Uncategorized

Pet Health Insurance… Is it worth it for you and your pet?

I was in veterinary school when I acquired my first pet as an actual adult, a little Chocolate Lab puppy. Then I quickly learned as a I went thru my veterinary school courses of all the things that could go wrong or accidents that could happen in this puppy’s lifetime. Then I became a hypochondriac and with each new disease I learned about, I was convinced my dog had “IT”. Gagged once= probably Physaloptera sp. esophageal worms. My mind was frantically planning for the esophageal endoscopy. When he misstepped across the yard my mind rushed to the diagnosis of debilitating hip dysplasia that would certainly need a total hip replacement. The good news is he coming 11 years old now and really hasn’t had all those rare and not so rare diseases I had learned of.

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I also learned there were more and more options for my pet’s health care and with those options and expertise came expense. Pet health care is expensive.  This puppy was family and if needed care to save his life or give him the best quality of life I wanted to have that option, even though my pocket book as veterinary student was pretty devoid of means of doing so. I remember the dogs I had growing up and the extent of their veterinary care and expense. We hauled them to City Hall once a year for “shots” and treated the random ear infection or rash. Veterinary medicine had changed a bit since.

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“The times they are a changing!” Courtesy The Animal Pet Doctor

 

We were active in DockDogs, a community of dog competitors and athletes and Embrace Pet Insurance was offered at a discount to participants and many raved about the benefits of health insurance so I signed up. When clients ask me about whether insurance would be a good idea also my single biggest question is:

“If money were no object, what would you do for your pet?”

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My former canine athlete Brody

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Brody loved this activity but as a vet student I saw a ruptured cruciate, iliopsoas injury, or fracture, etc just waiting to happen!

In veterinary school I learned about the many advanced care options available including imaging, cancer treatment, critical care/ICU stays, or complex surgical or dental procedures. These wonderful options could quickly deflate a savings account. Not to mention the pets we treated with chronic illnesses such as allergies, where the costs added up more slowly but steadily. If money was no object, would I want these options for my pet? The answer was “Yes!”.

“Could I have set aside funds every month for the emergency or severe illness I dreaded?” Sure.

But I also knew care could be in the thousands. At $20-30/month my pet was covered for the worst…which could cost thousands of dollars. At that same rate of savings it would take my 150 months, or 12.5 years to save $3000 as an emergency fund. I could have played the odds that my pets would be healthy and have no issues in their lifetime but as a veterinarian I knew the reality. Over 50% of dogs over the age of 10 will develop cancer. And how many puppy owners I saw that had just dropped down a sum of money for their new pup, collar, kennel, and food only to struggle to find the $1000 it would need when that same clumsy puppy tripped up the stairs and broke its leg.

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I have sat with clients that had no money but had all the want and willingness to help their pets and there is NO worse feeling. I have worked for free, had the pets relinquished, or found resources or rescue groups to help but there are only so many dollars available. No one expects bad things to happen to them and so that is where insurance may be worth the money.

So I got pet health insurance and paid my monthly premium and thought about the money I was “wasting” and how I should be investing it in retirement. We had actually talked about dropping it. Why would a vet have health insurance…it seemed most things to fix where within our budget and manageable.

Then I felt a firm boney mass near my soul-dog’s ear, arising from his skull. My Newfoundland had bone cancer. As a veterinarian I knew I could do nothing and he would be gone in months or I could seek care and hope for better. There were just a few places that offered the treatment options we needed, including Flint Animal Cancer Center in Fort Collins, CO. So we loaded up as a family including my 2 week old newborn and traveled for stereotactic radiation.

The price tag was about ~$10,000. No way, no how could I have justified that expense with the costs of a newborn, student loans, and life. I would have been limited to the option of pain meds and waiting. But my Embrace Plan, the same one I had contemplated cancelling months before, paid 90%.

