First Things First
And what about “Dr. Google?” More and more, people are resorting to the Internet to find information and guidance on health issues – for both themselves and their pets. Sorting out reliable from unreliable information online can be challenging, and the Internet is certainly not a reliable substitute for hands-on evaluation by your veterinarian or physician. Don’t get us wrong. Not all information on the Internet is wrong or misguided. But the AVMA urges you to be very cautious when relying on online information for decisions regarding your own health or your pet’s health. And steer clear of anyone offering online diagnoses or treatment recommendations, either for free or for a fee. They may be bogus, not to mention illegal.
A Penny Now or a Pound Later?
Pets should have annual wellness exams, and some pets may need more frequent exams, said Dr. Michael Cavanaugh, DABVP, American Animal Hospital Association executive director.
“Many people ask me, ‘How often should my pet see their veterinarian?’ My typical answer is at least annually, and it depends. Depending on the pet’s lifestage, lifestyle, and overall health status, they may need to be seen more frequently. The individual pet’s veterinarian is best positioned to determine how many visits per year are in order,” Dr. Cavanaugh said.
Annual preventive healthcare exams can often reveal problems that, if left undiagnosed and untreated, could have bigger consequences later on. Dr. Nan Boss, who owns the Best Friends Veterinary Center in Grafton, Wis., shared a story about a cat named Gabby that hadn’t been to the veterinarian in years and came into her clinic with neurological problems. Gabby was so weak she couldn’t even walk.
“She’d had a stroke because of high blood pressure caused by hyperthyroidism, which can lead to a number of other health problems including weight loss, and heart and kidney disease. If we had been checking her thyroid level regularly, we would have caught the disease earlier and had her on medication, plus we would have been monitoring her blood pressure. She would never have had the stroke,” Dr. Boss said.
Gabby lived about four to five more years on thyroid medication, but Dr. Boss said that she was never the same cat and suffered from hind leg weakness until her death.
That wasn’t the only story Dr. Boss had about a patient whose quality of life would have been better with preventive care. She also shared a story about a dog that came in for a routine dental exam and was diagnosed with atrial tachycardia, a potentially life-threatening abnormal heart rhythm. Dr. Boss’ clinic offers ECG screens before administering anesthesia to pets, because, she says, “Most unexpected deaths under anesthesia are due to an undiagnosed heart problem.” The dog was rushed to an emergency clinic, where he had an echocardiogram and received medication. A routine dental exam ended up saving his life.
Doing the Right Thing
Although adverse reactions to vaccines are rare, they can occur and may lead to potentially life-threatening anaphylactic (allergic) reactions. Most reactions are mild and resolve quickly with little to no treatment, but some (such as anaphylactic reactions) require immediate emergency care, and any delay in treatment could be dangerous.
Dr. David Highsmith, of Highsmith Animal Hospital in Wilmington, N.C., said he once saw a patient, a puppy named Stella, that was vaccinated at his clinic and, in a rare reaction, collapsed approximately five minutes after receiving the vaccination.
“I am convinced that if this had happened at the owner’s home or some other place other than a veterinary office, that Stella would not have survived. While (severe) vaccine and medication reactions are rare, they can and do occur, and they can be devastating,” Dr. Highsmith said.
A Hard Pill to Swallow?
Never purchase prescription medications from a pharmacy that tells you that you don’t need a prescription. Don’t purchase medications from pharmacies outside the U.S., because they may be selling medications that are not FDA-approved, which is illegal in the U.S. and could pose a health risk for your pet. They may also be selling counterfeit medications or marketing pills that don’t contain any medication at all. For more information on safely obtaining pet medications from online pharmacies, visit the FDA’s “Buyer Beware” page.
And never give your pet any human medications without first consulting your veterinarian. Although it may seem a quick way to save money, human medications can be very harmful, even fatal, to your pet.
If you purchase your pet’s medications from your local pharmacy, don’t accept any substitutions or alterations without your veterinarian’s approval. Although pharmacists are exceptionally well-trained when it comes to human medications, they may not be aware of the unique aspects of veterinary medicine and veterinary medications. If you have any questions about your pet’s prescription, always consult your veterinarian.
When it comes to purchasing pet medications, it could pay to check with your veterinary clinic first. Your veterinarian might provide the medication at a cost that’s very similar to the price charged by local or online pharmacies. So don’t be afraid to ask about the cost; you might be pleasantly surprised. And keep in mind that some manufacturers will only guarantee their products if they are purchased from a veterinarian. Add in the convenience factor of taking the medications with you, eliminating additional stops or time spent getting the prescriptions filled, and you may save more than you originally thought you would.
Dr. Boss added that there are additional incentives to purchasing your pet’s medication from a veterinarian.
“When you purchase your pet’s medications from your veterinarian, you will usually get manufacturer’s rebates, coupons or even free products that can cut your costs down to those low online prices while ensuring you’re receiving a quality product,” she said.
