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Monday, January 3, 2011

The $20,000 Pet

by Nancy Keates, published December 22, 2010, Smart Money

For Mary Cotter, the first sign of concern came when her 7-year-old, Logan, appeared dizzy. His regular doctor said everything was fine, but Cotter insisted Logan be seen by a neurologist, who after an MRI found a tumor in his inner ear. An operation followed, and for the next month Cotter took Logan on a four-hour round-trip trek every day from her home in Ledyard, Conn., to a specialty hospital in Boston for radiation therapy.

A new CT scanner at New York's Animal Medical Center boasts shorter scan time and higher-quality images.
The total bill for the tests, blood work, surgery and radiation came to $14,000 — not surprising in this age of sky-high medical costs. Except for one thing. Logan is a golden retriever. After another surgery for an unrelated illness, the total cost of Logan's care is approaching $20,000. Today Logan is healthy, but he has a new nickname: "20K."

It's no secret that Americans love their pets. But these days, all that love is leading to an unprecedented level of expense for millions of owners, who are only beginning to understand the pet-world concept of sticker shock. Caught up in a wave of new medical options and lured by an increasingly sophisticated cadre of veterinarians, pet owners across the country are forking over thousands — and even tens of thousands — of dollars to treat illnesses that would have gone undiagnosed or untreated just a few years ago. And then doing it again if they have to. Of course, pet owners and most vets have the animals' best interest in mind. But that doesn't make it any easier: With health insurance covering the humans in many families, it's not unusual for pet owners to spend far more money on health care for their cats and dogs than for their sons and daughters. Even the Great Recession failed to take a bite out of Fido's health care tab. According to a report by market-research company Packaged Facts, Americans spent $20 billion on veterinary bills in 2010 — an 8.5% increase from a year earlier and more than double the amount spent just a decade ago.

Much of that money is being spent on new medical technology. With some of the advances in human health care spreading to the animal kingdom, pet owners have many more options for treatment—and many more chances to fork over money to cure their pets or at least prolong their pets' lives. Dogs and cats can have pacemakers implanted at a cost of $1,000 to $1,500, while pets with kidney failure can get a kidney-clearing procedure that runs $20,000 to $25,000 for just the first few weeks. Not long ago a vet would most likely have recommended euthanasia for a cat or dog diagnosed with cancer or another serious illness. Today high-tech procedures and equipment, such as chemotherapy and MRIs — and yes, CAT scans — allow for better diagnosis and more-advanced treatment.

They also require highly trained specialists. In the past three years, the percentage of veterinarians who are board certified for small-animal surgery has more than doubled, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Until the late 1980s, there were no board-certified veterinary oncologists, for a simple reason: There was no program for certification. Now vet schools offer oncology-specialization programs and have full-fledged cancer centers, while dozens of private centers have opened across the country with board-certified staff. At the Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University, 14 veterinarians specialize in medical, surgical and radiation oncology. They're supported by a full nursing staff, residents and even a clinical-trials team focusing on diseases from canine lymphoma to feline sarcoma. Add it all up and "it's a revolution," says Stephen Withrow, the center's associate

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