More than 73 million U.S. households own a pet and altogether they spend $53 billion per year to care for them.
More than half of that budget goes toward medical treatment, with money spent on supplies and OTC medications rising by more than 7% in 2012.
But where do you draw the line between keeping Fido healthy and compromising your finances to give him a few more months of playtime?
"It's a very difficult situation [for both patients and veterinarians]," said Dr. Kristen Frank, an internist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "I've had pet owners who don't necessarily have $15,000 to spend to treat a terminal illness, but they've done it anyway through borrowing money or credit cards."
Emergency treatments can range from $1,500 to $4,000 for dogs, according to Frank, with cancer treatment sometimes costing twice as much or more.
Sometimes, the decision to forego medical care has more to do with the emotional cost of watching a beloved pet go than the potential financial burden.
"Recently I saw a woman who specifically said that her other cat passed way from cancer and she did everything including chemo and she said she did not want to go through that again," Frank said.
Unlike hospitals for humans, vets don't typically have the same flexibility to work with pet owners who can't afford treatments. Pet insurance can be handy, but it often comes with maximum coverage limits, steep deductibles, and pre-existing conditions clauses.
"Payment plans are also hard to come by," Frank said. "The financial aspect of veterinary care is toughest thing our people have to deal with on a daily basis ...We all wish we could provide free care but unfortunately it's just not possible."
But how does a pet owner decide whether to pay for treatment or let their pet go?
There is no one-size-fit-all answer, but a Michigan State University research may have found a simple way to help pet owners through such difficult times.
"Pets are like surrogate children," said Maria Iliopoulou. "In some cases, when a human bond evolves, it makes the decision more difficult."
Iliopoulou, who owns a small menagerie of pets herself, set out in 2009 to create a "Quality of Life Survey for Canine Cancer Patients" that dog owners can use to look at medical treatment with an unbiased eye.
Before each visit, Iliopoulou suggests dog owners complete the survey, which asks basic questions to help them track major quality of life indicators for canines — play behavior, signs of illness, and overall happiness.
"What we were trying to do with the research was to isolate the emotions to help people make the best decisions for their pet and for themselves," she said. "It helps the owner to pay attention to specific observable changes and transfer this info to the veterinarian."
So far, the survey is applicable only to dogs, but Iliopoulou plans on continuing her research in order to create similar tools for a range of animals, like cats, birds, etc.
Check out the surveys below:
Pet Quality of Life Survey 1
The survey does not provide any clear answers for how much a person should spend on end of life care, as that amount will vary based on income (and desire). However, by paying close attention to your dog's quality of life rather than your finances or emotional attachment, you'll be more likely to make a decision that's best for their needs.
To be safe, Frank recommends setting aside at least $5,000 in a special fund for emergency pet care.
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