Everything seems to be getting harder these days and that is also true for pets. The shrinking economy, job losses, foreclosures, and now, new state taxes, all eat away at what economists call discretionary income. In many instances, the pets are paying the ultimate price when they become expensive, unaffordable or inconvenient.
The numbers don’t lie. According to the Ventura County Department of Animal Regulation, 2008 was not a good year for hundreds of dogs and cats. The increase of euthanization from 2007 to 2008 was staggering. The number of dogs euthanized in Ventura County rose 27 percent last year, and the number of cats rose 13 percent. That approaches an additional 1,000 dogs and cats who were prematurely killed by Animal Control due to the lack of any other options.
The fate of many pets was about to get even worse this year with a proposed 9 percent tax on veterinary services. But that idea was beaten back by the public and taken off the table in state budget negotiations.
Dr. Al Schwartz owns and runs the Moorpark Veterinary Hospital. He said the idea of a tax being slammed only on animal healthcare providers hit a nerve. “It was strange that the governor chose to impose a service tax on such a small group,” Schwartz said. “There are only about 7,000 vets in the state.”
But apparently so many people called the governor’s office to protest this particular tax idea that they had to set up a separate hotline to field those calls. “The pet-owning population objected to this strenuously and got the tax taken out of the budget,” Schwartz said. “It says a lot about pet owners and standing up for the rights of pets.”
Even as the number of doomed pets is rising, most pet owners are also rising to the challenge of paying for and providing responsible pet care. But such care for sick or aging pets can be costly, both in time and money. And sometimes, it can force unwelcome life changes for the pet owner. But the welfare of their pet is paramount and they simply do what must be done.
Puppy is going on 17 years old and is one sick cat. Yes, her name is Puppy, and she is a beautiful tabby who found her owner when she was a stray many years ago. Bernadette, owner of Puppy and a freelance writer from Thousand Oaks, has had her income slashed and burned due to sudden and draconian cutbacks in publishing, especially for magazines. Bernadette, which is not her real name, she said she feels uncomfortable using her actual name because she is now looking for new opportunities.
Not long ago, Puppy started behaving as if she were in great pain. After several trips to the vet, which became very expensive, Puppy was diagnosed with chronic renal failure — kidney failure. “It is extremely common in cats,” Bernadette said. “If they live long enough, they are going to have this.”
The largest pet insurance company keeps track of common pet illnesses, and they report chronic renal failure as the third most common cat condition during the past year. Caring for a cat with kidney failure is not only expensive, it is difficult.
“She needs to have subcutaneous fluids injected weekly,” Bernadette said. “I hate it. She needs a blood pressure medication that is used off-label to support kidney function in cats. She needs prescription food that she won’t eat. And she needs to see the vet fairly regularly. It costs hundred of dollars a month.”
But the real sacrifice that Bernadette is making is professional. “I was a travel writer,” Bernadette said. “I can’t travel, so it has affected me a lot. It ties me down. I can’t be anywhere more than three days. When I was a full-time travel writer, I would take between one and four trips a month lasting anywhere from one night to more than two weeks.”
Bernadette said Puppy’s condition has also taken a toll on her financially. “I don’t make very much money,” she said. “And this is expensive. I have three cats, and I can’t take her in as often as I probably should.”
Cats have always been compatible with Bernadette’s working life. “Up until this happened with Puppy, I thought cats were very easy pets,” Bernadette said. “They were very inexpensive. They didn’t require any extra care. All I had to do was make sure that I had a cat sitter when I went on a trip and provide fresh litter, fresh food and fresh water. They were really no-bother pets.”
But Bernadette takes her role as a pet owner very seriously. “To me, if you take a pet, it is a commitment,” she said. “If they get sick, I just have to suck it up and do what I have to do. I’m not going to euthanize Puppy when she still feels good most of the time. When I give her the treatment and she sits on my lap and calmly purrs, is content and happy, I see no reason to euthanize her just because she is costing me a bundle.”
70 pounds of love: Massimo
“He adopted me. He showed up on my doorstep one day, and I could not turn him away.” That is how Bonnie Beauregard of Somis described the addition to their family who they named Massimo. “I used to live in a place that was a very common dumping ground for animals,” Beauregard said, adding that she lived on a horse ranch at the entry to a national forest. The group of people who Beauregard knew in Lakeview Terrace would somehow find homes for the abandoned animals. “People probably figured that was a better shot than putting them in the pound, that’s what I’m guessing,” Beauregard said.
