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

23 thoughts on “How much money should I spend on my dog’s vet care?”

  1. We lost one dog in Nov 2009 and another in March of this year, so we have had this discussion. Our instinct tends to be that if there is a good chance a procedure can heal the dog, give them back their full natural lifespan (or close to it), we’re willing to pay more. If it is going to add just a few more months, are we really doing it for the dog or is it for us?
    We spent a lot of money on our first dog’s surgery for a bowel obstruction. But it went septic, and we lost him anyway. For our second dog, it was cancer. We could have bought him some time, but for a dog who was traumatized by getting his nails trimmed, was surgery and chemo to get him maybe six months really in his best interest?
    Going with paliative care for our Smokey angel was one of the hardest decisions we ever made, but we were lucky enough to be able to make that decision based on what was best for him, not on our pocket book.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      It is important to think about each dog as an individual, like you said. Some dogs are terrified of the vet, so is it really the best life for that dog if she has to visit the vet all the time?

      1. Over $3,500 was what we paid for Moree’s surgery- but it was supposed to be a cure, and we were “supposed” to get 5+ more years with him.
        I’ll be honest, thank goodness for Care Credit and their 1 yr 0% financing, otherwise it would have gone on a higher interest card. I don’t regret spending that amount of money on him, though it was frustrating to be paying off the vet for a full year after we lost him.
        And then, in my wacky mind, I “lost” him all over again when I paid the bill off, because now he was truly out of our lives.
        We would have spent the same (or more) for Smokey if it would have given us 5 more healthy happy years, but not for 6 months of him being miserable.
        It is good to know what your limits are, and to also accept that your opinion of the right option is going to change based on a specific scenario.

        1. Lindsay Stordahl

          I used Care Credit as well – finally paid that sucker off! I can imagine what you felt having to keep making payments after you lost Moree and then feeling sad all over again when you paid the bill off and “lost” him all over again. I haven’t experienced that, but I can imagine it.

  2. Charlie is in an unfortunate situation when it comes to things that cost money. I did put some money aside before I got him, but it isn’t $1,000… My mother might help out to a point, but he is my dog, not her’s, it isn’t her responsibility. We should probably have a conversation about it…

  3. You covered this topic well Lindsay. I myself will do anything I can for my pets. I had to take bruno to the emergency vet clinic not that long ago. He split his head wide open from the middle of his eyes to the back of his head behind his ears. Bert and he were rough housing and all that we could come up with was he nailed his head on one of Berts tooth. A few hundred dollars later we were on our way home. This was Brunos second trip to the ER. He also went because he ate a cocklebur(forgive the spelling) and it got lodged in his throat. I tried to get it out with my finger and he just about bit it off.LOL So when we got to the vet she tried the same thing and he did the same thing. I just laughed. So they had to put him under and remove it.

    I have spent money on surgeries for my pets that have exceeded the 1000.00 dollar mark before and I wouldn’t hesitate to spend more if the need arrises. But that is me and I understand that not everyone has the means to do so. But I hope that everyone does as much as they can. Because your pet deserves the best that you can give them.

    Uethanasia is tough. We might not think that our pet is as bad off as someone else may see them. My parents kept telling me that my Dalmation Rusty was in very tough shape and wasn’t having a good life. But I thought he was better than they thought. They never saw when he was having a good day etc. I told myself. But looking back they were right. I eventually listened to them and took him in. That was one of the toughest days of my life. He was in my life for 15 good years and I have many great memories of him. But what is interesting is last year my parents Min Pin was in the exact same type of shape the my dal was. But they couldn’t see it. Even though they were the first to point it out in my dog. I kept telling them that he is just like Rusty and they would argue with me and tell me that he is just having a bad day etc. Well they finally took him in and a couple of weeks later they told me that I was right.

    So an outside source is really a good way to see through the wall that we put up so that we don’t get hurt. Obviously we make the final decision. But at least try to see what they are seeing. Love blinds you and I don’t know about the rest of you but I love my pets with all my heart as they do me. So sometimes a bit of criticism from the peanut gallery helps with the decisions that need to be made. Not to mention the support you will recieve in your time of need. Because for me losing one of my pets is almost the same as losing a loved one so having loved ones there to support me is great. Ok enough rambling.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      It definitely helps to surround yourself with other animal lovers who have been through something similar before. It’s hard when you are grieving over an animal and some people just don’t get it.

      I’m sorry you lost Rusty. I know he was one of those really special dogs.

