A few days later, my veterinary oncologist lifted my spirits when she said there really was something that could be done. But then, she started talking about money: It would cost thousands of dollars.
I actually spent about $2000 in three days at my vet clinic. The blue CT scan required then would cost another $2,500, and the radiotherapy after that could cost as little as $9,500.
This is a problem many pet owners face: Medical bills for a dog or cat can easily run into the thousands of dollars. But for many of us, these are beloved family members. About 86 percent said we would pay whatever it takes if a pet needs extensive veterinary care.
This feeling is more about love than actual math. It was a cold shock of reality when I added up Blue’s projected total expenses on paper. Getting the best treatment available for his tumor could cost more than $15,000 — and that was if all went well. I have already spent a lot. It was not clear how long he would buy it for him.
An oncologist at NorthStar VETS in New Jersey said they make sure pet owners understand up front what they’re getting financially because many people can’t afford that kind of cost — many of whom don’t have enough money in the bank to make ends meet. or their children’s medical care. A call like the one you received is usually the harrowing start to the end of their pet’s story.
Like human healthcare, veterinary care is an increasing expense market. According to the American Pet Products Association, in 2021 pet owners spent $34.3 billion on veterinary care and products, up from $24 billion in 2010.
And, as with human healthcare, there are now advanced treatments for pets in a range of veterinary fields, including dermatology, ophthalmology, orthopedics, and, in my dog’s case, oncology.
The NorthStar VETS founder added radiation oncology to his clinic services after his dog developed a brain tumor in 2014. He had to drive from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to find radiation therapy that treats cancer, so he partnered with a company called PetCure Oncology to open a radiation center on the NorthStar campus university in May 2021.
And that was where I ended up at my approved shelter for therapy a year later.
PetCure provides something called stereotaxic radiation. This is standard radiation therapy for humans: In 2015, former President Jimmy Carter was exposed to stereotaxic radiation for a melanoma in his brain. In 2019, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suffered from a pancreatic tumor.
For dogs, stereotaxic radiation was mostly available in veterinary teaching hospitals affiliated with universities and a few private practices across the country. If pet owners live near one of those places and have the financial means, their beloved pets can receive the same cancer treatment as the former President and Justice.
“This is exactly what people with cancer get in human oncology centers all the time,” says Ben Chiswick, vice president of operations and growth at PetCure. “It is more accurate and effective than other forms of radiotherapy. The more precise the radiation beam that can go into the tumor, the less contact the beam will be with surrounding healthy tissue, hence the side effects.”
Stereotactic radiation is done over the course of one to three days, each time the dog is sedated. In Blu’s case, the recommendation was for a three-day regimen with cumulative sedation and radiation effects that would leave him briefly confused and often exhausted, but still much better than traditional radiological courses done daily over several weeks.
I was lucky enough to live near that clinic. After spending $5,000 on vet bills for a previous dog leg injury, I also purchased pet insurance when I adopted the Blue II. Over his lifetime, premiums averaged about $700 a year — less than the cost of many human health insurance policies for one month. I may have never used it, but if Blue needed it, it was there.
Why will I never live without a dog again
Now he needs it. When I asked the specialist over the phone if Blue’s pet insurance policy would reimburse me for this type of radiotherapy, the answer was yes. So I gave the go-ahead for a CT scan, checked the available balance on my MasterCard for costs until insurance compensation arrived and rushed to get him into the radiator faster than his tumor had grown.
More than 100,000 veterinarians work in the United States, but the sharp rise in the pet population and the overwhelming demand for care have led to long waiting times for many pet owners. Veterinary oncology is less accessible. Only about 1,000 veterinarians have degrees in oncology or radiosurgery. Chiswick says it can take four to six weeks to get to someone nationwide. Every place I called near my home in New Jersey told me the wait would only be two to six weeks for an initial consultation.
The regular vet said that wasn’t fast enough. Blue needed us to find a way to do a better job.
And so, I got up at 3 AM, went to the NorthStar emergency department at a time that was likely empty and waited several hours while I persuaded them to accept Blue for a consultation. The regular vet had digitally sent his papers and x-rays.
My NorthStar emergency vet told me not to bother waiting; The oncologist might get it blue that day, or maybe the next. He had to sit on his back until they could squeeze him, fortunately, his oncologist was able to evaluate Bleu later that same day.
