There is a charming English TV series titled “All Creatures Great and Small”, about a country vet and his life spent among sick dogs, injured horses and cows’ difficult deliveries. The series was inspired by a string of books by the same name, chronicling the life of a real veterinary doctor. In lieu of payment, the good vet would sometimes accept butchered meat or eggs and other farm products but the animals were never left in distress.
I fear such vets have all but disappeared. They might care for animals but they care for their bank accounts a lot more, often preying on fearful pet owners who would go to great lengths, even financial ones, to relieve their animals’ maladies. It’s no mystery the pet industry is a multi-billion enterprise, sometimes catering to our absurd needs of humanizing animals who should not be dressed in couture sweaters or carried around in Louis Vuitton bags.
Like healthcare for humans, healthcare for pets has become an ominous maze, rendered even more difficult by pet owners’ ignorance of what might ail their companions.
Last week, I woke up to Portia unable to get off the couch. Literally, she couldn’t walk for the first 30 minutes, then proceeded to limp miserably, with going up and down the stairs an impossibility. Despite my better judgement, after two days of this and her sad stare begging to know what was going on and a funny cough to top it off, I whisked her to the emergency clinic on a Sunday morning. The doctor could very well tell, as could I, that nothing was broken but, instead of examining her by touch and sending me off with pain medication, prescribed x-rays for her leg and her lungs which, surprise surprise, turned up negative on both counts and set me back over $400. He prescribed some anti-inflammatory pills and rest for a week. Needless to say, three days later Portia was running again and her cough, after sleeping a couple of nights with a humidifier, was gone. I was an idiot, taken in by my dog’s inability to eloquently express her symptoms and my tendency to worry, on which the good doctor preyed upon.
Worse still, my friend L’s cat was attacked by (possibly) a raccoon and turned up one night with a gash in his stomach and some of his intestines spilling out. A trip to the emergency room and $500 of x-rays and examinations made the doctor reach the conclusion that a $3,000 surgery was necessary to repair the damage. A quick call to the company with whom the cat was insured determined the policy would pony up only $400 (pet insurance – possibly another scam), leaving my friend torn between paying a sum that these days people are hard pressed to afford or euthanize a two year old cat.
Really, $3,000? I am not disputing a veterinary surgeon’s skills but, at this point very familiar with how veterinary bills are inflated, I am starting to question the reality of these costs.And if someone clearly can’t afford such fees, why is the only alternative a shot to the Creator? Why not offer discounted fees, a payment plan instead? As pet owners, when we adopt an animal, we are fully aware of what the costs will be and that, oftentimes, sacrifices will be asked of us, but I am beginning to think we are being taken advantage of.
There is no friendly vet to turn to anymore, certainly not in a city like LA, not even in the semi-rural community I live in (where the local vet nearly killed Ottie many years ago and then lied to me about it). When I told my mother about my friend’s plight, her puzzled comment was “Why doesn’t she take her cat to a university facility?”. Well, we don’t seem to have this option. In Italy, most University Veterinary Faculties have clinics where we can take our animals and get them treated at no cost. A surgeon will teach a student how to sew up a cat or do a particularly difficult surgery and everybody wins: a student gets to learn, a pet is saved and an owner is not bankrupted.
I go to great length to get the best care for me and this effort has involved research and the time to establish a wonderful relationship with my primary care doctor of 16 years who has always helped me navigate the maze of prevention and sickness. I have now started doing the same for my dogs by learning more about their potential problems and solutions. Still, when those pleading eyes tell me something is wrong, I can’t help panic and fork out $400 for unnecessary tests. When will I learn?