Beauregard currently has plenty of animals: five horses, three dogs and two cats. She said Massimo — one of her three dogs — landed in a splint when he broke his foot trying to jump out of a vehicle. Caring for an injury like that can be expensive.
“Of course, he had to have X-rays. And he had to have his foot wrapped and in a splint which I had to change every few days because he would get toe sores,” Beauregard said. “Every few days we had to go to the vet to take X-rays and be examined to make sure it was healing properly so he wouldn’t be a cripple in the future.”
Beauregard said the cost of having so many animals can be daunting. “The thing is, when you have an animal and you love them, are you going to let them become a cripple?” Beauregard said. “Or are you going to fix them and let them have a healthy life? They are my family members.
“I suppose if I had children I wouldn’t look at them and go, ‘This one needs brain surgery. Should I just get rid of it?’ ” Beauregard said. “It never enters into the conversation. We always just do it for them.
“All of my animals cost a lot,” Beauregard said. “We’re just trying to figure out if we can give the dogs a paper route and have the horses do pony rides.”
Million dollar baby: Bella the Yorkie
Bella is a 6-year-old Yorkie who just may be the luckiest dog in town. Her owner, Adriana Gonzales, purchased her believing she was healthy. However, it soon became apparent that Bella was disabled with a kneecap that slides out of place. So Bella walks on three legs. The problem is genetic and unfixable.
Gonzales said that was why she was devastated when Bella recently broke three bones in her front paw. “She still uses it in the cast,” Gonzales said. “She gets around and is as happy as can be.”
Gonzales also suspects Bella might be mute. “She did make a sound but it was more like a meow,” Gonzales said. “We’ve only heard her make that noise twice in six years. But we have never ever heard her bark.”
In addition to Bella, Gonzales has other dogs. “I have two Chihuahuas that are rescues from neighbors that couldn’t take care of them because of the economy,” Gonzales said. “One of the neighbors was moving and the other one couldn’t afford the care, period. It was just heartbreaking. I couldn’t turn them away. I thought they were going to be taken to the pound and euthanized. Their names are Chica and Baby.”
And then there are the costs. “It is hugely expensive. We call Bella our Million Dollar Baby,” Gonzales said. “Anything that we have extra goes to the dogs. Bella even has her own credit card, which we put away just in case.”
That’s right, Bella has a credit card, but it is not what you may think at first. Gonzales said there have been some medical emergencies that were life threatening and have cost several thousand dollars. Instead of getting caught financially unprepared, Gonzales said whenever they get a little extra money, they put it away for her credit card. That way, if something expensive suddenly arises, they can pay for it.
“It is like having children,” Gonzales said. “In my situation, we can’t have children. But these animals fill my heart with so much joy I can’t imagine not having dogs.”
The high cost of care
It is undeniable that appropriate veterinary care can be expensive for a serious injury or a chronic illness. But most people want to do the right thing for their pet. Schwartz said he is aware that sometimes even the most loving and conscientious pet owners just don’t have the funds to pay.
“In the case where someone might choose euthanasia over treatment due to expense, and it boils down to just strictly that, we have worked things out in terms of financial issues,” Schwartz said. “We have a fund that we call our ‘Critter Care’ fund. We donate internally, perhaps a couple hundred dollars, if that will make a difference. If it is an existing client of ours who just fell on hard times, we find ways of working with them.”
But Schwartz said money is rarely the only issue. “There is always a backstory,” Schwartz said. “Maybe the pet is old and has cancer. Maybe seeing an oncologist and spending $10,000 to $15,000 isn’t the best choice. Maybe the pet parent has experienced the loss of a loved one in their family and can’t face dealing with a pet with cancer. We look at the whole picture.”
Schwartz said he runs his hospital differently than many other veterinarians. “We take a relationship-based approach to pet care,” Schwartz said. “We don’t just look at the pet, but the pet parents, the whole family. It is not just prescribing pills. It is the owner’s participation in the pet care.”
Despite the grim numbers and the somber mood that many people are feeling right now, there are people who are clear about their responsibilities as pet owners and their priorities in caring for those pets. Sacrifice is part of the price parents pay and pet owners often feel that their pets are members of their family. True, there are far more needy animals than there are available homes for them. But some are lucky enough to find each other and to live happily ever after.