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His CT Scan showing the boney tumor…osteosarcoma
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Computer-generated 3-D Model for use in radiation treatment planning

$10,000 may be crazy to spend on a dog…any dog… soul mate or otherwise but I figured a bargin compared to the cost of that same technology applied in human health care. When owners complain about the costs of veterinary care being more than human health care it highlights the misunderstanding. The same supplies, drugs, education, equipment sits in our veterinary hospitals but as pet owners we pay out of pocket and feel every single penny leave our wallet. I have received statements and bills from hospitals and half the time I have no idea what was charged to the insurance company (in my mind it reads: $40 million dollar IV catheter. You own $1.47! So someone, somewhere paid or negotiated the difference).

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The medical equipment used to deliver steriotactic radiation therapy

Then Piper, our beloved GSP, developed Congestive Heart Failure. Echocardiograms and monitoring were doable without the worry of cost. I had considered stem cell treatment for her shoulder arthritis and had the $2000 cost approved through insurance before her heart condition worsened. Then that same puppy I acquired in vet school now with a gray face and aging body, developed a limp. I had done rads after rads with radiologists reviewing and though I suspected elbow arthritis, never got the answer I needed. A visit to Colorado State University and a CT scan provided the answer I needed to know.

So when we got a new puppy that was learning how to explore the world with its toxins and hazards and how to use its limbs without falling or tripping, it made complete sense he needed health insurance too. I couldn’t stomach the thought of not being able to offer him the care I knew was available just because money was the limiting factor.

Houses, boats, and cars…well they all have a set insurable value. But pets their value is determined by our connection to them. For some they may be totally replaceable but not in my world.

It may come down to priorities…what do you want to spend your hard earned dollars on. I value health care and realize the options and associated expense that comes with it. My pets are family and I want the best for them. I just don’t have unlimited funds to do that so insurance has helped offset the financial strain.

In addition to the question of “What is your pet worth to you?” I would consider “Are the odds in your favor?”.

The reality is certain breeds are more prone to medical issues such as cancer or orthopedic disease. General higher risk breeds may include the giant breeds such as the Newfoundland, Great Dane, or Mastiff and also Bulldogs (I once saw a bumper sticker that read “Support your veterinarian. Buy a Bulldog” and perhaps there is some truth in that).

Is your pet’s lifestyle such that an injury like a broken bone or athletic injury more likely to occur? This could include the canine athlete or working dog (hunting, ranch dog, or competitive dog) or the dog that runs at the family farm (with its associated risks of livestock, 4-wheelers/Quads, toxin, etc) on the weekends. Then insurance may be worth it.

No one gets home insurance planning for the day it burns but the reality is insurance is there if the worst should happen. Pet health insurance is largely designed to cover your pet’s accident and disease, not wellness care. 

There are several insurance options and resources to fit your unique needs and budget. The following companies are consistently well rated and recommended (Insurance Comparisons) : PetsBest, PetPlan, Embrace, and Healthy Paws.

My General Considerations are:

1) Does the policy cover hereditary or congenital diseases? If you have a Lab and they don’t cover cruciate disease surgery your plan won’t be very helpful to you. Research the diseases  must likely to affect your pet’s breed and read the fine print to ensure you are covered.

2) How are pre-existing conditions handled? This is still the world of insurance so if you pet has developed a disease such as allergies or hip dysplasia prior to acquiring your plan prepare for limitations in your coverage of the condition. The best way to get around pre-existing conditions is to get insurance early in your pet’s life.

3) What are the limits and deductible? Like all insurances, a higher deductible will mean a lower monthly premium. I personally have a higher deductible with the idea that my plan covers for the big and major. Some have no annual limits, others might.

4) How much and what do you want covered? Are prescription drugs covered? If you have an athletic dog such as a hunting dog which may be prone to injury you may want to make sure rehab services are covered.  You may need to tailor your plan if you wish to have routine vet care (vaccines, dental cleanings, heartworm testing, etc) covered.

