests. Expensive procedures are certainly out of the question for those clients. “So is it ethical for them to own an animal?” he asks. “Yes, because, in many cases, that’s the only entity in the world they care for and that cares for them.”
Carrie La Jeunesse agrees. “Most people can’t afford those treatments,” she states. “People do the best they can.”
Most pet owners will pay for care at some varying level, which may be judged by some as too much or others as not enough. Says Charlie Powell, “If it was necessary to be able to afford anything at an optimum level, now or that could possibly arise in the future if the worst occurs, few people would own anything.”
The Decision-Making Process
The decision whether to spend thousands of dollars on a medical procedure for a pet requires crucial conversations between the veterinarian and the client. “As a veterinarian, I start having conversations with people about potential costs when they first come to me with a new pet so they can start thinking about that ahead of time,” Carrie La Jeunesse says.
The decision is about far more than money. “It’s not just about cost; it’s about cost and emotion, cost and time, cost and logistics,” she says. “You need to consider the totality of costs, not just the financial aspect.”
Before making a decision, several questions should be answered. Clients should ask:
2) If I choose an option where the veterinarian has to act, what price
3) What do each of the options provide in terms of benefit, detriment,
4) Is it reasonable expectation for me to take time to make this
As a veterinarian, be as objective as possible. It’s important to remember that you don’t know the circumstances in the client’s life that have led to this decision. Evaluate the effect of the procedure on the animal’s welfare by asking the following questions:
1) What is the expected outcome of the procedure?
2) What are the chances of the outcome you want actually occurring?
JC Burcham, DVM, Olathe Animal Hospital, considers it her primary obligation to inform the client of all the treatment options available. “They can’t say yes, if I don’t ask them,” Burcham says.
Second, be mindful of the client’s needs. While you’re focused on the costs involved, they might still be trying to wrap their minds around the situation. “We have to stop and give people a chance to digest the information,”
Carrie La Jeunesse says. “We have to get a grasp of the true level of a client’s understanding and that requires a specific type of listening.”
Most importantly, help the client make an informed decision. That means supporting their decision, not judging it. “It’s their money, it’s their pet,” Carrie Le Jeunesse says. “Just because they drove in in an $80,000 car and their nails are done and they’re carrying a Gucci bag, doesn’t mean it’s going to be their choice to provide that level of care for their pet.”
“It may not be decision the veterinarian would have made, or the technician would have made, but nonetheless, it’s the client’s decision,” Charlie Powell adds.
Does the Veterinarian Have a Responsibility to Express Their Opinion?
As mentioned above, you should help the client make an informed decision, not make the decision for them. “I can educate, educate, educate, but I can’t make someone do something they’re not willing to do,” Burcham says. “Ultimately, it has to be their decision.”
But do you have a responsibility to voice your opinion if you feel it’s not in the best interest of your patient? That depends on two elements: where in the process you speak up and what you say.
“If the veterinarian says ‘I understand your decision, let’s move forward,’ that’s fine. If the veterinarian says ‘I can’t support that decision and I can’t serve you,’ that’s okay too,” Powell explains. “But if the veterinarian says‘What do you mean you’re not going to pay for this?’ that’s not the objective way to be a care provider,” he adds.
“What I don’t want clients to sacrifice is a roof over their head and food and clothing for their children because they’re making this decision to move forward with this level of care for their dog,” adds Carrie Le Jeunesse.
The Cost of Pet Ownership
Pets are part of our families. Not only do we benefit them, but they benefit us as well. “Having a pet gives some people a reason to live,” Burcham says. “You can’t put a price on the human animal bond.”
However, owning a pet is an enormous responsibility that requires time and money. According to the Bayer Veterinary Usage Care Study, pet vistis to the veterinarian were not keeping pace with pet populations. The cost of veterinary care has also dramatically increased. The Bayer Veterinary Usage Care Study found 53% of respondents said veterinary costs are usually much higher than they expected. “A pet is a luxury item,” Carrie Le Jeunesse explains.
While clients have an obligation to provide for the pet’s needs to the best of their ability, they should not face judgment for their decision to spend or not spend thousands of dollars on advanced treatments, Powell says. “If you’re going to own an animal, care for it in the best ways possible,” he says. “But recognize that there’s a limit; and your limit may not be my limit, but that’s okay.”
So how much is too much to spend on your pet? There’s no definitive answer. “Veterinarians inherently like resolution and concrete, well-designed answers,” Carrie Le Jeunesse says. “We should realize that it’s okay to not know; it’s ok not to have all the answers.”
What do you think? How do you handle these crucial conversations with clients? Share your comments below.