How much would you spend to prolong your pet’s life?
By Dave Gathman email@example.com
Veterinarian technician Leonard Jarosinski demonstrates performing an ultrasound on his cat Kramer with help from technician Katie Craker Monday at Dundee Animal Hospital in East Dundee. | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
ELGIN — The ordeals faced by the late Jake Sellers will sound familiar to millions who have faced similar long battles against cancer: Surgery followed by chemotherapy and its exhausting side effects. Traveling hundreds of miles to nationally known clinics where specialists might offer a better glimmer of hope. Weekly lab tests. Days and weeks spent off work. Bills running up to thousands of dollars.
But what’s different about Jake is that he was a dog.
Yet Jake is no longer unique. As procedures such as ultrasounds, CAT scans, MRIs and chemotherapy that once were used only on humans move into the world of veterinary medicine, animal doctors increasingly are able to do for cat and dogs what used to be possible only for people. But with this almost-human-level health come almost-human-level costs. That raises the ethical and emotional question: How much money would you spend to prolong the life of your pet?
For Jake’s owners, Susan Sellers and Robert Richards of Elgin, the answer to that question was “a lot of money.” They thought of their golden retriever Jake as a member of the family. And they were able to extend Jake’s life for a year and a half.
Sellers won’t say exactly how much money they ended up spending on the battle. She admits it was well into the thousands. “But we would do it all again.”
Eating bath mat
Sellers said Jake’s expensive health troubles began about three or four years after they adopted him in 1999. One day he began vomiting. Their veterinarian at Dundee Animal Hospital, Dr. Kelly Lathrop, used X-ray and ultrasound equipment to figure out he had an intestinal blockage. They waited in hopes the blockage would pass on its own, but Lathrop warned that an expensive operation might be needed.
“Then one night Dr. Lathrop called at 3:30 a.m. and said, ‘I’m going to have to go in and get it,’ ” Sellers recalls. “I asked, ‘When?’ and she just said, ‘Right now’ and hung up.”
Sellers hurried over to the hospital and waited through the operation. Finally, Lathrop came out and held out the object that had been causing the problem — a 1-by-13-inch piece of bath mat Jake had swallowed during a moment of questionable canine judgment.
Sellers was left with a vet bill for more than $2,000. But Jake returned to perfect health and Sellers felt the cost had been well worth it.
The cancer siege began in March 2008, when Jake was 9 years old. He began suffering from diarrhea, so Sellers took him to East Dundee to be examined by Lathrop. She figured out he had cancer of the anal gland.
On Lathrop’s recommendation, they took him to a specialty animal hospital in Aurora, where an oncology specialist operated and cut out the tumor, at a cost of $2,500. They then had a choice between following the surgery with radiation, giving the dog chemotherapy, or doing nothing more and risking that the cancer would come back. They decided to use chemotherapy. They took Jake 120 miles each way to do that at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, where Dr. Kai Hsiu and Dr. Larissa McCartan specialize in such treatments. Sellers would take off work and drive to Madison once every three months. In between, they took Jake to Dundee Animal Hospital once a week for blood tests.
“If Jake’s quality of life hadn’t been good, we wouldn’t have done it,” Sellers said. “But when we would go to Madison for his treatments, Jake would run down the hall to see Dr. Hsiu. Back home, when we’d be losing it and feeling all sad, Jake would come over and cheer us up.”
But for reasons still unclear, doctors discovered after a year or so that he had developed an unrelated cancer on his stomach, and a few months after that he had developed lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph glands. Even with giant spending and giant effort, there no longer was hope of a cure. So in August 2009, they made a decision that isn’t available in a similar human case. They arranged for Jake to be “put to sleep.”
“Toward the end, he wouldn’t eat at all, and Jake was all about eating,” Sellers said. “We didn’t want to see him waste away.”
No one number
Dr. Spencer Huebner is one of the six owners of Dundee Animal Hospital, which with three locations and 24 vets is the northern Fox Valley’s largest. He said there’s no specific amount of money that the typical pet owner refuses to spend beyond.
“Every case is different,” Huebner said. “Seldom can we say that if you spend X number of dollars, then your pet can get better. The prognosis and age of the animal make a difference. If you have a young dog that has broken its leg, that may be very expensive to fix, but our client may choose to do so because at the end, you’re likely to have a very successful outcome. If it’s an older dog and he has cancer, the client may decide differently.”
“We have had a number of patients who have spent over $5,000,” Huebner said.
He said cancer actually is not the most expensive woe that can hit a dog or cat. Often more costly are broken bones caused by being hit by a car; removing “foreign bodies,” like that bath mat Jake had swallowed; a complication of diabetes called ketoacidosis; and bloat, a condition in which the stomach of large-breed dogs twists.
With some kinds of cancer, we’ll say, “Treatment probably won’t help much, but it’s your decision whether you want to try.’ It’s always the client’s decision, and every client is different.”
Still, animal-doctoring costs remain lower than human ones. That $2,500 cancer surgery on Jake might have cost 10 or 20 times that much in a human hospital. “Even though we have an advanced facility here, its operating room is not as elaborate as a human hospital’s,” Huebner said. “The human surgery would have a more people involved.”
Professionals in the animal field also make less money than their counterparts in human medicine. The average veterinary-school graduate starts at a salary of about $65,000, Huebner said. It’s not uncommon for specialty-trained new MDs to earn $200,000 a year.
Most human health care is paid at least partly by insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Huebner said an increasing number of people are buying pet insurance, but the great majority of clients he sees — Huebner estimates 90 percent — still pay for everything out of pocket.
Animal health care also involves a much lower cost of paperwork than human health care, with its monumental shuffling of insurance claim forms and pre-approvals and medical records and billings. If a pet owner has insurance — which typically costs $20 to $80 per month — he or she usually must pay the bill up front, then deal with the insurance company on his or her own to be reimbursed.
Time to let go
Eventually, the time comes to admit that no more effort and cost is worth it, notes former cat owner Cheryl Busick of Elgin.
For almost 20 years, Busick had taken care of brother and sister cats named Sosha and Mattie, whom she and her daughter had adopted as kittens from her parents’ central Illinois farm. Mattie died a couple years ago. Sosha had developed metabolic problems, yo-yo-ing from far too light to far too heavy.
“We kept changing her food and doing blood tests that cost maybe $100 or $150,” Busick recalls. “In the last few months, I was taking her to the vet every two or three weeks, and every time it was $70 or $100, plus the cost of the special food.”
“The doctor said, ‘You know, Cheryl, there are specialists you could go to.’ But the cat had lived 19 years already and they would cost a lot of money and it didn’t appear that a specialist would help anyway. I think I let Mattie live too long; toward the end, he wasn’t enjoying life anymore.”
Finally, Busick’s decision was made for her when Sosha suffered an apparent stroke. Finding the cat semi-paralyzed one night, she rushed Sosha to a veterinarian, who recommended that the most realistic thing to do was to put the cat to sleep. “They gave me five minutes to say goodbye,” Busick recalls.
Of course, the euthanasia injection that now ends a majority of pets’ lives doesn’t come free, either. Huebner said that at his hospital the injection costs $70, plus about $150 to $300 if the owner wants the animal to be cremated.