Re-evaluating the Pets

It’s interesting how things align since I’ve just asked Eldest to take the dog outside, on the heels of looking at past bills paid and learning that the BRICS are now forming a $100 Billion Development bank to rival the IMF .  So how do I bridge from the distant sound of dollar-decline to the family dog?  The leap is because within the next number of years, the money is probably not going to be there to manage the niceties to which many American families have become accustomed, such as family pets. 

This is an animal-friendly family, not so much for political/fashion reasons as much as the simple fact that we just like animals.  What started as a single stray cat adopted two months after I married my wife – and I’m a dog guy, so you can see how that early power-struggle turned out – has now morphed into a present stable of four rescued cats, a rescued dog and a rescued snake.  Until two months ago, there was also a rescued hamster but he has since moved on to that great wheel in the sky.  Simply put, we take in animals and give them homes.  But how many resources should be spent on all of these animals, given the ongoing winnowing of the middle class?

We’re no different than millions of other Americans who spent more than $56 billion dollars in 2013 on their various and sundry pets.  The cost goes beyond food to veterinary bills, toys, corollary products and even pet medications and pet health insurance and God knows that we’ve covered several of those categories.  Our intent has always been to take in strays and rescues since (a) they’re there, and (b) they’re relatively cheap, at least in comparison to the cost of a purebred puppy or kitten.  But it was within the past year that the sense of restraint blew straight through to hell because of three separate animals.

The first animal was a temporary addition to the household, a cat who Eldest found in an animal shelter.  Although we were at the full complement of alloted animals, an allotment agreed upon because I simply can’t handle any more, a dispensation was made because the shelter assured her that this cat was terminally ill and that they simply wanted him adopted out so that he could die in comfort.  One of my concerns to Eldest was financial – how much extra medical was going to be required and for how much would we be on the hook?  Assured that the death was likely within weeks, I agreed and “McGee” joined the family although he was restricted to the basement so that the potential upset with four other cats was minimized.  Unfortunately, what should have been a cat hospice morphed into a long-term care facility as McGee rebounded with comfortable new surroundings and attention and a very few weeks of life extended into months.  There were a few vet visits with labwork, expensive enough, and then McGee finally began a decline that signaled the approaching end.  The unfortunate part of this decline was a loss of physical control that utterly ruined Pergo flooring and required my efforts to replace an approximately 60 square foot section with the unused flooring left over from installation years ago.  Had I not kept the unused flooring for use in piecing together repair, the upshot would have been several thousand dollars in new flooring.  We subsequently had him put down because his health had finally declined both precipitously and disastrously, for him and for us.

The second animal was our elderly Golden Retriever, who we took in as a pup from a local family because she was picked on and badgered by their older dog, for whom they had purchased her as a companion animal (because every pet needs a pet, right?).  This lovable spastic girl, had she been human, would have been on meds for ADHD and was periodically frustrating in her goofiness.  The costs for Cassie were what you’d expect for a responsible dog-owner with vet and food bills; as she aged however, we did shift the care during vacations and other absences from a kennel to a responsible known-quantity teen who could housesit for us in our absence.  The thought process in this shift was two-fold since we’d have to have someone come in to monitor the cats anyways and it could also allow the dollars spent to go even more locally, to a teen who could apply it to college. 

The financial hole came late one evening last year, the night before we were to leave for a week’s vacation, when Cassie stepped on a glass shard from a jar that had broken when it was dropped by one of the kids the day before.  Although the kid had done a presumably thorough job in cleaning up the mess, he didn’t account for the fact that shards could travel into the next room and lodge themselves into the carpet.  I had just finished an article and when I stepped away from the computer, found the retriever licking furiously at her paw to stem the prodigious blood flow from the wound; the shard had done far enough into the paw to sever the artery and the blood was flowing freely into the carpet.  Because this was a late night, the option was to get her to the emergency vet center and that’s what happened to my night-before-late morning departure while my wife and older kids went to work on the blood in the family room carpet.

