Coping with the costs of a pet in declining health
Photo: Jill Greenberg
Lila was a shedding, drooling, romping bundle of fur, and the light of her human companion's life. Then she went blind, and the first vet bill was a ferocious $3,338. So...what was it going to be: summer camp for her daughter or meds for the dog? Lauren Slater faces a bitch of a question.
My dog Lila is 40 pounds packed with muscle and grit. Her hide is as rough as the rind of a cantaloupe, covered with coarse hair that is nevertheless somehow soft to the touch. She is a dumb dog in the sense that all dogs are dumb; driven by genes and status, she will willingly fight any mammal that threatens her alpha position, and she delights in bones, big greasy bones she can crunch in her curved canines and then swallow, splinters and all.

My husband disparages Lila, and, to his credit, there is much there to disparage. She lacks the capacity for critical thought; she has deposited in our yard an estimated 4,000 pounds of feces during her ten-year tenure with us; her urine has bleached our green grass so the lawn is now a bright yellow-lime, the same shade as the world seen through a pair of poorly tinted sunglasses. Lila farts and howls. Lila sheds and drools. Lila, in the past year or so, has cost us more to maintain than does the oil to heat our home. There is her food, her vaccinations, her grooming, the four times yearly palpating of her anal glands, her heartworm medications, her eye medications, her chew toys, her city leash, her second, country retractable leash, the dog bed, the emergency veterinary visits, the maintenance veterinary visits for eye pressure checks, the sheer time it takes to walk her (my husband estimates the value of my time at 50 bucks an hour, which I personally think is a little low for someone of my age and experience, but there you have it). Picture him, my husband, at night, the children tucked in bed, punching the keys on the calculator. Picture Lila, unsuspecting (and this is why she charms us, is it not?), draped across his feet, dreaming of deer and rivers as he figures the cost of her existence meshed with ours. He presses "=" and announces the price he claims is right: $60,000. I look out the window. The sky above the lawn she's bleached is as dark as a blackboard, scrawled with stars the weight of which I cannot calculate. I love my husband. I love Lila, too.

There are by some estimates two million tons of dog feces deposited annually on American sidewalks and lawns and in American parks. The volume of the canine liquid in this country has been estimated at four billion gallons, which, writes author Stephen Budiansky in his book The Truth About Dogs, "could fill all the wine bottles from a full year's output of the vineyards in France, Italy, Spain, and the United States combined." Dogs are the carriers of more than 65 diseases they can pass to their human counterparts: Some of the more well-known ones are rabies, tuberculosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Each year about a dozen people in the United States die from dog bites, and about 386,000 are injured enough to require a visit to the emergency room. Seems a no-brainer, right? Knowing these facts, you would have to be as dumb as a dog to have a dog in your home.

Continue reading The $60,000 Dog

Sources: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association; Veterinary Pet Insurance Company; The Wall Street Journal Enough to Give One Paws
  • Average cost of a dog: $331
  • Number of U.S. households with at least one dog: 44.8 million
  • Number of pet dogs in U.S.: 74.8 million
  • What Americans spent on pets in 2006: $38.5 billion (nearly double the $21 billion they shelled out a decade ago)
  • What they'll pony up on veterinary care in 2007: an estimated $9.8 billion, up 6.7 percent since 2006 ($9.2 billion)
  • How much the pet industry could ring up by 2010 at the current growth rate: $50 billion
  • Percentage of 379 human resource departments surveyed that offer pet health insurance as an employee benefit: 5
  • Cost of MRI pet scan: $2,200 to $2,700
  • Cost of radiation: $6,000 for 19 treatments
  • Percentage of 580 dog owners who would buy an urn for their deceased dog's ashes: 15
  • Percentage who would buy a memorial stone for their yard or garden: 23
  • Minimum cost for a taxidermist to freeze-dry a dog: $1,000
  • Number of states where judges have administered financial trusts set up in a pet's name: 25
  • Sampling of pampering services and products available: pet spas, doggy day care, pet steps and denture products (for elderly dogs), personalized bones, organic pet food, massage, acupuncture
  • Percentage of 8,000 pet owners who said their pets sleep in bed with them: 56
  • Annual estimated cost of dog-walking service in Brooklyn: $5,200 (at the rate of $20 per solo walk, five days a week)
  • Minimum lifetime cost of a medium-size dog, including food, supplies, boarding, and basic veterinary care: $4,500 to $5,500
  • Number of states in which cruelty to animals is a felony: 42

My own dogs were puppies when we got them, puppies like my husband and me. Now, 12 years later, I've begun to read the obituaries in the paper, I worry about osteoporosis, I experience occasional sciatica. Musashi, the elder of our canines, appears blessed with youthful genes, but Lila, like me, is going gray, her hips eroding, clumps of fur falling from her hide.

