Budgeting for Vet Emergecies

Cross-posted from blog.saltmoney.org.

I never wanted to be the person who spent a ton of money on a pet. After all, as much as the Internet loves cats, providing world-class health care for kittens seems frivolous when actual human children can’t get clean water.

I never understood the sort of person who would spend a month’s pay or more to revive a sick and elderly animal. I figured if I had a pet, I’d take a hard look at the numbers, have my maximum, and not go over it.

Then my cat got sick, and I went way over budget.

DECLINING HEALTH

In my case, it began slowly. All cats throw up sometimes, but D’Artagnan, a.k.a. “Big D,” started doing it a lot. My wife and I noticed he looked a little thinner, but that’s not a bad thing for a 20-pound cat. And then he looked a lot thinner. He lost about 8 pounds—nearly a third of his body weight, or the equivalent of an entire average-sized cat.

His fur went dull, and he looked like a taxidermist had prepared him for mounting but forgotten the stuffing. You ever see those TV shows where a person loses 200 pounds and needs plastic surgery to remove the excess skin? He looked like that, only less life-affirming. We started calling him Skeletor.

The vet diagnosed hyperthyroidism and prescribed these chewable liver-flavored medicine treats twice a day. The diagnosis cost us a couple hundred bucks, and the medicine was about a dollar a day. He got better almost immediately, and we figured that was totally worth it.

Then he started fading again, and the vet suggested we add liver-flavored corticosteroid treats. Diagnosis and treatment cost about the same again, and again he revived almost immediately, even putting a little weight back on.

EMERGENCY

After about a year, we’d spent maybe $750 over and above the usual costs of cat ownership—food, litter, annual vaccines, and so forth. We didn’t mind. He was an exceptional cat, after all, and we could afford it. We set up a “Pets” budget on Mint.com, and it was all fine and manageable.

Then, last Friday evening, he seemed ill. Saturday, when the vet was closed, we noticed he wasn’t eating. Sunday, I went to check on him—he had urinated all over himself and our bed, and was struggling to breathe.

We spent the better part of Sunday at Boston’s 24/7 animal ER. They gave him oxygen for his labored breathing, electrolytes for his too-low potassium levels, IV fluids to flush out his inflamed kidneys, and insulin to reduce his elevated blood sugar. The vet said the kidneys might be inflamed because of an infection and chronic kidney disease. Or because of cancer. They’d need a biopsy to find out.

We decided against the biopsy and took him home.

WHERE THE MONEY WENT

I didn’t want the biopsy for several reasons, some of them simple and most of them not: I didn’t want to spend the money. I didn’t want to have someone cut yet another hole in my poor cat. We could find out by waiting: If it’s cancer, the antibiotics won’t work. Most of all, and maybe most upsetting, there’s not much point in knowing. If he’s got cancer, we probably won’t be able to afford to treat it.

D’Artagnan is at home now, and recovering well. We’ve got a table full of medication, including a bag of electrolyte solution we inject him with every evening. We’ve become the people I used to make fun of: We’ve turned our dining room into a makeshift veterinary clinic; we spent a month’s pay on one trip to the vet.

Just in case I hadn’t noticed that it was expensive, I got an alert from Mint.com warning me that I had exceeded my “Pets” budget by more than $2,000.

We don’t know how much more life we’ve bought Big D, but I’ve learned this much from the experience: Even if you think you’re pragmatic and tough about money and pets, you should still probably set aside twice what you think you’ll need for a veterinary emergency.

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