Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Pet Health Care Crisis: Are Rover and Fluffy Driving You Off the Financial Cliff?

Owning a pet is seen as an essential part of living by most of us in the U.S.  The latest statistics estimate that over 60%  of households have at least one.  That works out to over 75 million dogs and 85 million cats...not to mention birds, hamsters, and other species. Our reasons for owning a pet vary, but most would rate their unconditional love and companionship high on that list.  Yet most new or would-be owners have no idea of the real price tag for those wagging tails and purrs. 

If you're lucky, your pet will live a healthy life, consuming relatively inexpensive grocery brand food and submitting to an annual check up with vaccinations.  Most will not be that fortunate.  Each species comes with its own requirements, but it wasn't until my own dog fell through the rabbit hole that I discovered how expensive it can be.  And we've just begun our journey on the path of chronic, on-going care.  I adopted then-five-year-old Bullet through a shelter and have cruised for about four years without much outlay other than food and the recommended shots.  My biggest gripe was the cost of kennel boarding during my frequent visits to family in other states.  His tab for a week's stay exceeded my roundtrip airfare.

But then he fell ill with liver problems and a week of boarding, CAT scans, blood work, IV hydration and prescription meds left me with a $1300 bill.  I took him home and even after the number of medications decreased from four to two daily, he needed a prescription dog food in addition.  I knew I needed to do some research on how to manage these ongoing costs, and thought I would share the results with you.

There aren't a lot of companies on the market that make prescription dog food.  The two main producers are Hill's and Royal Canin.  They don't go "on sale" and coupons are few and far between.  Even with the relative ease of internet price-checking, I found little difference when shipping costs were figured in.  About the best I could do was to check the manufacturers' websites for occasional promotions and email them for a few coupons.  Sometimes, I could shave a few percent off the price by going through Ebates (a popular shopping portal that I've been using for years) or sign up for a Frequent Buyer/Scheduled Shipping discount where the retailer gives repeat customers a small price break.  So, I went from the bargain price of $20 for a 40 lb. bag of Purina Dog Chow to $55 for Hill's Prescription Diet L/D Canine Dry Food for a 17.6 bag that my 80 lb. dog devours in 3 weeks.  If you're really pinched, you can find a few recipes for homemade dog food for different health conditions, but I personally found this too tedious.

The biggest money-saver was obtained through researching the medications.  Let me say up front that I love my vet and the great care that the employees give Bullet.  But in the real world they are a business, not a charity.  They need to make a profit to stay afloat, but if I can find a way to save without compromising my pet's care, then that's the way of the free market.  I was shocked to find a popular OTC liver protective medication that was costing $164 per month through my vet, available on Amazon.com for $98 including shipping.  And after reading through online discussion forums where people with similar situations offered the benefit of their research, I discovered Diamondback Drugs (diamondbackdrugs.com), a compounding veterinary pharmacy in Arizona.  They responded to my inquiry with the news that they can ship the liquid form of the drug for under $55 for a month's supply.  That's a savings of about 65% on a medication that he will likely have to take for the rest of his life.

The prescription drug he takes....it's an off-label use for dogs...runs about $54 for a month's supply.  I went through the same process, but the best I could find so far is also from Diamondback Drugs.  If I buy 100 capsules, they can save me nearly $30. 

There are other ways to save too.  If you are willing to change veterinary providers, there is a program called PetAssure that can save you money.  There's the option of pet insurance too, but most of us don't think about it until there is a crisis which then becomes a pre-existing condition. 

Your local ASPCA or Humane Society may offer periodic rabies and other shot clinics as well as reduced spay/neuter programs at greatly reduced prices.  Sign up on their webistes to be notified for the event dates.

Even though there are some ways to save, don't adopt any pet unless you are willing to care for them properly.  Food, medical care, grooming, flea/tick preventatives and a myriad of other possibilities can strain or even destroy a household's budget. 

It was surprising to find that only 21% of dogs and cats are adopted from a shelter, with the remainer acquired from friends, family, pet stores and breeders. Between five and seven million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide each year and of that number, three to four million are euthanized.  That breaks down to five out of every ten dogs and seven out of every ten cats in shelters being destroyed ANNUALLY - simply because there is no one to adopt them.

So think long and hard before you decide to get a pet.  And if you do make that decision, browse sites like petfinder.com and visit your local shelter and rescue organizations.  Did you know that 25% of the dogs that enter shelters are actually purebreds?  Chances are, you'll find your next best friend at one of them.

***Bella, the beautiful 12-month-old Labrador/Great Pyrenees mix female dog in the picture above is currently looking for her forever home.  If you'd like to see if you and Bella could be a match, please contact Jessica, her foster care mom, at jessica@dogsxlrescue.org.  Dogs XL Rescue is a local, Baltimore organization that can be reached at info@dogsxlrescue.org or http://www.dogsxlrescue.org

Friday, January 20, 2012

At Last, Etta James is at Rest

My musical tastes are all over the map, with the distinct exclusion of opera, so it's not surprising that I can listen to Hot Chelle Rae and Etta James on the same day.  The legendary James travelled a road that ended as roughly as it began, succumbing to leukemia, dementia and kidney ailments.  One of music's original bad girls, she never knew who her father was, although famous billiards player Minnesota Fats would neither confirm or deny the possibility, saying he just couldn't remember everything.  Her mother was a con artist, substance abuser and only an occasional presence in James' life.  The singer was raised by a church-going couple who owned the rooming house where her mother once lived.