5)How do they pay out? I prefer they pay a portion of my bill and not a set amount for the condition. Costs vary from location to location and this ensures I am not having to price shop. Most plans can be tailored to cover anywhere from 70-90+% of the treatment costs.

Pet health insurance isn’t for everyone. Only a small percent of the millions of pets in this country are insured but I am glad for the option and how it helped my family make decisions based on medicine and not money. Could my pet’s go their lifetime and I never get my money back? “Sure”. But their policy could also prevent heartbreak if the worst does happen.

Some additional resources:

2017 Canine Journal’s Top 3 Comparison

Pet Insurance as the Latest Work Perk

Consumer Reports: Is Pet Insurance Worth It?

Uncategorized

Five Things to Do for your Dog Today

Cassy photoFor myself, having pets often is for very self-centered reasons. They bring me joy and amusement and they have their “jobs” on our farm/ranch whether it be to work the cows and sheep or to keep watch of the yard (a self-appointed job really). So as a veterinarian and lover of dogs, I thought what are 5 things I really wish my clients would do for their dogs TODAY and what does my own pack need right now.

Five Things to Do for your Dog TODAY

  1. Go for a walk. Get out of the house and yard and I promise it will be not only good for your dog but for yourself as well. (5 Benefits of Walks with your Dog).  Your pet will benefit from the exercise (a tired dog is a good dog right?) and also the environmental stimulation of new sights, sounds, and aromas. We too often assume a yard is enough but in some cases it just becomes a prison yard! Let your dog see and socialize with the bigger world. Just like we need fresh air and exercise for our emotional and physical health so do our pets.4642_656417262550_6284995_n
  2. Lift the Lip. Dental health is so overlooked but I hear time and time again how an older dog feels like a puppy again after we treat years of pain and disease or of the dog with the fractured tooth that now treated is playing again, picking up toys, and eating better. If we wait for a complaint from our pets we have waited too long. The stats are shocking…. by the age of two years old, 80% of dogs will have some form of periodontal disease. Does your pet have dental disease? Click here .  If you see calculus or tarter, red and inflamed gums, smell odor, or see fractured or mobile teeth see your vet.Buster 5
  3. Throw Away the Food Bowl. I have long done away with food bowls and have replaced them with treat dispensing toys and creative “hunts” for food. My own dogs can consume their breakfast in a time that would make a professional eating contestant jealous.  (Throw Away that Bowl)  By having them “work” for their food it is engaging their minds, slowing their intake, and leading to portion control.cat food
  4. Feel those Ribs. When you rub your hands along your pets rib cage it should feel much like the back of your hand with each rib clearly felt. If your pet has a little extra cushion or a poorly defined waist line now is the time to get the weight off. Purina did a landmark study and showed those dogs fed to a lean body condition score lived 1.8 years longer than those that were moderately overweight.  Click here for more info
  5. Give your Dog a Massage and check for lumps, bumps, sores, or other abnormalities. Early detection can save lives. Chase Away K9 Cancer has this great handout outlining monthly cancer checks.  Cancer Check How-To

 

 

Motherhood, Pet Care, Uncategorized

Observations on the Raising of Puppies and Kids

DSC_9607pHaving kiddos brings its own kind of crazy to life. Add a puppy and it is borderline insanity!

Pregnant woman go into a nesting stage where they want to love and care for another creature and at around 6 months pregnant the urge is strong but there will be no baby for months. It seems the next best thing to love and cradle is a puppy or kitten. I myself grew up with a dog, Bud, that was just 8 weeks older than I. My mother thought “Well I will be home anyway. I might as well get a puppy to housebreak, train, and love while I have the baby.” Now as a parent the story sounds like a disastrous bomb waiting to go off and not the makings of a beautiful friendship between the family dog and a household of daughters.

