What Price a Pal? : Pets: As veterinary costs spiral, owners must decide how much they're willing to pay for healthy animals.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sure, you love your dog (cat or rabbit). But how much do you love it--in cold, hard cash?

Animal owners face the question daily, as they bring ailing pets to veterinarians and find that the cost of a cure is roughly the equivalent of a week's vacation in Bermuda.

Consider Bear, a gray Canoga Park cat that was rear-ended by a car and whisked to a West Los Angeles pet hospital, where he racked up $800 worth of computerized bills in one day-- before his relatively minor injury was treated. Surgery would cost another $1,000.

Or Danielle, a Los Angeles collie that had a foxtail stuck in her skin. "The vet convinced me he should also clean her teeth," says owner Mitch Lowan. "The bill for foxtail and plaque removal was $350."

Then there's Natasha, the beloved Siberian husky of Nanette Flynn, a Hollywood retiree who lives on Social Security and a pension.

Natasha had two CAT scans at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, where the equipment to detect brain tumors is usually reserved for human beings. Each scan cost $600.

But Flynn says the dog is "my friend, companion, protector. I'd mortgage my house or spend my last cent on her."

Patti and Laurance Taylor's 10-year-old griffon, Daphne, has led them through emotional and financial hoops. When the dog had a seizure at 3 a.m. one recent morning, the Taylors telephoned West Los Angeles Veterinary Medical Center, a 24-hour facility.

"A wonderful doctor talked us through the crisis, telling us what to do," Taylor recalls.

Daphne subsequently had brain surgery at the facility, with CAT scans before and after the surgery. Costs so far are $3,000 and mounting, but the good news is that Daphne's going to pull through.

Did the Taylors consider putting Daphne to sleep? "We spent a lot of time trying to separate our own emotional needs from the reality of what was going on. We do not have children, and our dog gives us a lot of love. But she was sick and she was a dog, not a child, and we wanted to put her needs before our own. We didn't know what to do. The doctors convinced us it was worth a shot. They felt she deserved the chance, and it would work. If Daphne gets a new lease on life, it will definitely have been worth it."

Like Flynn and the Taylors, animal owners all over Los Angeles are finding that medical care for pets has become almost as sophisticated as it is for people.

If a four-footed friend develops cataracts, glaucoma, cancer, arthritis, heart problems, epileptic seizures or other dread ailments, there's probably a nearby vet with technology and expertise to help.

(There are vet specialists in more than a dozen different fields, including ophthalmology, internal medicine, orthopedics, endocrinology and oncology.)

But such knowledge and equipment don't come cheap. To pay for their own extensive educations, for state-of-the-art anesthesia, ultrasound, sonograms and other equipment found in modern pet hospitals--plus trained technicians to use it--many veterinarians have had to raise their fees for simple services and procedures.

Ear cleaning, which used to be included in the price of a dog shampoo at the vet, now costs as much as $20 extra at some places. An infected paw, which might be treated in a single visit at some vets, requires a series of visits at others--with $40 "bandage changes" every other day. Expensive medicines seem to be routinely prescribed--and sold--by veterinary doctors.

And pet owners, who want to do the right thing for their animals, are too intimidated to beg for financial mercy.

After a few unpleasant experiences, many stay away from vets altogether unless their pets are in serious trouble.

Then they get even more of a shock.

"Bills of $1,000 to $2,000 are the usual nowadays for surgery on injured pets," says Dr. Henry Clute, veterinarian for the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "The trouble is," he adds, "most people can't afford to pay."

Clute and other animal experts worry that veterinarians--and the pets they want to help--may be in for hard times if adjustments aren't made.

Technological advances may have outpaced consumers' desire or ability to pay for them. And there is already a "recession" in the veterinary profession, the experts say.

"If a financially strapped pet owner must choose between fixing his car or his cat's broken leg, it's the car that will usually get fixed," says Clute.

The cat, he adds, will get euthanasia instead of microsurgery.

Experts say most pet owners today are unlike Flynn and the Taylors. They don't rank pet medical care as a top priority--especially when they hear the price.

Some cannot afford necessities--rent, food or their children's bus fare--if they spend a significant sum at the vet.

Others simply cannot afford the vacation or the sound system they've planned for if they give their cat a needed operation.

"It all comes down to priorities," says Cori Whetstone, humane investigator in the rescue division of the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She is empowered to prosecute owners who fail to provide needed veterinary care.

"We tell people that vet care is as expensive as human medical care these days. And if they can't afford it, they should not keep the animal, because that animal cannot provide for itself.

"It's very touchy," she adds, "because we want to promote animal connections and adoptions. These are living, breathing creatures who love you and become a real member of your family. But they're like children, in that they are totally dependent on you. They cannot tell you where it hurts, or take themselves to a doctor.

"It's a real moral and ethical dilemma when you consider the costs. Some people tell me, 'I'd sell my car for my kid, but not for my dog.' Others say they'd mortgage their houses to help their pets. I have friends who've sold their stereos and their TV sets in order to pay for veterinary care."