She sang in her Church choir, performing solos so distinctively that Hollywood celebrities were known to attend, just to hear her voice. But Etta, then known as Jamesette Hawkins, found it impossible to resist the siren song of rhythm and blues.  She described her ambitions as ''I wanted to be rare, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl, and I wanted to be obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street. I just wanted to be."

She was "discovered" singing with her girlfriends on the street corners of San Francisco when she was just 15 years old, by bandleader Johnny Otis in the 1950's and toured with his band, earning $10 a night, after forging her mother's signature on a permission slip that verified she was 18.  In 1959 she signed with Chicago's Chess Label and belted out her hit songs while touring with the likes of Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Into the late 1960's, she recorded "Tell Mama", a groundbreaking soul album filled with the fusion of funk, gospel and rock.  But James' success was always pitted against her drug demon, heroin.  She was drawn to it, seeing uber-cool jazz icons like Billie Holiday among others using the substance.  But her drug use nearly destroyed her, landing her in jail and sapping both her money and her talents. After years of addiction, she cleaned up and clawed her way back to a measure of popularity again in the 1980's.  Her battles continued as her weight see-sawed wildly and she fought an addiction to painillers.

Arguably her most famous recording, "At Last", was the song that newly-elected President and Mrs. Barack Obama danced to at the inauguration in 2009.  James reportedly was rankled at not being invited to participate in the event, complaining that singer Beyonce wasn't the right one to sing her anthem.

James had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, awarded four Grammies as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame before her health spiraled downward.  She was 73 years old and an American original. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

For the Love of Bullet

A few years back, in dead-of-winter February, I pondered getting another dog.  I'd lost Razoo, my Siberian Husky, when he escaped his sitter's yard and was struck by a car while I was on a house-hunting trip in another state.  Several months before that, I'd sadly said goodbye to Nanni, my rescued Husky-Malamute. He was a huge dog with so much hair that I'd originally named him "Annie". After I got him home and brushed him, I had to give him a less feminine name.  Losing both so close together was a double whammy that left me vowing to put my pet-owning days behind forever.  But after a year or two I'd begun to miss having at least one around.  I've always loved big dogs.....the 60-85 pound variety, and I started browsing sites like petfinder.com.  That was my downfall.

There's nothing like a photo of a wistful pooch without a home, and there he was....another ice-blue eyed Husky-Malamute mix, and a hard-to-place senior dog to boot.  He was found wandering the woods of Frederick, Maryland, scrounging food in freezing weather.  It's not unusual for Huskies or Malamutes to be lost.  They are escape artists who love nothing better than to get out of the house or yard and just RUN.  And when they finally stop, they're usually far from home.  Believe it or not, they are intelligent.  But their willfulness makes them difficult to train.  They'll obey if they feel like it.

So why would I want another of these beautifully idiotic dogs?  I have no excuse.  Alec Baldwin may be some women's blue-eyed husky, but a blue-eyed husky is my blue eyed husky.  The homeless dog's handsome face reigned proudly on the Animal Shelter web page and I chuckled at his name...Bullet.  The next day I drove to the shelter for a "meet and greet".  He paced around the enclosure, only briefly acknowledging me.  The shelter attendant warned, "This breed of dog is hard to handle, and they're not very affectionate."  He was partly right, but they agreed to let me adopt him since I'd had two of his breed before.

During the first six months, he was fearful and elusive, possibly due to past abuse.  But as we closed in on our first year together, he became more comfortable and then downright affectionate in his own goofy way, waiting patiently at the door for my return whenever I left the house.  We've been together for nearly five years, and the quiet voice in my head that periodically reminds me of his age chimes in more regularly now.

The voice rose loudly this past week while I was visiting family in Alabama.  Bullet hadn't seemed quite himself for a day or two before I left and I alerted the vet's staff to keep a watchful eye.  Sure enough, they called the day after I left, advising that he wasn't eating and was running a fever.  Blood tests revealed evidence of liver dysfunction as his gums and eyes yellowed.  Ultrasound scans showed a liver mass and a nodule or gallstone obstructing his bile duct.  Surgery was risky and not likely to help.  Living on a modest income, I had to decide how much I was willing to spend on an aging pet for an uncertain outcome.

So I returned from Alabama today and exchanged $1300 in order to bring Bullet home.  He's on a prescription diet and taking four different medications for the next month in a dice roll to see if this less invasive trial will work.  If it keeps him comfortable and happy for a few more months or years, I'll consider it money well spent on my faithful companion.  And if not, at least I've had time to say goodbye.