British Columbia

Facing steep vet bills, unemployed pet owners make wrenching choices around their pets

Guilt-stricken families are making wrenching decisions around costly animal health care while unemployed during the pandemic, as bills for the necessaries of human life continue piling up. Some have to choose between saving their pet or putting food on the table.

Owners struggling to cover the cost of pet health care dip into savings to save their companions

Dobby, a brown tabby, required emergency veterinary care after breaking its jaw on Aug. 6, 2020. (Supplied by Dina Morgan)

You're barely on the phone with Dina Morgan for a few moments before she neatly summarizes the past few days, since her family's brown tabby wandered dazed onto the porch with a lolling tongue and crooked, swollen jaw.

"It's Monday after the shittiest weekend of my life," said Morgan, with a half-hearted laugh.

It cost the Morgan family $3,000 to stabilize Dobby, a rescued cat with chartreuse eyes, after his jaw was fractured and dislocated on Thursday. A semi-permanent feeding tube and CT scan cost another $2,890. After that, the cat might need an $8,000 surgery — bringing the total bill for immediate care to around $12,000.

The Morgans made ends meet before the pandemic, but have lost 40 per cent of their income stream since March. They are among many guilt-stricken families making wrenching decisions around costly animal health care in the thick of unemployment. Some face the prospect of choosing between their pet's care or putting food on the table.

"I didn't even have grocery money for this weekend," said Morgan, 51. "We are struggling in a major, major way."

Dobby, a brown tabby, could require up to $12,000 in veterinary care. (Supplied by Dina Morgan)

Owners face tough realities

At the best of times, veterinary care is expensive. British Columbian pet owners spent an average of $1,159 on the health of their animals in 2019, when the national average was just $872, according to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). A single emergency surgery can be upwards of $10,000.

Veterinarians can compromise the level of health care for cash-strapped owners, sometimes offering an acceptable treatment over the optimal procedure, in order to avoid the animal being surrendered to adoption or euthanized for financial reasons.

"It does a cause of stress for a lot of veterinarians .... We like to make sure the pet gets the best care possible but, sometimes, for economic reasons, you kind of have to water it down a little bit and focus on quality of life," said Okanagan veterinarian Dr. Marco Veenis, who sits on the board of the Society of B.C. Veterinarians.

Veenis said more and more owners are getting pet insurance to help with expenses. Owners pay premiums, but plans can help cover sudden, unexpected expenses.

"That has made our lives easier, certainly," he said.

The animal hospital run by the Regional Animal Protection Society (RAPS) offers a subsidy service for families who can't afford pet health care. The charity sets up an interest-free monthly payment plan for owners, based their ability to pay.

Applications for the program have spiked by 50 per cent in 2020, compared to 2019.

"The demand on our systems is huge," said RAPS CEO Eyal Lichtmann. "We have had people in here as a last resort, in tears, because they've been told, 'put [your pet] down.' "

Daughter scraped together savings

Morgan used to run an in-home animal daycare on the side to supplement her federal disability pension, but she hasn't had a single client since March. Her husband's hours have been cut back at the Richmond Steel Recycling plant. Even their eldest, college-age daughter lost her childcare job at the YWCA.

The couple's daughter, 20, dipped into her tuition savings to pay the $3,000 for Dobby's emergency care over the weekend. The decision means deferring her graduation from Emily Carr University, as she won't recoup the money in time to cover the fall semester.

"She didn't even give it a second thought," said Morgan. "We do what we have to do for our families and he is definitely a member of our family ... we couldn't face the idea of euthanizing him."

Dobby now has a feeding tube and may require another surgery. (Supplied by Dina Morgan)

Morgan has filed an application with RAPS in hopes of recovering some of the costs for Dobby's care, but the society might not be able to cover the full cost. The family did not have pet insurance — something Morgan said she's "kicking herself" over — but, regardless, a plan likely wouldn't cover the full bill.

Still, she laughs describing Dobby's favourite hiding spots: perched in the cabinet above the washing machine, ensconced in the linen closet, or stuffed in a box on the officer floor, where her husband has been throwing receipts for years.

"All I can do is laugh, because if I don't, I'm going to cry," said Morgan.

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