Until recently, I viewed Lila's decline as I do my own, an unfortunate inconvenience auguring a foreboding future that was still a way off. Then, a few months ago (it was spring then, a beautiful soft May day), I came downstairs to find my feisty dog crouched by the front door, her eyes squinted shut, her breath hot and fast. I called to her. She struggled toward me, then keeled sideways. I rushed her to the 24-hour veterinary hospital located ten miles from our house. "Why," I thought, as I waited at a series of interminable red lights, my dog panting in pain, "why are there no ambulances for animals?" While an ambulance for animals may strike some as absurd, it is likely no more ridiculous than a pet ER would have seemed to the general public 100 years ago.

Perhaps of all the 20th century's advances, veterinary medicine ranks among the greatest, not too far behind the combustible gas-powered engine. As barnyard animals disappeared from mainstream American life, so too did the barnyard vet, his primitive tools replaced with the antiseptic power-driven appliances that characterize so much of modern medicine, his sheep and goats and chickens now shampooed lapdogs and fine-boned huskies with bead-blue eyes and soap-white coats. And whereas in the 19th century "vets" had minimal education if any at all, they now are required to slog through four years of training more intense than an ordinary doctor's owing to the sheer quantity of species whose structures and metabolisms they need to master. And yet despite the difficulties of a veterinary education, the fact is that the number of vets and veterinary hospitals have, over the course of the 20th century, exponentially increased. Experts seem to agree that this increase reflects the pet's phenomenal rise in status, from a lowly creature consigned to the outhouse or no-house to honored family member with her own Eddie Bauer bed.

Or her own hospital bed, as the case may be. The hospital we arrived at that day is a 25 "bed" facility, a piece of prime real estate amid a row of biotechnology companies on a tony road just off the highway. I carried my panting puppy in through the pneumatic doors. A Burmese mountain dog lying sideways on a stretcher was whisked past me by two masked attendants. On the wall above the reception desk hung pictures of the vets, each coiffed and poised, below gold plaques inscribed with their specialties: neurology, oncology, pediatrics, psychology. The Burmese mountain dog was stalled outside the OR doors. He lay on his side, his front paws politely, precisely, crossed. His yellow eyes met mine. I had the distinct feeling he was from a fairy tale, a prince put under a spell, his carcass canine, his mind man.

A doctor ushered me into a small examination room. With thumb and forefinger she peeled back Lila's clamped lids, and I could see it then, how her normally amber eyes were filled with milk, glinting a dull bluish color, all opaque. Her eyes were oozing, and when I touched the fluid dampening her fur, it felt gluey.

The doctor called in the staff ophthalmologist, who brought in a huge machine and pressed its probe right up against Lila's pupil in a way that made me wince. "Seventy-five," the ophthalmologist said. The two doctors looked at each other grimly. Lila had gone still, stunned or dead I could not tell. They peeled back her other eye and again pressed the probe right to its center. "Eighty-three," the ophthalmologist said again. They turned to me. "Your dog has glaucoma," the ophthalmologist said. "The pressure in her eyes has risen well beyond normal."

Glaucoma. I had heard of that before. It did not seem so bad, I thought. I was wrong. In people glaucoma is manageable. In dogs it's devastating. The pounding pressure winches the canine's much smaller skull, causing a migraine well beyond what humans can conceive. Lila lay rigid with agony, her snout and fur hot to the touch. "The pressure has gone so high," the ophthalmologist said, "it has crushed both optic nerves. Lila is permanently blind."

I left Lila at the hospital that day—and for two days following. I left distraught. On my way out, the receptionist presented me with the first half of my bill: $1,400—money we didn't have. I looked again. My eyes, after all, were working. Fourteen hundred dollars for the ER visit, the emergency ophthalmology consult, the 48-hour boarding fee. The projected costs were on the second page. The only one I recall is the $1,800 charge for some advanced interventions that might be necessary. "Does everyone pay these charges?" I asked. "What happens if people don't have the money?"

"That hardly ever happens," she said. "People find a way to pay."

