MAKING YOUR MONEY LAST


How to Manage the Costs of Owning a Pet

Most pet owners have stories of nightmarish vet bills, and I’m no exception. When I adopted Bailey, a 4-year-old beagle mix, three years ago, I thought the costs would be minimal. Surely food and a few shots a year wouldn’t add up to that much. The adoption cost $50, which included vaccinations, heartworm testing and medication for parasites. The dog license was a reasonable $10.

SEE ALSO: 7 Ways to Save on Pet Costs

At the first wellness appointment, the vet recommended a dental cleaning, to the tune of $350. Little illnesses -- bronchitis, tonsillitis, rhinitis -- brought us in regularly the first year, adding to the tab. Flea and heartworm medication, plus the annual vaccines at the end of the year, brought the health care tally to $1,490.

Then this spring, Bailey suffered multiple seizures that the vet couldn't explain. Although seizures are common in dogs, Bailey's age (now 7), combined with a lack of previous history, suggested a possible brain tumor. My vet recommended a visit to the neurologist (yep, they have those for dogs) to find out more. After a day of waiting, an MRI, a spinal tap and more waiting, Bailey's diagnosis came back: idiopathic epilepsy. Basically, he has seizures that may be hereditary. The vet prescribed anti-seizure medication.

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It was the best possible outcome, but my wallet took a serious hit. The first vet visit, to do a blood-and-urine workup, was $187. The consultation at the neurologist's office was $275, and the testing was $2,485. Medication for a month was $83, bringing the total to $3,030. In the three years I've had Bailey, I've shelled out $5,956 for vet visits and medicine.

I have health insurance, which has helped defray some of the cost. Pet insurance has deductibles, payout limits and exclusions; the first two years I had Bailey, the premiums and the payouts were pretty much a wash. But this year, the payouts have exceeded my premium by hundreds of dollars.

A safety net (sort of)

Last year, pet owners in the U.S. spent nearly $51 billion on their pets, according to the American Pet Products Association. That amount has increased 73% in the past ten years and exceeds what we spend annually on child care. Veterinary care accounted for $13.4 billion of the total.

Twenty years ago, if a pet was seriously ill, treatment options were limited. Today, many of the options available to humans -- transplants, cancer treatments and so on -- are also available for pets. For a lot of owners, pets are part of the family, and owners will spend whatever it takes to keep them healthy. But your philosophy about your pet -- and your financial resources -- will dictate how far into your wallet you're willing to dip if your pet gets sick or has a mishap.

Rather than choose between their pet's well-being and their wallet, owners are springing for pet insurance in growing numbers. As with any insurance, you must weigh deductibles and coverage against the possible payout. Unfortunately, unless your pet comes down with a serious illness or has an accident requiring extensive veterinary care, it's unlikely you'll recoup much more than the premiums you pay for a policy. "The big benefit of pet insurance is peace of mind," says Karen Felsted, a veterinarian and CPA who owns a veterinary consulting firm. "If something goes really wrong, you'll at least have some of it covered."

If you think buying pet insurance might be right for you, do plenty of research. Until 1997, the only company offering pet insurance was VPI, and it has the largest share of the market. But competition has been growing over the past five years, and now 11 companies offer coverage. Most of them do business under more than one brand. Older pets -- those past 7 to 10 years old -- may not be eligible for a new policy, so getting a policy early on is the way to go. When you renew, you may be hit with higher premiums.

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