Saturday 21 April 2018

How much would you spend to save your pet?

With some vet procedures costing thousands, Vicki Notaro talks to pet owners who'd spare no expense nursing their furry friend back to full health

Hounds of love: Noelle O’Reilly and her eight-month-old Puggle Charlie, who is now a tripawd after undergoing a life-saving leg amputation. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Hounds of love: Noelle O’Reilly and her eight-month-old Puggle Charlie, who is now a tripawd after undergoing a life-saving leg amputation. Photo: Caroline Quinn

For many Irish people, pets are an integral part of the family unit; for some, "fur babies" are comparable to children in their minds. But they're expensive to own, no question. As of last month, any dog found not registered and chipped could cost their owner up to €5,000 in fines. Between the cost of chipping, food, grooming, vaccinations and other doggy paraphernalia, taking one on will certainly cost you a pretty penny over the years.

But what if your pet became so sick that it would cost thousands to return them to health - would you pay it without batting an eyelid, or is there an amount that's just too much to spend on saving a beloved pet's life?

With no legislation on veterinary fees, costs vary due to location, species, size and more, so pet health can in some cases cost thousands of euro, leaving owners having to make some very difficult decisions.

Vet and TV star Pete Wedderburn says that it's not so black and white. "Do people often pay thousands without a second thought? Absolutely not!" he says.

"It depends on people's resources, and that's one of the big challenges of being a vet. My job is to explain what's possible technically, the ideal. But we have to tailor that ideal to what people can afford.

"I'm used to telling people that there are gold, silver and bronze options, with gold being what's best for the animal. Most of the people that go for this option have their pets insured, which is the beauty of it - you don't need to stop and think 'how much can I afford here?'"

These days dogs and cats seem to be more beloved than ever, with pet-centric businesses booming as we treat them to day care, spa visits and specialist baked treats. So it's no surprise we might be more loath to euthanise our sick furry friends than we might have been a decade or two ago.

"Euthanasia is referred to in veterinary circles as the ultimate palliative treatment - if an animal is in pain and suffering, we can end that," says Pete.

"Sometimes that's the right decision, regardless of money. But thankfully economic euthanasia, where it's the only option that can be afforded, is very unusual now thanks to the different levels of treatment we can offer."

Pete says that it's difficult to collate data about insurance and costs because a lot of it is private, but overall the financial capacity to care for pets can be tracked to the economic cycle.

"Leading up to the boom, we saw a lot more clients with insurance because they had extra cash - you could almost see them looking around for things to buy. That all stopped during the recession. People would look at their budgets and cut it out because their pet had been well."

Sarah Geoghegan from Dublin has had her Staffordshire Bull Terrier Tucker for two years. A difficult breed to get insured, when he took ill last month, she brought him to a couple of vets to try and solve the problem, but he kept getting worse. When he collapsed vomiting and couldn't get up, she sped to the nearest emergency clinic.

"The vet found that he had a blockage in his intestine which could have ultimately killed him. He was immediately sedated to be X-rayed, and I was advised that he needed surgery right away. Depending on the internal damage caused by the blockage it could cost anywhere from between €750 to €1,500."

Sarah says that while she was surprised at the cost, it didn't matter. "I'd pay it 10 times over to make sure he got the treatment he needed. You wouldn't leave a human family member untreated because of the cost, so why not for your pet?"

Tucker is now bouncing around as if nothing ever happened, while Sarah is relieved she was in a position to afford his care.

Jesse Curtis from Dublin found herself in a difficult situation when her rescue cat Ray became sick in 2011. He came to her ill, so she could never get him insured. He was then diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, a collapsed larynx and cat asthma aged just one, but showed no signs of pain.

"He was so active, so that was the reason we decided to give him a chance. He had heart scans, scopes, X-rays and the vets were sure that once his larynx was repaired it would take pressure off his heart and he could live with medication. He got surgery in 2012. The first few weeks were hard work but then we had a year with no problems."

