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THE RETIRED INVESTOR

Bill Schmick: Can you put a value on your dog’s life?

Chocolate lab laying down

Titus, the author's beloved chocolate Lab, suffered from a number of conditions, including arthritis, that made life increasingly challenging. Pet insurance can help cover medical expenses, especially for aging animals.

Your elderly dog has arthritis. His breathing is difficult. He needs assistance to get up, and his bladder is failing. The vet bills are far higher than your own, and it is getting more difficult to pay them. “How much is too much?”

Some say there is a limit, others would be willing to go into enormous debt to prolong the life of their pet. The veterinarian technological and medical innovations of today make preserving your pet’s life achievable. Vets offer plenty of ways to prolong life, even in cases of terminal illness.

Specialists abound who can offer chemotherapy, radiation, kidney transplants, drug trials and much more. Given all these options, it is no wonder that the emotion that wells up in most of us is “save my dog (or cat), no matter the cost.”

Pet insurance, given the expense of pet health care, should be the obvious answer, but it isn’t.

The American Pet Products Association says that 67 percent of American families own a pet. Roughly 70 percent of those families own a dog, 45 percent have a cat, and roughly one third have another sort of animal. However, less than 3 percent of all dogs in the U.S. are insured, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association.

The most common assumption is that pet insurance is just not worth it. And if you only consider annual routine veterinary care that’s probably true, since the average cost is between $200 and $400 for a dog, and roughly half that for a cat. In comparison, the average annual wellness insurance policy can cost $300 per year.

Pet insurance becomes “worth it,” however, when illness and accidents come into play. Consider that diabetes in a cat once diagnosed and treated will cost between $240 and $360 per year. Heartworm in your pet can cost upward of $1,000 to treat. Emergency room care, $1,000 or more. If your German Shepherd tears an ACL, you are facing $3,300 to treat and repair it, a herniated disc in a Labrador retriever (my personal experience) will cost you more than $15,000.

The older your pet, the more health issues it will likely have. As your dog ages, they become susceptible to a variety of illness, injuries and health conditions. Many of these can be life-threatening, painful, and extremely costly to treat. For example, the American Medical Veterinarian Association reports that almost 50 percent of all dogs over the age of 10 will develop cancer. The minimum cost to treat this condition can be $5,000.

You might wonder when your dog becomes a “senior.” Smaller dogs live longer than larger dogs. As such, they qualify as seniors at 11 years of age. Medium dogs at 10, and larger dogs at 7. Some of the physical signs of aging are greying snouts, reduced energy, lumps and bumps that begin to appear, and periodontal disease (bad breath is telltale sign).

The average monthly cost of pet insurance premiums in the U.S. for elderly dogs is just under $120 a month with an annual limit of $5,000 and a $500 deductible. If you decide to sign up, make sure you study the pre-existing conditions clause. Many elderly dogs will have developed one, if not more, health conditions like arthritis that many insurers will not cover.

The older your animal, the less likely it will qualify for many coverage options and the more expensive the premiums will be. Some insurance companies won’t cover hereditary conditions, which often manifest later in a pup’s life or cover periodontal disease. Fortunately, there are various insurance policies tailored for older dogs, although you can expect the premiums to be steeper than those that aren’t.

As for my own experience, it is true confessions time. Our dog, Titus, a loving, energetic chocolate Labrador retriever, passed a little over four months ago at 13½ years old. My wife and I failed to purchase insurance for Titus. Over the years, we spent large sums of money on his health care. Arthritis, and a herniated disc, were his main symptoms. We tried everything including water therapy, massage, and acupuncture plus dozens of medications. In his last year, laryngeal paralysis, a condition common to elderly labs, foretold the beginning of the end.

The decision to continue to pay his mounting expenses, his almost weekly visits to the vet, and the growing cupboard-full of medications that had little to no effect on his condition was never in question. We knew there were surgical options that may have worked, but at what cost? He loved the water and surgery on his larynx would make it impossible for him to swim, or even dip his paw in the water. His arthritis became so crippling and painful that he needed to lay down every 15 feet on his walks.

Fortunately for us, our vet had a talk with us in April 2022. I say “fortunately” because many veterinarians are not trained to have frank conversations about terminal conditions of pets with clients. She advised us that it was time to end the increasing pain and discomfort that Titus was going through. She gave us permission to do what suddenly became obvious to us. We were so focused on keeping him alive and with us that we failed to consider his well-being.

What I learned was that “how much is too much” should not begin with your pocketbook, but with what is best for your dog, cat, or other animal. How badly will your pet’s lifestyle be impacted by its medical condition or its treatment? Is your pet in pain and is it increasing? Remember, animals live in the now. They have no projects to complete, nor do they fear death like we do, as far as we can tell.

End-of-life decisions are traumatic and intense and there is no right or simple answer. In our case, Titus had to come first, and his passing was the best way we could express our love for him. As for the economics side of this equation, if we could do it all over again, (or if we adopt another dog), we will definitely purchase pet insurance. I advise you to do that as well.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative of Onota Partners Inc. in the Berkshires. He can be reached at 413-347-2401, or e-mail him at billiams1948@gmail.com.

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