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Why Caring For Your Pet's Health Is So Expensive

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The pandemic puppies are all fun and games until they need a check-up or they get sick or injured. And then here comes that first big pandemic puppy bill. I just went through that myself when a doggy mishap landed me with a $5,000 tab. One trade group estimates that this year alone, Americans will spend more than $30 billion on veterinary care. So how did this industry become so expensive? Karen Leslie is the executive director of The Pet Fund, a nonprofit that provides veterinary care assistance for those who can't afford it. And she joins us now to talk about it. Hello.

KAREN LESLIE: Hello. Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What kind of bills are we talking about here? You know, when owners reach out to your organization for help, what are they trying to cover?

LESLIE: Most of our grants unfortunately and increasingly are for cancer treatment. And there is no answer for that yet. As an example, when we started over 20 years ago, 20% of our total requests were for cancer treatment. Now that is over 60% and rising. And the typical bill for cancer can go as high as $10,000.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow. So what's at the root of this? Why has veterinary care become so expensive?

LESLIE: There are a few reasons for that. One, the rise in cancer rates requires that kind of expensive treatment. The other reason is that vets are corporately owned increasingly. So that increases the cost of veterinary care. On the vet side, the cost of medication and rental for the office and equipment has gone up. And unlike human medical care, where a hospital is reimbursed by the government for programs like Medicare, there is no reimbursement. And so they have to pass that cost along.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about pet insurance? I mean, I have it. But it only covered about half my bill. What should people know before they get pet insurance to maybe defray some of these rising costs?

LESLIE: One of the things that is difficult about pet insurance is that it is not appropriate for every person or every situation. They don't necessarily reimburse the entire bill, or they will cap reimbursement at a much lower rate than you were billed for the procedure or treatment. One of the other problems is that typically pet insurance requires that you pay upfront. So if you have a $5,000 veterinary bill, you need to be prepared to be able to pay that upfront. And one of the things that we advise is that you need to read that fine print about what they do and don't cover.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, is there anything pet owners can do to keep costs down?

LESLIE: One of the things that we talk to pet owners about a lot is preventative care, which doesn't always avoid the problem. But one of the things that we talk to them about is the importance of regular vet care when nothing's going on.

So, for example, if you have a cancer that is in its early stages, if you go to that yearly visit and you get those tests done, something can potentially be caught in an early stage where it's easily treatable rather than wait and not have any preventative care done and only handle things once they're a problem.

The other thing that we tell them is, again, to anticipate that all animals are going to need veterinary care. With the high rate of cancer that exists for dogs and cats, you are looking at a statistical likelihood that you might have to encounter that. So again, preventative care is key but also knowing that you're going to have to save for some future vet bills. And then there are the things you don't expect.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Karen Leslie, executive director of The Pet Fund. Thank you very much.

LESLIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.