Owning a dog or a cat was relatively rare up through the 17th century. Now, however, 63 percent of American families own pets, while, according to a survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association, 72 percent of childless couples under 45 have companion animals in their households. Sociologists hypothesize that the rise in companion animals is due to the phenomenon so well described by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, discussing the decline of community in the United States during the 20th century. Pets, it seems, are filling a vacant space in our society, a space that used to be occupied by people in relation to one another and is now occupied by people petting pugs. Still, we could think of this another way. It could be that pets have risen in status for reasons rooted not in decline but rather in progress—in this case progress toward a more sophisticated understanding of ethics and the relative value of life. Traditionally, we have held human life to be of utmost comparative worth, but who's to say that stance is right, or even productive for our planet? A shifting ethos is reflected in the fact that the term "pet owner" has become disagreeable to enough people that it has been virtually banned in a number of jurisdictions as well as the entire state of Rhode Island and replaced by the phrase "animal guardian." According to a 2006 Purina survey, 73 percent of cat owners said they went to a doctor only when very sick or injured, while 96 percent said they would call or visit a vet immediately at any sign of their pet's ill health. Since Katrina, animal activists have succeeded in getting legislation passed that requires rescue personnel to include companion animals in disaster planning. And stories of devoted (or insane—this, the core question) pet owners spending tens of thousands of dollars to fund advanced cancer care for Spot are becoming ever more common.

I drove home. My dog was neither dying nor dead, but the fact of her pain was almost beyond what I could bear. And what would her life become once the pain subsided? A blind dog. How could she understand what was happening to her? It was late in the day, the clouds like cataracts spreading. Inside the house, my 7-year-old daughter was riding her scooter in our hallway. "Lila has gone blind," I said to her. I started to cry. I told my husband when he returned from work. I did not mention the veterinary bill. Instead, I called the bank, cashed in a CD, paid the penalty.

Two days later, I drove back to the hospital. The final bill was $3,338. I figured this was a onetime cost that my liquidated CD could cover. They brought Lila to me. She did not come out on a leash. She came out carried, and when they set her in my lap I could see, immediately, that a dog can be devastated. The medications had brought the pressure down, so her eyes were open, but they were thickened, blank, like opaque sea glass, reflective but not receptive. "Lila, Lila," I whispered. She moved her whole head in the direction of my voice, but gave not the tiniest tail wag, not the slightest ear prick.

Back at home, I set Lila on the floor of our living room, but even here, amid familiar scents, she would not move. Musashi bounded forward in his typical greeting style, but something, some smell, stopped him short. He skidded to a bunched halt, then cautiously extended his snout to sniff his companion of 11 years—where had she been all these days? Lila stayed stone-still. Musashi backed away, then clattered, fast, up the steps. "Lila, Lila," I called, my daughter called, even my husband called, but the dog was too terrified, or despairing, to move. At last I picked her up, carried her to our bed. I slept with her for one week straight, my face buried in her fur, her pee soaking the sheets, her eyes weeping pus and drops.

I ordered a book about blind dogs. I watched a video that demonstrated training techniques. I stroked Lila's skull, moved my fingers through her dense fur, sent my husband to the pharmacy to fill the prescriptions, four tiny tubes of glaucoma drops. "Four hundred dollars," he said when he returned, holding the paper bag. "Four hundred dollars for a month's supply of this stuff."

What choice did we have? While the medication would not restore a single stripe of sight to Lila's world, it would prevent the pain of the pressure crushing her head.

"Maybe," my husband said, " we should put Lila down."

"Put Lila down," I repeated mechanically. "Put her down."

"She's had 11 good years," my husband said. "Look at her now."

Yes, look at her now. Lying in a puddle of pee on our marital bed.

I called the ophthalmologist. "Lila's depressed," I said. "She won't move."

"Put her on her leash," the doctor said. "Take her out. Do not baby her. I've seen blind dogs climb mountains. If you teach them toughness, they'll be tough."

I brought Lila outside. I made a Hansel and Gretel path through the woods by our home, using beef instead of bread crumbs. That got her going. She found the shreds of roast, tasted baked blood, and remembered the meaning of life.

Slowly, over the weeks, Lila began to make her way.

A month passed. We needed more medication.

It was June then. School ended. My daughter's day camp was $3,000, its high price reflecting its high quality. Now I had to choose: Clara's camp or Lila's eyes. To my husband it was clear. To me it was not. If Clara did not go to the fancy camp, she could still enjoy her summer. If Lila did not get her medications, she would not only not enjoy her summer, she would pass it in agony.

