Emergency vet trips a costly necessity for pet owners | Local News Stories

The woman on the other end of the phone was in tears. Her eight-year-old cat, Oxford, had stopped eating and was in dire need of $1,600 worth of dental work and she just didn’t have it. Was there something The Animal League of Green Valley could do to help?

Linda Moser took the desperate woman’s call. The TALGV secretary and volunteer knew immediately what she had to do.

Instead of leaving the TALGV a gift upon her death, Moser decided to help pets in need while she’s still around to see the results. She will be donating $100,000 a year for the next five years to the TALGV. A different program will receive the proceeds every year and this year’s proceeds will be used exclusively for dental work.

Oxford, who had been adopted from the TALGV just a couple of years ago, was the first beneficiary.

“Maybe one year, I’ll donate to the outreach program and another year it will be the Vet Care for Life program,” Moser said. “I want to help programs that are really eating into our budget, things that we don’t want to cut out of the budget.”

And while pet owners will argue cases such as Oxford’s are worth the expense, they do eat into the budget, both for shelters such as TALGV and individual households.

The TALGV, with an annual budget of $1.1 million spent more than $234,000 last year on medical expenses in-house.

A survey of pet owners conducted by the American Pet Products Association estimated that Americans will spend $16.6 billion on veterinary costs in 2017, up from $15.95 billion in 2016. Pet insurance provider Petplan released claim figures in May asserting the average cost of an unexpected visit to the veterinarian in Arizona was between $1,200 and $1,300. Petplan’s release said the most common injuries and costs for pets nationwide are leg injuries, at $3,480; eating something bad, at $1,755; and cancer, at $2,003.

Shelley Humphrey, a veterinarian who owns the Animal Care Center of Green Valley, said part of that cost is many pet owners expect the same quality of health care they receive, and that means the same technology used on humans.

Her clinic has X-ray machines, an ultrasound, an oxygen chamber and lab equipment.

The American Veterinary Medical Association recognizes 22 veterinary specialities, including ophthalmology, oncology, surgery, internal medicine, dentistry, dermatology, radiology and pharmacology, Humphrey said.

And, just like medical doctors, vets graduate with huge student loan debts and must pay the cost of equipping and maintaining their offices, she said.

At Humphrey’s clinic, each of the four doctors sees about 15 to 20 patients per day, or about 12,000 patients per year.

She also said comparing clinics based on costs isn’t always apples to apples. Based on procedures and equipment, the prices for the same care can vary between veterinarian offices.

The Arizona Veterinary Medical Association, in an emailed statement, said many pet owners are shocked by their bills because most people never see the true costs of their own health care.

“Pets often get the same diseases as people and in many cases undergo similar treatment. A 10-day hospital stay for a person could exceed $500,000, but for a pet it might be $5,000. People are used to low copays at a physician’s office, so veterinary bills may seem shocking, especially if they do not have pet insurance,” the statement said.

With her donation to TALGV, Moser said she hopes she can help keep more pets at home. Many times when people are unable to pay for their vet bills they either take their pets to the shelter or have them euthanized.

Most animal shelters nationwide are doing everything they can to reduce the number of animals euthanized, Moser said. As a result, when the animals are taken to the TALGV, the shelter ends up dipping into their coffers to pay for their care.

Moser, a retired medical education director, said she hopes others will consider helping as well. 

“If people are planning on making a bequest, I’d like them to consider doing it sooner rather than later,” Moser said. “We need the funds and they can see the benefit of their gift in action.”

Humphrey said in her experience people are less willing to euthanize their pets nowadays and more inclined to foot the bills.

“You still have a segment of the population that financially can’t or aren’t willing to, but most people are willing to literally not have money for rent in order to take care of their pet,” Humphrey said. “For some people that’s all they have, their pet buddies, their wife has passed away or their husband’s passed away.”

In its statement, the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association said “pets have become more and more important to their humans and pet owners expect better care from their veterinarians. That means veterinarians need to do more and charge more, and pet owners can expect to pay more.”

But the association did say there is something people can do to cut down on costly vet bills.

“The cost of prevention is often a fraction of the cost of treating a disease or problem once it has become more advanced, and early diagnosis and treatment of developing problems or diseases can increase the likelihood of successful outcomes,” the association’s statement said.

Otto Siegler, the Animal Care Center’s practice manager, said it is crucial for pet owners to bring their animals in for annual checkups and preventative care. Wellness exams are important because if vets can detect a problem early, they may be able to resolve the issue before it gets too expensive or leads to other issues, he said.

Humphrey said dental disease, for example, can all too often lead to heart and kidney issues.

Also, dogs and cats hide their problems and even the most observant owner, won’t necessarily know there’s something wrong with their pet, she said.

A dog may be eating, chewing on its toys and playing normally and yet need to have all of its teeth extracted, she said.

On countless occasions she’s had cat owners come in after an absence of anywhere between five to seven years.

“The problem with that is we do a thorough exam and we’ll find several problems. The teeth are bad, their eyesight’s not great and maybe I find out the cat’s kidneys are small,” Humphrey said. “Now we need blood work, we need X-rays, and the owner, who hasn’t taken their cat to the vet for seven years and spent zero dollars in those seven years, is now frustrated that they have an $800 estimate in front of them.”

Humphrey said many vets suffer from what’s called compassion fatigue because they see so many pets they can’t help.

“One of the biggest stressors in veterinary medicine is the fact that money is an obstacle,” Humphrey said. “I want to fix your dog. I want to fix your cat. I want to do whatever I can to make them healthy and whenever people don’t have the money or don’t have insurance, it’s incredibly frustrating for both sides.”

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