This dog knows 40 commands and can play cards. Hospital hired him.
Within a week, a CT scan and consultation with a radiation oncologist was done, and within two weeks of the first trip to the usual vet, the first treatment was started. About 48 hours after his treatment ended, he was back to walk around the garden and chase squirrels in the backyard. He had no side effects other than a temporary need for drops in his eyes, which were dry. There was a lump on his face where the cancer disfigured some bones, but he’s on the dog version of ibuprofen and hasn’t shown signs of discomfort.
Little Stink even discovered that begging for rewards now works for him every time.
What is the cost at that point?
I bought the Blue Health plan individually, when he was a year old. (According to PetCure, an increasing number of clients are obtaining pet insurance through their jobs, just like human health insurance.) During the 12 years of his life, she has paid out about $9,000 in premiums. The policy paid out more than $10,000 for his initial cancer treatment, plus other reimbursements for smaller vet bills over the years. I covered just over $4,500 in deductibles and co-pays from my personal savings, because I set up insurance at a 70 percent repayment rate, to keep the annual premiums low.
Of course, if your dog doesn’t have an expensive diagnosis, the math goes in the opposite direction. My other dog has the same policy. So far with her, she’s paid more for insurance than she used to. And it’s typical insurance – I had to fight for days to get one of Blue’s claims paid in full. However, I am glad I got it. I will never have another dog without him again.
“Literally every client we see will benefit from it,” says Chiswick. “It’s the same cost-benefit analysis as in human medicine. You might be wasting money, or it might save you thousands of dollars.”
According to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, as of May 2022, Blue was among the 4.41 million pets insured across North America. In the United States, most dog owners follow these policies, but we represent a small portion of the 69 million American households that have a dog.
However, the association says, the pet insurance market is up 27.7 percent in the past year. Based on my conversations with experts as well as with the Blue Vet team, a lot of people who buy these policies are just like me: We’ve had a big vet bill in the past.
Most important to me was that Bleu was still covered if he survived long enough to be eligible for another round of stereotaxic radiation. And yes, that was an “if”.
Even with $15,000 spent on his treatment, the expected survival time is only six to 18 months. Doctors warned me that blue would likely be on the lower end of that range because its type of cancer is squamous cell type. It is an aggressive type that resists. A second round of stereotaxic radiation is recommended after only six months, and you will likely only buy half the time of the first round.
In other words, if Blue arrives in mid-October, I’ll have the option to go through all of this again, perhaps to help him live through Christmas.
When Blue was first diagnosed, every friend who had pets who asked for advice said they would do whatever it took to try to save their pet.
One, whose teen has cancer and spends nearly all of her time quarantining at home with the family dog, said she would fall into debt to save that dog’s life for now.
Another, whose father recently completed radiotherapy for eye cancer, said he wouldn’t even hesitate to try to save his mutation.
A friend of the cat owner who survived stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma said that she, too, would go on to have Bleu.
A woman who works at the salon where I get haircuts told me she spent $15,000 to have surgery on a dog, no pet insurance, and that she would do it again without question.
With my pet parents gone, I’m so common – part smart, part lucky – to be in a position where I can do whatever it takes for my dog to get the best treatment available.
Larissa Love, PetCure’s director of clinical communications, says her team hears the same thing every day from callers to the helpline they run.
Love told me “they say that constantly”. “We hear about a husband whose wife just died of cancer, and this was her dog, and he will do whatever he can to save that dog. He is a family member full circle. Clients who have had cancer say their dog or cat has gone through it, and now they say, they are going to have their pet From which “.
Sadly, in Blu’s case, his toss reappeared in late June. Another $2,000 CT scan (insurance included) showed that the cancer would still outpace it even if we did a “radiation boost” and added chemotherapy.
So, as I write this, we don’t have much time left.
He was comfortable, he was taking painkillers, and I am at least relieved that I did everything possible for him. We got another two to three months of walking in the park, swimming in the river and sitting in bed.
If I had to do it again, I would do the same.
Kim Kavin wrote about Blue in her 2012 book Little Boy Blue: A Puppy’s Rescue From Death Row and its owner’s journey to truth.