Recently, my friend A's vigorous 10-year-old laika (a Russian breed whose name means "barker") woke up wheezing. She seemed fine the next morning when he went to work, but that afternoon he got a call from his mother, who had come over to let the dog out, telling him the dog seemed disoriented. He left work, arriving home about an hour later, to discover his pet on the floor of the bedroom, eyes open and fixed, body stiff. He picked the dog up, put her in the car, and drove to the vet. He ran in with the rigid dog over his shoulder and announced, "I think my dog is dead!" Everything stopped in the waiting room as the techs whisked the dog away.
Soon an employee emerged to explain it looked as if the dog had suffered a cardiac arrest. He also had a question: "Do you want us to do CPR?" All eyes turned to A, including those of the woman who had begun weeping in sympathy when A announced his dog had died. He realized he couldn't bring himself to say what he was thinking: "How much are you going to charge me to do CPR on my dead dog?" Instead, he told them to go ahead, and took a seat. Techs came out with periodic reports—neither heart massage nor drug infusion was generating any vital signs. "I wanted to say, 'That's because she's been dead for an hour,' " says A. Finally, they suggested the treatments should stop, and A agreed. They presented him with the bill. It turns out it costs $250 to try to revive a dead dog.
Two trends are making a visit to your veterinarian an opportunity for endless guilt. One is the increasing acceptance of the notion that pets are family members (thus the movement to change the word owner to guardian). The other is the convergence of veterinary and human medicine—pets can get chemotherapy, dialysis, organ transplants, hip replacement, and braces for their teeth. In 2004, Americans spent $18 billion to treat the country's 164 million dogs and cats. Sure, you may have a health-care directive that begs your loved one to pull the plug. Grandpa's hospital bed may have a flashing "Do Not Resuscitate" order. But how can anyone be heartless enough to refuse to treat their dead dog?
In Sicko, Michael Moore indicts America's human health care, painting a portrait of a system so callous that the loss of life and limb is a matter of simple economic calculation. But in my experience, it's almost impossible to find a callous vet when you need one. Take what happened with my cat Sabra. At age 21—the equivalent of a 100-year-old human—Sabra was fading. She had stopped grooming and was barely eating. She spent her days curled in a chair, hissing occasionally like a deflating whoopee cushion. Instead of letting her go gently, of course I took her to the vet. The vet shook her head at Sabra's condition. She likely had cancer, kidney disease, multiple organ failure. All this would have to be sorted out through several days of rigorous testing. Instead of saying, "I'm going to take her home and let her deflate in peace," I handed her over.
As I left, I thought of my dear, departed grandmother. When she was 90, still lucid but in the hospital and facing the end, the doctors thought perhaps she had an undetected cancer. To confirm, the biopsy would have required anesthesia and a painful recovery. Everyone agreed to let it go. Sabra had no such luck. Two days and $800 worth of tests later, the vet couldn't find out what was wrong (besides the fact that she was 21) and said she was arranging a transport to a facility where Sabra could get an MRI. When I said I was coming to pick her up, the vet became hostile. "She might have a cancer we haven't found! She's not in good health!" said the vet. I returned Sabra to her chair, and she died a few months later.
I was left feeling the whole exercise was a way of shaming me into covering the overhead. But when I described what happened to Dr. Gerald Snyder, a Charlotte-based veterinary practice management consultant, he clarified the miscommunication for me. "The veterinarian is on the cat's side, not yours," he explained.
Dr. James Busby, a 67-year-old veterinarian in Bemidji, Minn., sees things differently. He's the kind of curmudgeonly realist of a vet you don't find in the hyper-attentive yuppie neighborhood where I live. Busby has become so fed up with his profession the he has self-published a book, How To Afford Veterinary Care Without Mortgaging the Kids. He writes that he has had a satisfying 40-year career, "but sadly, I would never enter the profession today, if I had to practice the way things are currently done." He sees too many vets who try to "push as many procedures and services … as the pet owner will tolerate, in order to generate as large a cash return as possible."
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