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Many pet owners are struggling to pay for vet care

A non-profit that provides financial assistance to people unable to pay for veterinary care for their pets has seen requests for help double over the past year, the latest sign of the increasing financial burden owners have to shoulder to care for their furry companions.

According to Karen Leslie, the executive director of the Pet Fund, advances in veterinary care over the past few years have come at high price. For example, costs to treat a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL), a common dog injury, have soared to $2,000, more than double the $800 people had paid in past. That doesn't include the costs of diagnostic testing, which can add an additional $500 to a pet owner's bill.

"Currently many diseases and injuries are diagnosed with an MRI, which used to be inaccessible to all but the most well-funded university hospitals," Leslie writes in an email. "Now that MRI machines are available in many hospitals nationwide, vets use this test as standard care for diagnosing and treating cancer, epilepsy, injury, etc. but the test itself also costs $2,000. While this is an incredibly useful and important diagnostic tool, the cost is out of reach for many pet owners who would struggle to be able to afford the surgery and/or treatment following the MRI, let alone the cost of the test itself."

There are some medical procedures for pets that are available that would have been unthinkable not long ago. The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, offers kidney transplants for cats, who are affected by kidney disease, a common ailment. It is one of three facilities in the U.S. that offer the service. People who get the transplants for their sick pets also must agree to adopt the cat that is donating the kidney. A Penn spokeswoman declined to disclose the cost of the procedure.

According to the American Pet Products Association, a trade group, people are expected to spend $15 billion on veterinary care this year and another $14 billion on over-the-counter medicines and other supplies. Those statistics, though, don't tell the entire story because vets aren't necessarily reaping additional profits because of the rising costs of vet school, equipment and medicines among other reasons. Also, stagnant growth in wages has squeezed the budgets of many families, forcing them to keep a tight lid on discretionary spending on pets.

Economics has always been an issue when it comes to caring for animals. Over the past few years, though, it has become increasingly visible, particularly when families' finances were decimated when the overall economy experienced its worst decline since the Great Depression. This has lead to an increase in what veterinarians describe as "economic euthanasia."

"It's a very common issue unfortunately," said Dr. Michael Blackwell, senior director of Veterinary Policy for the American Humane Society, in an interview. "How often a vet is likely to perform such a procedure is going to depend on a number of factors including the socioeconomics of the communities they serve."

Paying tribute to our beloved pets 04:54

Though health insurance for pets is growing in popularity, Blackwell notes that the coverage isn't always a practical solution for all pet owners, especially those with animals with pre-existing conditions. Unfortunately, euthanasia is an issue that affects people who don't own pets since the costs are born by taxpayers in the shelters run by their local governments.

"As with human health care, the best care is available to those who can afford it, but even common procedures are becoming more expensive for the typical pet owner who does not have $5,000 or more in savings ready for a veterinary emergency, " Leslie writes. "And unlike human health care, there is of course no Medicare for animals -- when humans are admitted to hospitals they are provided care whether or not they can afford an emergency bill."

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