Personal Finance & Life Lessons From Our High Cost Pet Emergency

It was the weekend after Labor Day. Our beloved happily retired therapy dog, Murdock (named after the A-Team character, not Rupert), had started urinating in his room at night – the first he had done so in the 10+ years since we adopted him from our local Humane Society. He had been slurping down an abnormally high amount of water in recent days, due to side effects from a steroid that he had been on to help reduce seasonal allergies that were causing inflammation and itching. Or, so we thought…

Murdock had been abnormally lethargic the entire weekend as well. Another steroid side effect, we had assumed. Then, on Monday morning, things got really weird. His outer eyelids began to droop and inner eyelids close, while being awake. It looked very disturbing. I knew something had to be wrong, so I called our veterinarian and asked if we could get him in to be looked at immediately.

At weigh-in, we discovered that Murdock had lost 10 pounds, or roughly 15% of his body weight. Our vet was baffled as to what might be going on, and ordered up x-rays and blood and urine tests. The x-rays didn’t show anything definitive, so we went home and awaited the test results.

The next afternoon, we received a call from our vet. He cut right to the chase:

The good news is that Murdock doesn’t have cancer. The bad news is that Murdock is diabetic.

He then went on to describe how Murdock was in a state of ketosis (diabetic ketoacidosis) due to very high blood sugar and ketones in his bloodstream, which meant that his body had been eating itself for energy, explaining why he had lost so much weight and been so lethargic. And on top of that, he was likely dehydrated. He urged us to immediately visit an emergency veterinary hospital so that they could get him on an IV with insulin. If we didn’t do so quickly, Murdock could die.

We rushed Murdock over to the emergency vet, got him checked in, and then met up with the head veterinarian to discuss his treatment plan, which included at least 3 continuous days of monitoring, insulin by IV and then injection, antibiotics, glucose monitoring, and much more. She handed us a 2-page itemized estimate of the costs, with a cringe worthy bottom line of $2,200. As seemed customary, she immediately offered up a number of payment options, including CareCredit (which I later found to be a veterinarian-specific credit card with an APR of 26.99% – higher than most consumer credit cards). We were asked to pay half of the total cost up front. We didn’t hesitate, and put the charge on one of our cash back rewards cards that we pay-in-full on a monthly basis.

It’s been an awfully long 2 months since then, but long story short: Murdock is alive, he’s home, he’s gained most of his lost weight back, and his energy levels and old behaviors are returning to pre-disease normals. We’re still trying to engineer the precise insulin dosage to offset his high blood sugar levels without pushing them too low (which can be deadly), but are hopeful that we can get there. Ongoing costs for his insulin (Vetsulin) and a special diabetic diet (Royal Canin Glycobalance) are about $275/month. I could write a novel about this entire jarring experience, but maybe I’ll save that for my yet-to-launch dog diabetes blog*.

*I think I’m joking about that, so if you’re here to learn more about dog and cat diabetes, I’d recommend starting with reading these published guidelines. And hang in there – it will get better.

As I reflect on the personal finance aspects to this story, there are a number of thoughts and lessons that it brings…

You Can’t Use your HSA for Pet Expenses

Sorry, but the IRS does not allow you to use HSA funds for pet health expenses. I looked into it. Even for human insulin (NPH and Levemir are sometimes used for dogs, even though Vetsulin is the only FDA approved insulin for dogs). If you try it, and get caught, the expenses would be subject to tax and penalty.

An Emergency Pet Expense would Put Most Americans in Debt

About half of Americans could not handle a $400 emergency expense. It goes beyond saying that most emergency expenses – pet, medical, vehicle, home repair, etc. – are going to be much more than $400. When I saw the bill and was offered the high APR credit card, I wondered how many people, when presented with similar unfortunate circumstances, would need to go into debt to pay off a similar expense. Or, worse yet, and much darker: how many choose not to? That’s a sobering thought.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to think twice. Similar to the forced job relocation scenario I wrote about recently, the personal finance lessons that I’ve learned, practiced, and shared here have afforded me freedom of choice. There is a lot of luck and privilege that come with that, and for that, I have a huge amount of gratitude. Besides, how could I choose not to foot the bill? I mean, just look at this freakin’ guy!!

pet emergency expense costs

If you Can’t Afford a $5,000+ Emergency Pet Expense, Please Don’t Get a Pet

I hate to be this blunt, but getting a pet whose emergency expenses you could not afford, forcing you to surrender or put the pet down or go heavily into debt, is irresponsible at best and selfish at worst. There is a great deal of responsibility that comes with pet ownership, and none more important than being able to realistically afford regular and emergency care for that animal. If you’re in that situation now with a currently healthy animal, please strongly consider recruiting a new owner now – prior to an emergency – as very few people will be willing to take on a pet that comes with hefty medical bills.

I’m Still Not a Believer in Pet Insurance

In the 38 combined years of pet ownership across 2 cats and 1 dog, this is the first time we’ve had to have emergency service and the first time we’ve had a bill of more than $1,000. Maybe we’re good pet owners. Maybe we’re lucky. Maybe it’s a bit of both. But I can guarantee that no matter how thin the coverage, pet insurance over that 38 years of life would have been many many multiples more than $2,200, assuming these expenses even would have been covered.

I have looked at many pet insurance plans and my observation is that it’s the wild west out there. There is no ACA for pet health insurance, so every plan you look at is going to differ in what it offers and over-promise through marketing, have a ton of fine print geared to denying you coverage, and cost much more than what it’s worth. The odds are much more in your favor of coming out ahead if you were to instead build a self-insured pet expense savings fund. And it would be very wise to build one PRIOR to getting a pet, so that you never have to think twice about paying for the care that they deserve.

If you Can Afford a Pet, Don’t Let Personal Finance Prevent you from Doing so

Having pets simply does not make sense from a financial standpoint, but it has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. Pets add a richness to life that can maybe only be matched by having kids. At this stage in life, I do not have kids, but I can tell you that choice has zero to do with finances. IF you can realistically afford them, personal finances should not prevent you from having kids or pets. Life is too short to let money have that much power over you.

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