When to Call the Vet?

In some recent posts, an issue came up about calling in a veterinarian’s help. We’ve experienced both extremes of veterinary availability: in Illinois, a large animal vet lived literally around the corner from us and could come pretty much any time; here, we can’t even find a large animal vet (who does anything but horses). As one commenter pointed out, with livestock it is really necessary to do a cost-benefit analysis before calling a vet. How much is it worth to save a $150 animal?

We’ve found $50 to be about the limit for young goat kids who’ve developed pneunomia. We’ve driven a couple of them to the local “dog and cat” vet clinic, gotten them treated, and had them grow to butchering size. But given the cost of butchering, and of feeding them to get to that size, when you add another $50 you’re basically just breaking even on the price of meat. And if the animal doesn’t survive, you’re out everything.

There’s another element, however: we see ourselves as custodians or stewards of these animals, and therefore under an obligation to do what we can to maintain their health. For that reason, we’re sometimes willing to spend more than an animal’s replacement value, if necessary, and if the treatment promises to yield a good result.

Still, it’s quite a different — more utilitarian — mentality than the approach many people have to veterinary care for their house pets. For many, a dog or cat is almost literally a member of their family, and they’re willing to spend great sums to prolong that pet’s life. I confess to a deep attachment to our dogs, and in most cases would spend significantly more on veterinary care than they are “worth”. Barn cats are different; we (especially our kids) like them, and we do get them basic veterinary care, but they are expendible when their conditions are too complicated.

This issue has been on my mind the last couple of days, after reading a provocative piece on the NY Times website, which explored the amount people are willing to spend on a sick pet.

Most pet owners (62 percent) said they would likely pay for pet health care even if the cost reached $500, but that means more than a third of pet owners said that might be too much to spend on an animal.

What if the bill for veterinary care reached $1,000? Fewer than half of pet owners said they were very likely to spend that much at the vet. Only a third said it was very likely they would pay a $2,000 vet bill.

Once the cost of saving a sick pet reached $5,000, most pet owners said they would stop treatment. Only 22 percent said they were very likely to pick up $5,000 in veterinary costs to treat a sick dog or cat.

The piece says “only 22%” would pay five grand, but I was frankly surprised it was that large. Even more fascinating than the poll results in the piece itself are the comments people have made, detailing the enormous sums of money they have spent (and consider well-spent), sometimes just to prolong an animal’s life by a few months.

I do understand that for some people, a dog can be a beloved companion, especially in cases where a person does not have any children of his or her own, and prolonging the pet’s life for several more years is worth more to the person than having some extra pieces of green paper in the bank — particularly when the pet is relatively young and the prognosis for treatment is good. And when a person agrees to become the custodian of an animal, he is also agreeing to make some financial sacrifices on behalf of that animal.

The question I have to ask myself is, when does the amount cross the line from “responsible” to “disordered”? Where each individual draws that line is a matter for his own conscience, but it’s something worth giving thought to.

For myself, I think it’s a question of competing obligations. There were all kinds of things I was willing to spend money on before I was married or had kids, that now I would never consider spending so much on. Five grand might be an acceptable price for some people to spend saving a dog’s life, given their financial and family circumstances. But if a vet quoted me that amount, in anticipation of treating my dog, as much as I love him and as much help as he is with the livestock on our farm, my thought would be: Five grand will cover all of our family’s routine out-of-pocket medical and dental and vision care expenses for the next two years. How can I spend that on Scooter, when I have four kids who are depending on me to spend it on them?

Where do you draw that line for yourself?

2 thoughts on “When to Call the Vet?

  1. As a homestead policy: we have no pets on the Pindedale Palace, only livestock. We obtained a stock-dog for free from craigslist and I considered her vet/neutering bill to be her purchase price. Since we consider all our critters (sheep, goats, poultry, stock-dog, and evenually fish in a swimming pool) to be livestock, we are saying that they are investments. In practise, I would not spend more than the cost of buying a similar animal (in breed, age, and development) in good health, bascially the replacement value. In theory, I would say it would have more to do with the replacement value of what food item(s) we would be buying at the store instead, but often that's too hard to accurately quantify since it also takes into consideration the investment that we already put into the animal.

    Frankly, its the same logic one applies when a tool breaks (such as a chainsaw): at what point do you pay to have it fixed and at what point do you buy a new one. For me, fixing something is usually only worth a cumulative 50-75% of the price of a new model if its not a huge sum of money (such as buying a car would be). Once again, that's theory. Practise would have more to do with how padded our bank account is that month.

    I would either pass along the animal to someone who would like to spend the necessary money (like we did with our stock-dog's brother since we got both in a 2-or-nothing arrangement) or put the animal out of its misery, attempting to salvage what meat is available if its OK to do so (like we did with a sheep that we had to put down due to complications in lambing). I felt no moral qualms about eating the sheep we had to put down and I would have had no qualms about quickly and “humanely” ending the life and disposing of the unnecessary dog we were given since we had advertised it on craigslist to whoever wanted him and there were no takers. The rescues that contacted us wanted us to pay them for taking him off our hands. I told them that it wasn't worth it to me, if they wanted to have him they could but I would just as soon put him down, that got their attention.

    For the record, that dog now accompanies a horse vet on her rounds. I am very relieved that he didn't end up in a dog fighting situation. We would have offered him for sale (now that I know about the troubles of “free to a good home”) for the price of his vet care if we were able to keep him, but we only had sufficient accomodations for 1 dog, not 2. We did not provide vet care on this dog while we had him, but the rescue did.

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  2. I can understand the need to spend insane amounts on a pet. When the lambing went sour (as my husband alluded to), the decision was on me and it was a tough call. Had the money been in the bank to call in a vet I may have to save my conscience just knowing that I did everything that could be done. But realistically, if you run a farm like that you're quickly bankrupt. But healthcare isn't just where the finances get skewed- I've noticed icing-dipped dog treats for a quarter a piece being sold like hotcakes! I could poison a dog for WAY less than that! Why are people buying sugar-coated treats, filled with chemical dyes and rolled in sprinkles when the dog would rather have a bit of raw hamburger which would cost a far side less! The dog's color-blind and can't even enjoy the brightly colored sprinkles! So, when we're accused of being too utilitarian with our animals, I then begin to question the practice of the accusers' with their animals. Which is more torturous on the animal- to allow them to be an animal or to force them into human ways and thus human miseries?

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