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First family photo with “Bud” and “Skeeter” 1982

 

For many families the cute and cuddly puppy grows older, more boisterous and reckless. Keeping a tiny helpless infant alive while surviving on minimal sleep is hard and so the puppy child may get forgotten and the  training and direction promised isn’t given priority. The 6 month old formerly adorable puddle of wrinkles Lab is now a wild maniac teenager and becomes too much. Puppies as future parent trainers often fail.

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This is a big “Dog Bite Prevention” NO! Dogs as furniture is not recommended.

 

So when we thought of getting a puppy we looked at pros and cons. Our first dog, Brody, was a surrogate child. I didn’t say that then but now that I have human children it was pretty obvious. When my human children arrived I had to pick the camera back up afraid of the shame if they discovered the “dog child” had more baby books of pictures then they would have.

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Our first family photo with “Brody” 2006
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“Brody” the First Born Parent Trainer

 

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We added a human first born to the mix in 2012
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“The Pack” but no puppies

 

 

 

 

This new puppy would not be just our baby but a member of this new family unit that has been created since our last puppy.  We realized that this puppy would be the dog of childhood memories. We all remember our childhood dog and they are always PERFECT….never chewed or barked, as well trained as Lassie, and saved us from our certain destruction in childhood.  The connection to this new puppy would be different…not a surrogate but an addition.

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“Ripp”

 

We are about a month or so in and having a toddler and puppy at the same time is for fools I tell you. As if your hands aren’t full enough keeping a rambunctious and daring toddler from certain self-destruction, now you give him a side kick in crime.

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I have learned that puppies and kiddos can thrive on some common principles though:

  1. Feed them well. But here is the kicker…both Sidekick Puppy and Toddler love dog food and cat food is a delicacy for unrestrained gluttony. Forget those silly baby fruit-flavored puffs. If they made a complete baby kibble or adult kibble for that matter I’d buy it by the case. We have to keep the food locked from both pets and toddler. More than once both little creatures have shared the after breath of those disgusting faux bacon treats. Excuse me while I dry heave after doing a mouth sweep of kibble from Toddler and disgusting cow placenta jerky from Puppy!
  2. Consistency is key. Rules are rules until well the young ones look cute and you are tired and weak. Then rules are broken and you vow to be stronger next time. It is good to have a partner that will start to see the cracking and intervene so that consistency remains.
  3. Life is stimulating and sometimes you just need a time out or a nap. Both puppies and toddlers get cranky without!
  4. The best toy is the one you can’t have or that wasn’t even meant to be a toy in the first place. I just throw some boxes around the house and the cats and toddler love them. I bought that $30 Sophia the Giraffe teething toy because that is what good mothers do in today’s society. Guess what…Kongs rule in our house.
  5. Imitation is a step in learning. But it gets tricky when the toddler mimics the dog. The other night toddler brought a toy in mouth and requested a game of fetch. But there is hope that by watching older brother pee in the toilet and older dogs pee outside there may be a spark of discovery for toddler and puppy.
  6. What is mine is mine and yours is mine too. Sharing is hard. The other night toddler was sleeping with pacifier in mouth (and yes I was that mom that vowed no pacifiers at this age, ever, ever and then I decided sleep and peaceful living was more important than this pacifier war.) and puppy just stole it in one swoop. So lesson is: if puppy has a toy don’t steal and if child has a toy don’t steal. Teeth and/or tears could be consequences.
  7. Showing love can be a bit rough for the littles. Bite inhibition and hand inhibition training are real. Toddler please note pets don’t love hugs, especially if there is risk of a head popping off and Puppy please note we people don’t like your mouth on our flesh.

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I think it is a start of a beautiful friendship and I hope that in the years to follow we look back with fond memories of their childhood dog. But for today I will just take a deep breath and vow to keep on teaching, guiding, and preventing mayhem and destruction.

“Got to go…Toddler is using the dog food bin as a tasty sensory bin and Puppy is torturing the cats.”

Anyone else crazy like me raising a puppy and a baby? How is your adventure going?