This veterinary center has a policy that after initially addressing the immediate problem, the manager will speak with the pet owner and provide an estimate as to the cost of actual treatment for the injury or illness.  My situation, according to the manager, was a deep puncture wound with a severed artery – and she would’ve bled to death if you hadn’t found her – that required full-blown surgery to repair, including general anesthesia, to the tune of more than $1100.  I blanched at the cost and texted with my wife, but it didn’t occur to either of us not to proceed, and I was frankly surprised that the manager was actually happy and relieved that we’d do so.  This was my first inkling that the middle-class winnowing has hit the pet business since the manager’s experience was that many owners would simply have cut their losses at the visit and opted for euthanasia.  The upshot is that I returned home in the early morning with a thoroughly groggy and miserable dog, who required considerably more care from Eldest’s housesitting friend during the coming week, including a followup appointment with our regular vet. 

It was around the time of the dog’s injury that my wife’s beloved older cat, Bear, became notably off in his behavior.  As with the other animals, Bear was adopted as a stray, but this was a cat who was as much a gentleman as any male of any species that I’ve ever seen.  He was lovingly attentive to his person – my wife – and actually helped maintain order amongst the other animals in the household, including the retriever.  When we adopted two male kitten siblings years ago, I witnessed this cat physically corner the two little ones after a rambunctious period and discipline them, laying down the law to them in whatever language that the felines use with one another; it was honestly one of the more amazing things that I’ve seen in my years.  When the listlessness and mewing continued for a few days, we took him to our regular vet, who diagnosed him with bladder cancer.  Because there were actually surgical options, we opted for that route but after several months with some improvement, Bear declined dramatically and we were forced to put him down to save him further pain.

And several weeks later, I had to return to the emergency vet one evening when the retriever suddenly couldn’t walk.  The girl was suffering from a liver tumor that had ruptured and was now bleeding out internally, a situation that was simply untreatable and within 90 minutes of arrival at the vet center, she was put down.  It was honestly a relief to know that it was untreatable since I was mentally tallying the costs that we’d incurred in the previous three months and it spared me from having to make an unpleasant choice of euthanasia or further treatment costs.  For a guy who prides himself on a straight-forward and logical approach to things, I was torn by multiple thorns: sadness that this sweet, goofy girl was leaving; anger at myself that I could have missed any early warning signs that might have prevented this sudden trainwreck; concern over the amount of money that I might wind up spending; and a strange wish to show the center staff that I was indeed a good guy and not a cheapskate who wouldn’t spring for treatment.  The reality was that I really didn’t have a choice but that still hasn’t salved the lingering irritation.

The financial upshot of these incidents cost us in the thousands of dollars over a three month period, money that I had simply had no idea would be incurred and far beyond the usual monthly costs that we incur for our animals.  After a recent visit to the vet for another animal, the office manager commented that I might want to consider purchasing health insurance for the animals; an expenditure that I simply find objectionable given the human need that we face in America.  But the events and my responses also demonstrate that the new generations of American parents are going to have to be willing and able to steel themselves for the instances when the cost of pet ownership momentarily spirals out of control, to simply say no and cut the losses when they occur.

Economists understand that there’s a principle called opportunity cost, meaning that the money spent now could instead be spent in another way or saved for a different priority.  The consumerist mindset of having it all has combined with the easy credit availability to lull people into thinking that choices don’t have to be made when you can do both, paying for at least one over time.  But one of the recurring thoughts during that period was the realization that the money was finite and there were uses for that money elsewhere; in at least one of three animal situations, emotions took over the thought process.  My philosophy is now changing to recognize that there is indeed opportunity cost for my family, especially now that another kid is looking at college.  What will happen now is the admission that we simply can’t afford the extended care and recognizing that in providing a loving home for these cast-offs, they’re still far better off than they might have been otherwise.

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