Sophisticated Healthcare Costs More
Dr. Chris Hill, a surgical specialist in Charleston, S.C., who is board certified in surgery by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, said he generally only sees patients after something has either gone wrong or was simply ignored by the pet owner. He said he thinks the most important thing owners can do is to have small tumors and lumps removed from their pets early, during routine physicals.
“Too many times an owner will ignore a small tumor that isn’t bothering the pet and watch it grow to become nearly inoperable before they decide to take their pet in to have it removed,” he said. “What could have been a relatively easy, inexpensive surgery performed at a general practitioner’s office now becomes a referral to a board-certified surgeon for a much more complicated and expensive procedure that may involve skin flaps, skin grafts or even multiple surgeries. On top of that, if it’s cancerous you’re more likely to get positive results if you begin treatment immediately. And even if it’s benign, it should be removed as soon as possible.”
A Simple Solutions Is Sometimes Cheaper
“We see obese pets that have broken a leg or become paralyzed from a ruptured disc just by jumping off the couch,” Dr. Hill said. “Oftentimes, just by losing weight a pet can avoid having joint replacement surgery or having to take lifelong pain medications.”
Obesity also increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and joint disease, including arthritis, so keeping your pet at a healthy weight is a great preventive measure that keeps costs down throughout your pet’s entire life.
Dr. Tony Buffington, a professor at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine and a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition, said he often sees inactive, indoor pets that are obese. By giving your pet the right amount of physical activity in an enriched environment and keeping their weight at a healthy level, he said, you may be saving yourself a walletful of trouble. In addition to keeping your pet at a healthy weight, the type of food you buy can also help you cut costs.
Doing some homework about the type of food you are buying for your pet may also lead to money saved. Dr. Buffington explains that if you’re paying for “premium” food, there may not be much difference between it and other, regular pet foods. Good nutrition can be achieved by a range of pet foods, in a range of prices. Product marketing terminology can be confusing. Consult with your veterinarian about the best nutritional options for your pet.
Making a homemade diet for your pets is possible, but it’s critical that you meet your pet’s nutritional needs. Dr. Buffington said he doubts homemade diets are cheaper. Before stocking up on all the foods and nutrients required for a nutritionally balanced home-cooked diet, he recommends that clients discuss their pet’s diet with their veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist, which is a veterinarian who has received additional graduate training and certification in animal nutrition.
Even though you make sure your pet receives exercise, proper nutrition, vaccinations and regular veterinary exams, it can still get sick. And in an emergency situation, it’s best to remember that cost-cutting measures could mean the difference between life and death. The best ways to save money on emergency care are to 1) provide good preventive care, so that problems are caught early, before they become more difficult and expensive to treat; 2) prevent emergencies by being cautious and minimizing your pet’s risk of injuries, poisonings or other situations that can be avoided with some forethought; and 3) recognize true emergencies and don’t delay treatment.
If you end up at a clinic or emergency facility with a sick or injured pet and you can’t afford treatment, ask the veterinarian about financial options. Dr. Boss said veterinarians are often willing to help clients find solutions.
“For most serious problems there is a spectrum of care, and we need to have a discussion with the client as to what their financial status will allow them to do and what they are comfortable with,” she said. “It’s wonderful how much specialty care we have available these days, but we also are fully aware that not everyone can afford an MRI for their dog’s injured shoulder or endoscopy to look for inflammatory bowel disease. We are all very used to coming up with a solution that works.”
“I do think it’s sensible to tell your veterinarian when you truly can’t afford something,” explained Dr. Hill. “Oftentimes they can come up with a less expensive ‘Plan B’ that may not be quite as good but is still better than taking your pet home and doing nothing.”
Dr. Edward Payne, whose practice is limited to emergency and critical care at Veterinary Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove, Ill., said there are different levels of care and treatment options that veterinarians can offer to pet owners.
“We do realize finances are an important consideration. There’s never just one option. First, we’ll offer what’s medically best, and after that there are different levels of what we do and options we can offer,” he said.
Dr. Payne also mentioned that many clinics offer financing programs that allow owners to pay over time. Pet insurance is also an option; the AVMA “endorses the concept of pet health insurance that provides coverage to help defray the cost of veterinary medical care,” according to our Guidelines on Pet Health Insurance and Other Third Party Animal Health Plans.
Still, she said, being proactive about your pet’s health is the best solution to keeping your pet healthy.
“Even if you feed your pet the best food, provide the best preventive care and are alert to any problems early on, you still may end up with a sick or injured pet,” Dr. Boss said. “But you lower the odds if you are proactive about preventive healthcare and set aside some money or invest in pet insurance. That way, should the occasion arise, you can afford the technically advanced care that is available to your pet today.”
By Julie Ciaramella