Americans spend billions on care for their pets

By Megan R. Harrell
Star Correspondent

   Dr. Gail Lane, DVM, sees an average of 25 to 30 animals each day at the Sycamore Shoals Animal Clinic in Elizabethton. Recently, the veterinarian has noticed an increase in the amount of owners opting for extensive, and expensive life saving procedures for their pets.
   The local trend is not isolated to East Tennessee. It is part of a national phenomenon of pet owners spending billions of dollars collectively each year to keep their animals healthy.
   According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, (AVMA), the amount paid for veterinary services annually has risen over 125 percent in the last decade, and continues to soar.
   The American Pet Products Manufacturing Association reports that in 2001 an estimated $28 billion was spent on veterinary care. The figure is expected to reach $38 billion this year.
   Extensive medical procedures such as brain surgery, hip replacements, and chemotherapy account for some of the increase in the amount pet owners are spending on veterinary care. Dr. Lane attributes some of the influx in owner spending to a change in the way pets are viewed.
   "We do a good bit of the more extensive surgeries," Lane said. "There are more and more clients now days whose cats and dogs are not just pets. They consider them family members and they are willing to spend money to keep them alive."
   The AVMA estimates the average cost of typical animal surgery is priced between $1,700 and $3,000. The cost of the surgery combined with follow-up treatments and prescriptions have some pet owners paying the same amount as they would pay for their own health insurance deductibles.
   Technological advances in veterinary medicine have made the current choices pet owners have with their animals health possible. Now, owners have the opportunity to opt for procedures that were not available just 10 to 15 years ago, and costs aside, many are holding on to their animals as long as possible.
   "There is more and more advanced health care available now. The facilities and equipment have advanced over the years, and there are more and more of my clients who want that care," Lane said. "We still don't have the ability to do things as drastic as they can do for people."
   Lane added that many times serious illnesses in animals, which require extensive surgeries, could be avoided with proper preventive care. During routine vaccinations and physical examinations, Lane is often able to nip several, but not all, illnesses in the bud.
   "One of the biggest things is that owners don't properly do the maintenance health care," Lane said. "If they spent money on the preventive and maintenance care they would have a healthier pet and ultimately spend less money in the long run."
   The state requires pet owners to vaccinate against rabies each year. Although, it is cheaper to buy the vaccinations and administer them at home, Lane notes the advantages of seeing the veterinarian annually for the shots.
   In addition to the fact that the state only recognizes rabies vaccinations administered by licensed veterinarians, Lane believes the visits allow her to give animals thorough routine examinations each year. The local veterinary stated that during these examinations she is often able to intercept and treat potentially harmful health conditions.
   Although, not all diseases can be prevented, or even treated, there are several preventive measures owners may take in order to reduce the risk of having to pay for expensive treatments for their pets down the road.
   Perhaps one of the easiest diseases to prevent -- but one that's treatment appears on several veterinary bills -- is heartworm. The potentially lethal disease is 100 percent preventable with vaccinations.
   Flea and tick treatments are essential during the summer months to prevent animals from spreading Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Cats and dogs may also react to fleas and ticks with allergic skin disease or hot spots. Most veterinarians recommend either Frontline or Advantage flea and tick treatments.
   In addition to rabies, heartworm, and flea/tick treatments, veterinarians suggest spending a little more money to buy better quality food for pets. It may cost more initially but could end up saving owners thousands of dollars as the pet ages.
   Pet insurance is another way owners may offset the cost of veterinary care. Veterinary Pet Insurance is the nation's oldest insurance company and offers policies in all 50 states. The company concluded 2002 with nearly $75 million in sales, a 45 percent increase from the previous year.
   The pet insurance industry is becoming more heard of, and policies are more readily available to owners in East Tennessee. The Washington County Animal Shelter provides new owners with information about the insurance before they take their pets home.
   More information on pet insurance is available on-line at www.petinsurance.com.