Extreme veterinary expenses: How far would YOU go for your pets?

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: February 11, 2021
Published: December 07, 2010
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Let's say your cat has proven herself an expensive adoptee over the years. She’s managed to a) break her leg after falling off a shelf; b) develop diabetes in mid-life; and c) not so long after, surprised you with a nasty — but treatable — form of brain cancer.

A couple of years later, tumor in remission, she developed hyperthyroidism. How far did you go to get her well? How much did you spend?

If you've been lucky enough to own pets for long enough and you're not filthy rich, you've doubtless pondered this issue: How far to go when it comes to treating your seriously sick or injured pet given that a) the severity is great and the outcome isn't guaranteed; b) your pet may be really old or not in great shape to begin with; and/or c) treatment is really, really expensive?

This last point often seems the most crucial one, doesn't it? This pay-to-play conundrum is the one I would most often tangle with when it comes to my own disaster-case pets — that is, if my local specialty facility did not generously offer discounted services for the lucky pets of area veterinarians.

Yes, that means my fancy vet care is much cheaper than yours. On average, I pay about 25 percent of what most people pay for their pets' care, which may be more than some might think, but less than what most would suppose. Because yes, we still have to pay something. And even 25 percent can add up to a lot when we're talking about very, very pricey services, like ...

1. CT scans

2. Myelograms (a special radiographic study of the spine)

3. MRI studies

4. Neurosurgery

Repeat twice and here's where I've been with my own dog, Vincent. Figure into this series the fact that he started out his life with a surgically challenging cleft palate and severe allergic skin disease and you've now got a recipe for a French bulldog in need of the kind of rescue that only a highly-motivated, wealthy person can provide … unless she's a veterinarian with close ties to veterinary specialists and a way with cookie dough.

Yet even I have a limit.

Yesterday the neurosurgeon (board-certified in both neurology and surgery) found a subarachnoid cyst on Vincent's spine, a rare congenital malformation that becomes progressively more neurologically debilitating over time. We also found that his spinal canal is becoming ever-more tiny for his cord, given that his misshapen vertebrae (hemivertebrae or "butterflied" vertebrae) are crowding his delicate nerves.

So it is that Vincent will receive two surgeries over the next week. Though that may be delayed depending on what the consulting neurologists and radiologists and other surgeons have to say.

Which brings me back to finances, because I couldn't help but wonder where Vincent would be if I didn't get a big financial break. Honestly, I do know: He'd be in a K9 cart getting pain relief until I could no longer manage his discomfort with drugs and other modalities. Because tens of thousands of dollars is just not doable right now.

Sometimes it may seem that veterinarians will never understand how pet owners feel when they can't afford to pay for expensive vet care. Rest assured, however, that most of us do recognize how lucky we are. And we do still have to make price-based decisions, just at a much lower price point than yours.

So how about you? Where do you draw the line? How do you decide?

Dr. Patty Khuly

Sick Vincent

Update, December 8: Vincent in surgery

Update, December 9: Vincent walking

Pic of the day: "Kitty's broken leg" by frankenstoen