Well First LLC

Phone: 877 935 5178 (877- WELL1ST)

The Dog Maxed Out My Credit Card .

November 2, 2011

For one New York family, it has been a pricey few years at the doctor's office: Jake was treated for a malignant tumor on his eyelid—for $7,000—and Daisy recently swallowed a rock that cost $3,100 to remove.

"It's hard, the money, but they are part of the family," says Agnieszka Onichimiuk, whose family lives in Staten Island with their two Bernese mountain dogs.

Pet owners are feeling sticker shock at the vet. The average household in the U.S. spent $655 on routine doctor and surgical visits for dogs last year, up 47% from a decade ago, according to the American Pet Products Association. Expenditures for cats soared 73% over the same time frame—on pace with human health-care cost increases. Expenditures for people in the U.S. were up 76.7% between 1999 and 2009, according to the U. S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

More advanced-care options in areas such as ophthalmology as well as treatment of conditions such as cancer are driving up costs for owners, as well as higher standards for routine care.

"All of the innovations on the human side [of medicine] have come on over to the vet side, from MRIs and CAT scans to chemo and radiation," says Dennis Drent, president and CEO of Veterinary Pet Insurance Co.

Last year, VPI policyholders submitted 51,927 claims costing more than $1,000, up 64% from four years earlier. The average annual payout per pet for cancer therapy rose 14% to $2,821.16 last year, according to insurance provider Petplan.

"Prices have gone up much quicker in the last 10 years than in the past 30 years, and it's hitting consumers in the face," says René Carlson, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "Liability-wise, we now get in much more trouble if we've cut corners" on routine matters, she adds. That often translates into more X-rays, more blood work and other tests.

There are about 165 million pet dogs and cats in the U.S. When asked how much they'd spend to save their pet's life, 70% of owners said "any amount," according to a 2006 survey of 5,200 VPI policyholders.

Ms. Onichimiuk, a 33-year-old physician's assistant, and her husband doled out thousands of dollars on oncology treatments, X-rays, medications and lab work trying to keep Jake, their 5½-year-old dog, alive. After he died, she says, "I couldn't imagine losing another dog," so the couple spent whatever it took to save 2½-year-old Daisy after her rock-eating episode.

Price hikes are also part of an active push by the veterinary industry to improve the bottom line of its practices. Addressing the disparity between rising tuitions and stagnant salaries has been a top priority of the veterinary association, which represents 81,500 vets.

High student loans and lower salaries than other advanced-degree professions, such as dentistry and law, are putting pressure on vets to raise fees. The average 2010 graduate of a U.S. veterinary college earned a starting salary of $67,359 in private practice but carried roughly double that in debt, according to a study this year by Bayer AG's Animal Health Division.

Higher fees create a separate issue: People tend to take their pets to the vet less, according to the Bayer report, which can lead to costlier long-term health problems if ailments are left untreated.

To discourage such behavior, more vets offer or participate in third-party discount plans that for a monthly fee give pet owners price cuts on treatments or perks, such as unlimited office visits.

One is Pet Assure Corp., a Lakewood, N.J., company that sells discount plans to consumers who then receive savings at participating vets. The plans offer an average 25% discount on most procedures for $7.95 to $13.95 a month, depending on the type and number of animals covered. Pet Assure has signed up 1,700 clinics and 300,000 pets since its 1995 launch, according to Charles Nebenzahl, chief executive.

Rick Katz in Overland Park, Kan., saved almost $200 on an $800 bill through Pet Assure when Max the Wonder Dog, his 14-year-old black Labrador-golden retriever mix, suffered a seizure eight months ago. "We brought him to the vet and had that all-important question you have with pets, which is, 'How far do you go?' " Mr. Katz says. "The vet said he still had life in him, so we went and had him treated." Of the savings, he says, "It's a big deal. It adds up."

Other plans are designed to encourage owners not to skimp on preventive care. Enrollment in the "Optimum Wellness Plans" has jumped 15% over the past five years at Banfield Pet Hospital, a chain with 780 offices that is a unit of Mars Inc., the candy manufacturer that makes Pedigree and Whiskas pet foods. Pet owners pay on average between $17.95 and $49.95 a month for adult animals. They receive unlimited free office visits, vaccinations, heartworm tests, two comprehensive exams, annual blood work and in some cases dental cleaning, X-rays and more.

"We're trying to avoid the long-term illnesses," says Harry Smith, a South Carolina veterinarian and a medical director for Banfield. For clients not on the company's plan, dogs averaged 1.4 visits last year, versus almost three visits for those on the plan.

Sandra Fain of Kingwood, Texas, keeps her three pets on Banfield's Wellness plan, including six-year-old JoJo, a Maltese. Without the plan, she says she couldn't give her pets "the kind of care they've been getting." That included a $1,500 surgery discounted from $2,500 to repair JoJo's torn ligament and dislocated kneecap earlier this fall. Amputation was the other, cheaper, alternative, she says.you have with pets, which is, 'How far do you go?' " Mr. Katz says. "The vet said he still had life in him, so we went and had him treated." Of the savings, he says, "It's a big deal. It adds up."

"But that's my baby, and I wouldn't just cut off his leg, the same way I wouldn't with a child," Ms. Fain. "Pets need just as much as humans do."