Sadly though, the following summer was too hot for Ray and he passed away from heart failure. "Our vet bill in UCD came close to €4,000, but I couldn't fault them and I'd pay it again because the care he was given was amazing."

Since then, Jesse's dog Finnegan suffered a tear in his chest cavity and needed an operation that cost nearly €2,000. However, Finnegan was insured.

"The amount has to be paid in full for emergency care, but could be claimed back. Then the after care in our own vet was close to €1,000 but we didn't pay a cent and they claimed straight from our insurer. It was such a relief to not have to pay that straight out. We put in our claim for both bills and we got everything bar our €100 excess back.

"I work in the pet industry and I know many people like me who would pay anything for their pets. You can grow extremely attached to an animal and it can be like having a child. I know I was lucky to have the money available to me for Ray's bill and I'm glad I spent it on him rather than anything else.

"The last €1,000 was paid off monthly and UCD were happy to do that, so there are always options. But for people who prefer to put money away instead of insuring just in case something happens, I say don't, unless you're putting hundreds away. The bill can rack up so quickly."

"People seem to assume that vets are delighted when a pet is insured because we can charge lots of money, but that's absolutely not the reason," says Pete.

"They're relieved, because it means they can do the right thing. If the pet is not insured, you present the options. Some fortunate people who can afford the fees don't care about the cost, other people might have to ask 'well, what difference would this procedure make?'"

Pete says you have to take in to account whether having an MRI or a diagnosis will make the animal any better, or if having the surgery will give them a better quality of life.

However it's not just emergency services that cost a lot, as Irina Milanovic found when her dog Medo was diagnosed with diabetes, arthritis and colitis aged three.

"Medo gets insulin twice a day, six tablets in the morning and two at night. His medication costs about €275 every month.

"Having insurance does help, but the dog is only covered up to a certain amount per year. As a result of that, I am trying not to claim for everything in case he needs to get a big procedure done."

Medo's premium has grown from €219 to €770 a year because of all his previous claims, so Irina pays for all the medication herself. A flare up of colitis also set her back another €850 last year.

"He'll be on medication for the rest of his life. At the moment, his diabetes is under control but his arthritis is getting worse, his eyesight is completely gone in one eye and it's just a matter of time before he is completely blind.

"His treatments aren't going to get any cheaper or less complicated but even so, I would never stop providing the care that he needs, no matter the cost.

"When he got sick, people were telling me to get rid of him, to see if there's a doggy nursing home, but how anyone could do that is beyond me.

"He didn't ask to get sick. He's part of my family and I'll do my best to give him everything that he needs to live a long and happy life."

Noelle O'Reilly, 30, from Glenageary in Dublin, spent over €4,000 when her Puggle required an  amputation

'My son Nathan and I have had Charlie for eight months, since he was eight-weeks-old. I am a massive animal lover but this is my first dog.

"Charlie fell backwards when jumping on a bed when he was three-months-old. He broke his elbow in two places and underwent a four-hour operation in UCD Veterinary Hospital. After eight weeks of recovery and me working from home to mind him, the break had failed to heal. I was heartbroken. My choice at this point was to lose the leg or lose my pup.

"I would pay any money for Charlie to be healthy and happy. The total was over €4,000, but the leg is gone, and with it, the pain. He's in great form and has adapted well to being a tripawd.

"As humans, we have people to help and defend us in times of need. If I broke a bone and it failed to heal, I wouldn't be simply written off. Animals need us to be their carers and mostly, their voices.

"I should have had him insured but the accident happened shortly after I got him and I just hadn't the chance. In a world with so much animal cruelty, I genuinely hope that there are no pet owners with an opinion that any price is too high to prevent an animal's pain and suffering. They need us like we need them.

"Charlie is fully insured now on the maximum cover possible. So is my cat - I learned my lesson!"

Irish Independent

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