A dilemma such as this one is new in the history of pet owning. Sixty years ago, the average pet owner could expect to spend at most a couple of hundred dollars for care during the entire life span of his or her pet. Now the lifetime cost of the American pet could reach $60,000, and this isn't due simply to inflation. As veterinary students train in specialties and subspecialties and subspecialties of those subspecialties, Fido, should he need it, can receive a kidney transplant, chemotherapy, back surgery, a titanium hip replacement, radiation, neurological correction—you name it. Add to this the fact that dogs and cats are living longer than ever before because of improved nutrition and vaccinations. In an earlier era, my Lila may very well have died before reaching old age and its complications, like glaucoma, and I would thus have been spared the difficult game of weighing the relative value of my daughter's summer camp versus my dog's comfort.

My husband felt I was being led like a blind donkey on the string of sentimentality, and that if I took a hardheaded view of things, I would see that spending $400 a month on a decade-old dog was wrong—wrong for our family, wrong for our marriage, wrong for the world. To get the money, I took on every extra work assignment I could. According to my husband, everyone would be much better served were I to donate the monthly medication payments I was earning by working overtime to the starving continent of Africa, to the Green Party, to victims of lymphoma. His beliefs are echoed by Dr. Bruce Alexander, professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University and the author of an upcoming book on globalization gone awry: "If Americans were to take all the money they spend on dog food, it would be enough to make a significant dent in the problem of world hunger." In other words, dog lovers are baby killers. Shame on us.

Shame on Darrell and Nina Hallett, a couple from Washington who in 2004 spent $45,000—which included a stem cell transplant—on their dog with T-cell lymphoma. Shame on Pauline Wilson of Manhattan, who spent $50,000 in less than half a decade in an attempt to keep her "Baby Cat" alive. Shame on families who spend more than $4,000 for end-of-life hospice care to ensure that their pets die in more comfort and with more dignity than far too many human beings who have no one to help them through. In much of the Third World, people tend to feel that doting on one's pet is a sign of Western excess. Wrote Aleetha al-Jihani in a letter to Al-Madina newspaper in Saudi Arabia, "One bad habit spreading among our youths is the acquisition of dogs and showing them off in the streets and malls...this is blind emulation of the infidels."

I know I am an infidel, in more ways than I care to mention. I can discuss my deficits, but I am not yet ready to admit to the particular one of which we are speaking, even as I state it as a possibility. Because perhaps valuing nonhuman animals as much as, if not more than, our own kind is not wrong at all. Perhaps it's in fact right. What, I have to ask, in the Darwinian theory of evolution, which has more proof to it than any holy book, posits human beings at the top of the heap? As the planet erodes, and as our role as its destroyer becomes harder and harder to deny, might we not be considering, or reconsidering, the idea that the human species is far from sacred? Might we, in losing the sense of our own importance, be better able to see our kinship with species outside of ours? A long, long time ago, Copernicus suggested the earth was not the center of the solar system, and by doing so he shook the souls we say we have to their ethereal roots. Roger Fouts, comparative psychologist at Central Washington University, told me, "It is a fundamental misperception to think human life has more value than any other life form."

I like to touch my dogs' paws. Their paws are rough, scaly, the skin cracked like quaked earth, the nails smooth and curved in their sharpness. A dog's nails can be difficult to cut because, unlike humans, they have veins, and if you snip too deeply, a bead of blood wells up and the animal winces in a way that is hard to bear. I did this to Lila once, cut too close to the quick, cut the blue-violet vein that threads the nacreous nail of this beautiful beast I call mine. I call her mine not because I own her but because I love her. I call her mine as I call mine my children, my husband, my self. She is mine for as long as she is Lila, which amounts to no more than a nanosecond of time in the scheme of things, and when that second passes, she, like us all, will undergo the phenomenal changing of categories that we call death. But until she does, I will care for her with everything I have. I will struggle to divide up my limited resources in the best way I can. I will admire her daily, as I do all those I love. And why? That is the question I have not answered here, the question my husband always asks. He no longer asks if it is right to so love a dog, because he knows how I will answer. "Yes, it is right," or "Someone has yet to offer me any scientific proof that animals mean less than we do, so it is certainly not wrong." His question for me now is simply, why?

Why? I don't know. What I do know is that when I look into Lila's blind eyes, I see amazing things. I see the wildness of the wolf; I see humans finding fire, the Pliocene plains, millions of molecules, the softest snout, a single cell split. I see an animal walk out of the water; I see the engine of evolution, and if I listen closely, I think I can hear it, too, a low continuous hum—a sound that doesn't stop, I must believe, even if, or when, we do.


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