Rising veterinary bills forcing tough choices

Paying for the health care of pets can be tough for many people who are struggling with other bills.

Pet owners often spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year to keep their furry friends healthy, observes Dr. Debbye Turner Bell, resident veterinarian of "The Early Show." And in this economy, especially, they're often forced to make difficult choices.

Bell met one pet owner who faced that kind of decision twice -- and who's now shouldering the burden of a huge veterinary bill after medical ailments afflicted not one, but two of her family's pets.

Agnieszka Onichimiuk, of the New York City borough of Staten Island, considers her Bernese mountain dog, Daisy, an important member of the family.

So, when Daisy swallowed a rock and required $3,000 worth of surgery and treatment, she didn't hesitate.

"It was a tough decision," Onichimiuk says, "but it was the only decision I could make. ... I just couldn't lose another dog."

This was the second time the Onichimiuks have been hit with a huge vet's bill in just three months.

Their other dog, Jake, died after a long, heartbreaking battle with cancer. His treatments rang up a $7,000 tab.

Onichimiuk says she's not rich, so it wasn't easy coming up with that kind of money.

To do it, the Onichimiuks maxed out their credit cards and borrowed the rest from friends and family .

And they're not alone.

According to a recent survey, 70 percent of pet owners are willing to shell out *any amount* to keep their furry family members healthy and happy.

"The human-animal bond is stronger than it's ever been," says Dr. Rene Carlson, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "And so people are really attached to their pets, and they want the best quality care for them"

The average cost of veterinary services and surgery for a dog in 2010 was $655 -- a 47 percent increase since 2000. Vet costs for cats rose 73 percent in the last decade, to $644.

"Veterinary care is expensive," admits Dr. Jennifer Welser, medical director of Bluepearl Veterinary Partners, which has locations in six states, " ... (but) everything is at our fingertips."

More and more veterinary clinics like the blue pearl veterinary hospital in Manhattan can offer CT scans, MRIs that can image the entire body, complex surgeries, even radiation and chemotherapy.

"Pet owners are definitely willing to go that extra step for their pet," says Welser, "and we can offer it now."

"It's a lot of money," says Onichimiuk. "It's a lot of spending. Even now, it's a lot of work that we have to put in to pay it off."

While the Onichimiuks are paying back their $10,000 vet bill, they hope to avoid such big ones in the future by doing everything possible to keep Daisy healthy and out of harm's way.

One thing's for sure, says Onichimiuk, "No more rocks around the house!"

The best way to keep vet costs down is preventive care, but every pet owner should understand that having a pet is a responsibility -- and that includes providing proper medical care when the need arises.