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How much money should I spend on my dog’s vet care?

Note: Some of my friends, family members, readers and customers have recently lost a pet. This post is dedicated to those animals.

Most of us will face difficult health decisions related to our pets. Emergencies come up. Dogs get sick and injured. They do not live as long as us.

There is no way to plan for everything, but I have thought about some of the decisions I may eventually have to make for my dog and my cats.

There are many emotional and ethical sides to animal healthcare and euthanasia. Few decisions are simple.

I can’t possibly cover every issue, but I hope you will think about two concepts when it comes to your dog’s healthcare:

  • Have a conversation with your dog’s vet about euthanasia before your dog is sick or injured.
  • Think about the amount of money you would realistically spend on a dog’s vet bills.

One of my favorite writers, Jon Katz, has a new book out called “Going Home: Finding peace when pets die.” It will offer much support to grieving pet owners, and I am thankful for that. I suggest you read it, regardless of your current pet situation.

I spoke with Katz over the phone last month after reading his book. I wanted to ask him for advice on preparing for the loss of a pet. Since I am the owner of three healthy, middle-aged pets, what should I be doing now to plan for the difficult decisions I will likely face?

What stuck with me most from our talk was his suggestion to schedule some time with my dog’s vet now where we openly discuss our personal thoughts and feelings related to euthanasia. This would also be a good time to talk about animal healthcare in general.

In “Going Home,” Katz wrote that vets are often hesitant to recommend euthanasia. They typically wait for the dog’s owner to bring it up first.

I wouldn’t want Ace’s vet to hesitate for my sake. She should know ahead of time what my thoughts are, and I should understand her side as well.

It’s also OK to question a vet’s suggestions, Katz and I agreed. It’s OK to say no.

The same problems with the human healthcare system exist in the animal healthcare system, Katz said during our interview. Prescriptions and procedures make money, and therefore dog owners need to be careful not to allow a vet’s recommendations to overwhelm their own instincts.

In the animal world, there are a lot of people telling other people what they oughta do, Katz said. But in the end, it’s a personal choice.

Good advice.

A weekend at the doggy ER

You may remember my mutt Ace became very ill back in March. He was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia, but at the time I had no idea what was wrong. Of course, this happened on a weekend when the only veterinary clinic open in Fargo was the emergency clinic.

I knew it was going to be a fun night when the receptionist required a payment before anyone would even see my dog.

I was very much at the mercy of the veterinarians that weekend. Worse, they were vets I had never met before. Now that it’s been several months, I am able to look back  at this experience with some perspective.

For one, we live in a small enough town where even at the emergency clinic, the vets are reachable. Just as I could sit down with Ace’s usual vet ahead of time and have a conversation about difficult topics, I could probably do the same with the vets at the ER clinic. I don’t know if they would actually listen to me or remember me, but at least they might keep something on file.

Second, I had more options than I allowed myself. I did not have to agree to every procedure the vets at the ER clinic recommended. A vet printed out an estimate, and I was basically expected to approve or reject it as a whole.

I could’ve picked the estimate apart and said, let’s do this but not this. Get him hydrated and get his fever down, I could’ve said, and I will take him to his regular vet on Monday.

I’m not saying I made the wrong choices that weekend. I’m just saying emotions and urgency were playing a large part in my decision making.

No one knew what was wrong with my dog, and I was worried he might die. The vets wanted to rule out poisoning and whether or not something was lodged in his digestive system. There was a sense that everything had to be done immediately.

The grand total for this “experience” was $1,782.78. This is a large amount of money for me. For others, it might not be.

The total cost for Ace’s 24-hour stay at the Red River Animal Emergency Clinic in Fargo was $1,559.18. I also had to pay a flat fee of about $100 just for walking in the door. Additional medications and follow-up appointments at his regular vet were another $123.60.

The majority of the cost was bloodwork, IVs, antibiotics, a urinalysis and “hospitalization” – nothing too invasive. I can’t imagine what surgery would’ve cost.

I guess I’m just using my experience as an example to others. The costs add up fast. Everything happens in a blur. If you do not have all the money available (credit is OK), your pet will not receive care.

It helps to think about these issues – at least a little – ahead of time.

How much money are you willing to spend on a dog’s veterinary care?

I have made the decision not to tell anyone how to obtain a pet. Likewise, I will not tell anyone how to part with a pet. I can’t tell anyone what to do when it comes to her dog’s healthcare. I can give advice if asked, but these are personal decisions.

Personally, I would like Josh and I to have a serious discussion on how much is reasonable to spend on an animal. We have talked about it briefly. We are rational people. We love our animals, but there is a limit. We have an emergency savings for a reason. We have lines of credit for a reason. But there are limits.

Would I spend $1,800 on my dog again? Yes. Double that? Maybe. Triple that? Probably not.

Would I spend the same amount to save one of my cats? Probably.

Do I know exactly how Josh feels about all this? No, I don’t.

Unfortunately, money is going to play a part in our decisions, at least for most of us. So I do recommend you talk about this issue with your partner, your kids, your parents, your roommate. Get everyone on the same page. Don’t leave someone out, not even young children. There are financial limits, and when urgency and emotions suddenly take over, it’s easy to forget those limits.

I would like to have something in writing – a letter to my future self, something to turn to in my time of need. It will remind my future self that I’ve given my pets a good life, that there are financial and physical limits, that I’ve done the best I can.

And finally, don’t allow me or anyone else to tell you what to do. These are personal choices.

As Katz said in “Going Home,” you are the best advocate for your particular animal. No one knows your dog or your cat as well as you.

Cute black lab mix mutt with gray nose

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Sunday 10th of January 2016

[…] easy to put off conversations or planning about how you might handle expensive veterinary costs that come up for your dog. However, it’s better to plan ahead for how you will handle such […]

Jana Rade

Thursday 8th of May 2014

I don't believe there is really any SHOULD, other than providing adequate preventive care and preventing suffering. It is not right to let the dog suffer. Everything beyond that is really "optional."

How much did we spend on Jasmine total? $75,000. Do I expect other people to spend a fortune and drown themselves in debt like we did? No. We did it and we don't regret it. But deciding on the maximum budget and doing whatever can be done within that is ok too.

Getting a good pet health insurance certainly helps with some of the financial dilemma.

Lindsay Stordahl

Thursday 8th of May 2014

So glad you were able to do so much for Jasmine. Thank you for sharing about your experience. I don't think there is ever a "right" answer, but each of us can still make the best choice about what we think is right for our unique pet and situation.

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 17th of October 2011

Yes, we always have to take into consideration the quality of life for the pet. I also would have an easier time spending a lot of money on a younger dog vs. an older dog.

Free Pet Advice

Monday 17th of October 2011

The cost for my dog's tplo surgery was just under 3,000. Lars is 4, meaning that he has his entire life ahead of him. If he was 10 or 11, would I have paid that much for the surgery, or would I have looked into alternative passive treatment options? Definitely would've not had the expensive surgery done.

I've also had the unfortunate experience of looking at this from the other perspective, having an older sick dog who I could've kept alive for a few years just to make myself feel better, but opted to put him out of his misery. A lot has to be said for the quality of life your dog will have, and I think this needs to be thought about very carefully before making big financial decisions.

Lindsay Stordahl

Friday 14th of October 2011

And some people will lose their house over a dog or go bankrupt over a dog. If that is the right decision for that person, then I guess you gotta do what you gotta do. I know I will only go into a certain amount of debt for a pet. It is a personal decision I have thought about.