Lana Cohen, a pet hospital manager now on maternity leave, is one of many who see increasing numbers of cats and dogs euthanized prematurely because of escalating costs.

It's most terrible, she says, when doctors say they can keep the pet alive--but at great cost--and then the owner agonizes over whether to spend the money to gain a bit more time. "You never get used to seeing these people lose their pets--and you never forget their faces."

The ironies abound: As medical care gets better, fewer can afford it and more are adopting pets.

The registered number of 59 million dogs and 61 million cats "does not begin to account" for the millions of unregistered pets, says Edward Cubrda, president of the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

An increasing number of these animals belong to the low- or fixed-income elderly and the disabled and chronically ill, as scientific research continues to verify the therapeutic benefits of pets for such people.

In fact, the Los Angeles SPCA has a "matchmaker" whose job it is to pick the right free pet for senior citizens who have requested one but can't get out to look for it.

But there are few charities that pay for pet medical care when elderly, fixed-income people can't afford to. The Los Angeles SPCA is starting such a fund, says Cubrda.

The Animal Health Foundation, a nonprofit group in Los Angeles and Orange County, pays vet bills for pets of people who are handicapped, on fixed incomes or are 65 and older (213) 723-1746 or (714) 523-0980).

Pet Health Insurance also is gaining in popularity, although it, for example, usually doesn't cover dogs eight years and older (the ones most likely to get seriously sick).

There is no way, ethically, for vets to cut down on certain kinds of care.

In fact, as technology and knowledge increase each year, the obligation is to give more care to sick animals rather than less.

Dr. Jerrold Tannenbaum, a veterinarian who teaches ethics and law at Tufts Veterinary School in Boston, says recent studies "show that cats and dogs are more sophisticated emotionally than was previously believed. That means we probably owe them more, in terms of their feelings.

"It's not been traditional, for example, to give painkillers after surgery," Tannenbaum says. "But the latest findings show animals may experience more pain than we thought, so scientists are looking for a wider range of analgesics and pain-killers to administer."

But must costs really be as high as they are?

A few veterinarians admit, off the record, that they have heard of some colleagues who administer unnecessary blood tests or X-rays to help pay the enormous monthly office expenses. But that is very rare, these vets caution. And it is certainly not the basic cause of the growing dilemma, which everyone involved seems to want to cure.

Tannenbaum believes vets must become "much more sympathetic" and allow clients to pay on the installment plan.

"Many vets nowadays want 50% of the fee when the client walks in the door," Tannenbaum says.

"That's not fair. You can buy a TV set on installments, so why not veterinary care? I think vets have a moral obligation to offer such payments to their clients. But I understand they have a lot of fear. They think people will stop paying and they'll be left holding the bag."

(One month ago, the West Los Angeles Veterinary Medical Group began offering a finance plan until now used for human hospitals. The finance company pays the vet in full, up to $45,000. The client gets up to 66 months to pay the finance company back, at the same interest rates as Mastercard and Visa.)

Computerized billing is part of the current problem, too, Tannenbaum says.

"Advisers are urging veterinarians not to feel guilty about their fees, telling them to computerize billing, so they never have to see what the charges are."

This is called "fee desensitization," Tannenbaum says. The vet checks off what he's done. A receptionist takes the chart and enters each item into the computer, which is programmed with a price for everything--including bandages and syringes. The vet doesn't see the final bill, so he doesn't have to feel guilty.

"This is pernicious because it divorces the vet from his fee," Tannenbaum says. "But he should know what he's being paid, and the effect of his charges on the client."

Computers also lead to "opportunities for abuse," he believes. For example, charges for syringes and bandages can "bring in a certain amount of extra money," if a vet isn't very careful about what he has actually used versus what has been charged.

Tannenbaum also decries the "attempt of veterinary medicine to emulate human medicine."

The results are not always beneficial, he says.

"Veterinary hospitals now have consent forms for their clients, just like human hospitals do. This impersonalizes the relationship between client and doctor. The form often substitutes for communication that ought to take place between the two. With the form, vets don't feel they need to make the effort to communicate.

"I speak as an animal owner, a veterinarian, and a teacher in a veterinary school," Tannenbaum says. "I believe veterinary medicine is becoming too expensive, too impersonal and too mechanized. The friendly doctor is gone.

"I personally do not go to vets with computerized billing. I do not sign consent forms. "When my dog went in for surgery, the doctor and I sat and talked face to face about the risks, the dangers, the fee," Tannenbaum says.

He and other experts say owners of ailing pets should not give up or give in. Communicate with your vet, they advise, and ask him to come up with a payment plan. Or find a vet who will. Or call all the humane societies and animal groups that might give financial assistance.

Help can be found with persistence--and a pet deserves that effort.

As Tannenbaum says: "My dog is 16 1/2. He is blind, he has glaucoma and arthritis. I love him more than anything in the world except my wife."

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