Pet owners not prepared for emergency medical costs

Your furry friend might come with some surprise medical costs. Photo by Marina von Stackelberg
Your furry friend might come with some surprise medical costs. Photo by Marina von Stackelberg

Jess Hughes came home one day to find her cat throwing up blood.

“And $1,800 later, we found out he had swallowed a hair elastic,’ she said. “In the end he pooped it out.”

That same year, her dog developed an allergy and her other cat needed dental surgery.

“We spent about $10,000 in one year on every conceivable medical cost for our pets,” she said.

Hughes paid for it all with a pool of money she had set aside for her pets.

But accidents and illnesses aren’t something most pet owners financially prepare for, according to Dr. Berney Pukay, an Ottawa veterinarian and council member with the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.

Although a pet will only cost between $500-$1,000 a year in terms of basic food and vet care, unplanned medical bills can cost thousands. It’s something that always surprises people, Pukay said.

“The same technology that goes into medical procedures for humans goes into animals as well,” he said. “Operating on a chihuahua is as complicated as operating on a premature baby.”

Better technology means more expensive options, he said.

“In the old days we could either fix your pet up very quickly or put it to sleep. Now you have options. We can do a CT scan or an MRI, exploratory surgery, or give chemotherapy drugs,” he said.

“Suddenly you are left with the decision to spend more money or put your pet to sleep. And that’s a tough decision.”

Euthanasia is chosen too frequently, Pukay said.

“The sad thing is that it could be avoidable if people just took out pet insurance.”

Pet insurance costs approximately $30 to $60 a month, depending on the type of plan, Pukay said.

“If you’re on a limited budget, get pet insurance that covers you for the big events that can go wrong with your pet, like getting hit by a car, ingesting poison, and infections.”

But insurance isn’t something most Canadian pet owners have caught on to.

In North America, only about two per cent of pet owners have it, Pukay said. In comparison, 40-50 per cent of pet owners in England have it.

For people without insurance, there are other ways to make expensive vet bills more affordable. There are actually several credit cards designed specifically to pay pet medical bills. The Humane Society also suggest that people ask their vet for a payment plan, and choose clinics in smaller cities or veterinary schools for lower cost procedures.

There is also The Farley Foundation, an organization that provides up to $1,000 for emergency medical costs for pets belonging to low-income people, including seniors and those with disabilities.

Finally, some people make the difficult choice to surrender their pet to a local animal shelter.

A total of 407 people surrendered pets in the province last year stating it was because they couldn’t afford keeping the animal, most often because of needed medical care, according to Tonya Martin, senior manager of animal welfare and operations at the Ontario SPCA.

“One time a woman came in and her dog had been hit by a car. She literally picked up the animal and came straight to us and said, ‘I know I cannot afford what this dog needs.’”

The shelter was able to save the dog and adopt it out.

Martin agrees on the value of a pet plan.

“Even if you’re putting aside an extra $25 a month. If you do that with a puppy, they might run into health issues in ten years. It’s kind of like an RRSP for your dog.”

As for Hughes, she said she’s weighed the options of pet insurance but has decided to take her chances by keeping money in a savings account instead. That way she won’t have to worry if a future medical procedure falls under her insurance policy.

“I want to make sure every last thing that could go wrong is covered,” Hughes said. “I’m definitely the person who will spend thousands of dollars to have my pet’s hip replaced.”