  4. I spent a Sunday night at the Emergency Vet’s clinic with Abby my lab mix after she got into a capsule of heart medication my Mom dropped on the floor. She was about 8 mo old. I tried calling poison control, etc but they couldn’t make any recommendations because they were not familiar with the medication. So she ended up drinking a bowl of activated charcoal at the vets-No problems afterward except for my $300.00 bill. One week later to do the day–Sunday again, she was chewing a small bone-ring like-I had gotten for her (a cross section of a large long bone (like a femur) & she got it stuck around her lower jaw with her two canine teeth keeping it firmly wedged in place. She was becoming frantic in her attempts to remove it (& I could not unstick it),back to the emergency vet again & another $300. bill for giving her sedation & using a giggly? wire to saw it off. These incidents were 5 years ago & no problems since.

  5. This is really an important post and your emotion comes through. It really is a very personal decision on how much to spend on vet bills and what to do at the end of a pet’s life. We have faced this dilemma. One of our goldens needed costly ACL surgery a few years ago. Since she was relatively young at the time, we went ahead and spent the money thinking she still had quite a few years left with us. Turns out she got really sick shortly thereafter and needed serious medical attention. Again we were faced with deciding what to do. That time we decided against taking extreme measures. It was a tough choice, but I think it was the right one for us. Every pet owner has different values and a different financial situation. Every pet owner must do what’s best for them. Now with two middle aged dogs it’s probably time to start thinking about this issue again. Congrats on getting the interview with John Katz! I think he’s a great author and it sounds like his latest is a good book for all pet owners to read.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Brittni was a dog who would freak out at every vet visit, so it didn’t make sense to take extreme measures for saving her. I remember she had a panic attack at simply the sight of one of those plastic cone collars. Poor girl!

  6. What a great post and so very timely for me. We just adopted a wonderful 2 year old pitbull on Sunday. We have been working on this adoption for a few months as our 16 year old staffie was in the last months of her life and we didn’t want to bring a new dog in at the end of her life.

    On Monday, I took the new dog in to my vet for an ear infection that just showed up Sunday evening. My vet took a look at him and told us that he needed knee replacement surgery as soon as possible. As we had to put him under for the ears, she x-rayed and confirmed her diagnosis. We are now faced with the dilemma of returning him to the rescue or springing for very expensive and time-intensive surgery. The rescue we got him from is in denial about the diagnosis though we now have proof. This is a difficult decision as my kids have bonded with the dog and also just lost a beloved member of the family a month ago. Still struggling with this choice though he will probably go back on Sunday……..

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      One thing you could do is get a second opinion from a second vet. Make sure this knee replacement really is necessary. I do know vets are awfully quick to recommend such surgeries, and it’s not always in the best interest of the dog.

      I wish I had some advice on whether or not you should return the dog. It’s a hard decision and I know you will do what is best for your family. You do have to put your family before the dog and before the rescue group.

  7. Good thoughts and hugs to all that recently lost their dog. We’ve been there twice, I know how it feels.

    I also know what it’s like to have a gravely ill dog and no money for potential diagnostics and procedures. Roxy’s seizures came on suddenly and the vet was giving little hope. Diagnostics would cost money we didn’t have and the prognosis was not hopeful. She was 9 years old and we decided to let her go. Always a tough decision.

    When we brought Jasmine to the emergency it costed us $800 just to get a horrible prognosis (and a wrong diagnosis btw). Not ready to give up and not having enough confidence in their conclusions we transferred Jasmine to the teaching hospital. Their diagnosis came with hope for full recovery and a quote of $10,000. We were able to scrap the money and we decided to go with hope.

    Jasmine’s vet bills added up to $60,000 total in about two years. We are not sorry we spent it but we are still in financial trouble from it. As long as we were able to come up with the money, though, we chose hope. Jasmine is my baby.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      So sorry to hear about your sweet Roxy 🙁

      Jasmine is in good hands. I know you’ve had to make some difficult choices for her.

  8. I’m so glad you covered this. While I do have a limit to how much I can spend, my limit is pretty high, but I’ve seen other people who can only spend so much and judgemental people act like they’re horrible pet owners because they won’t go into (more) debt to save their dog! Especially now with student debt, upside down mortages, etc. It’s like what you covered in your “shelters make it difficult to adopt” post: As long as the dog is happy and has/had it’s basic care covered, than it lived better than millions of other pets. Pyscho dog fanatics really need to cut normal dog lovers some slack. Just because you’re not willing/able to spend 10 grand on your dog doesn’t mean you don’t love them.

  9. Lindsay Stordahl

    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.

  10. Free Pet Advice

    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.

  11. Lindsay Stordahl

    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.

  12. 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.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      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.

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