The Cost of Companionship

Growing up, I remember being told to NEVER ask or talk about other people’s financial situations.  This is just one social rule (among many others) that I have to break on a daily basis as a veterinarian.  Nobody likes to talk about the “business” of medicine, but it is a reality.  Medical care carries with it a hefty overhead, and the medical supply companies, landlords, and reference labs don’t care how much a veterinarian loves animals when she can’t pay her bills.

Veterinarians are often blamed for the cost of pet care today compared to years past, but it has much less to do with our (not so) deep pockets, and way more to do with how much the emotional value of the pet has gone up.  After correcting for inflation, the US expenditure on pet-related products and services has grown at FIVE TIMES the rate of growth for the US economy.  I should also mention that veterinary care makes up less than a quarter of that spending.  It isn’t that vets are charging more for what we are doing, we are actually DOING a lot more to keep your pets happy and healthy for as long as possible.

Dogs (in particular) have evolved over the past 30,000 years to be the perfect companion to humans, but it was only recently that we started treating them as surrogate family members.  Many people have (sheepishly) confessed to me that the most profoundly intimate bond in their life is with their pet, and there is no shame in that.  There are even academic programs now that investigate the power and utility of this relationship, which has been shown to have many emotional and physical benefits for humans.

The worst part of my job is watching someone struggle with deciding whether or not to spend a certain dollar amount to save their companion’s life.  Even more often, I see owners having to cut corners on preventive care, which puts their pets at risk, and could end up costing them a lot more in the long-run.  How can we reconcile the emotional value of pets with the very real financial burdens of veterinary care?  We can start by doing a better job of preparing for these costs on day 1 of owning that pet (better yet, several months prior), so the bills don’t feel so, well, burdensome.

Here are some strategies for managing the lifetime cost of your companion’s veterinary care:

  • Find a reputable pet insurance provider, and get your pet covered as young as possible.
  • Pet insurance coverage is typically limited to illness and injury, and ranges from high-deductible catastrophic plans to high premium comprehensive plans.  Your vet can help you choose the right plan for your pet.
  • Find a vet you wholeheartedly trust, and follow his or her recommendations for preventing disease.  Prevention is always much less costly than treatment!
  • For preventive care and to cover the cost of premiums and deductibles, you should have a separate debit card for pet spending, and have a certain amount automatically deposited each month.  Like anything else–if you don’t see it, you won’t miss it!
  • Ask your vet for an estimate of all of the necessary wellness care for the year so that you know how much to save each month.  A rough estimate is $100 per month per pet for wellness care (including dental cleanings) and insurance premiums, but it all depends on size, breed, and lifestyle.