What to Do Before Fido's Vet Bill Hits $16,000

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Roxanne Hawn, "mother" of two kids of the four-legged variety, knew her dog Lilly's 2012 vet bills were going to be extraordinary when she added them up last month, but she wasn't prepared for the $16,626 total.

"I've never had to make a treatment decision for one of our dogs based on finances," says Hawn. "It appears to us now that there are limits and it's tough."

Lilly, the subject of the award-winning Champion of my Heart blog, contracted meningoencephalomyelitis -- a severe swelling of the brain and a very rare reaction to a rabies vaccine -- in January. Lilly has been fighting the disease all year, which has included hospitalizations, appointments with neuro-veterinary specialists and costly tests and treatments. Hawn and her husband have been paying the bills.

"Our financial planner is not happy," says Hawn, who lives in a Golden, Colo.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterinary costs have increased an average of 79% from 2000 to 2010. Rising operating costs are to blame, but so is the quality of care that is now available, says Keith Niesenbaum, a veterinarian and owner of Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital in Garden City Park, N.Y.

"There are so many specialty practices and so many things we can do today," says Niesenbaum. "People realize we have the advances, but they don't realize the cost."

Niesenbaum says that with CAT scans, MRIs, pacemakers, radiation and chemotherapy all available today, veterinary bills, especially at specialist's offices, can add up pretty quickly.

"We try to watch going down that slippery slope with the initial diagnosis and we try to map out all of the options," says Niesenbaum. "It just isn't feasible for someone to go into debt for half of their annual take home pay. People want to do everything they can, but most times, it just isn't realistic and I really feel for people. I would say that's the toughest part of my job."

What would you do if faced with a $16,000 veterinary bill for a pet you love as much as a child?

Justin Krane, a certified financial planning professional with Krane Financial Solutions in Los Angeles, Calif. says while most financial planners would advise against borrowing funds from savings, retirement or equity accounts to pay a vet bill, every case is different.

"For some people, their pets are their lives, they are their children, a part of the family," says Krane. "I would ask them if it would give them a better return on their life if they extended that of their pets. If a pet brings extreme happiness to an elderly person and they can extend that pet's life by five years and maybe that five years could be a big portion of that person's remaining life, then I would definitely advise them to do it," he adds.

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