Editorial: Hidden costs when pets are like family

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A man, perhaps in his mid-50s, was working on the exterior of a home on Washington Street, close to White Park in Concord. He heard the Jack Russell terrier and its owner before he saw them, and stopped what he was doing to have a look. That’s the way it is with dog lovers; work loses its power to distract when there’s an animal around in need of a good scratch behind the ears.

The act of petting a dog is usually a sure bet for joy – for both parties – but not this time. The man was scratching a Jack Russell but his mind was elsewhere. And where he was, there was pain. His own dog, a longtime and loyal companion, he said, had passed away months before. What he didn’t say was that the loss had undermined him, as profound loss tends to do. But it had.

It can be difficult for people to express just how much affection they have for their pets, and he was struggling. He needed to be understood.

“I cared more for that dog,” he said, “than I do most people.”

The exchange happened more than a decade ago, but it rests in one of the readily accessible compartments of memory. Even small tragedies, when well expressed, leave their mark on those who hear of them. And, of course, anyone who has ever loved and lost a pet has a deep reservoir of pain and empathy from which to draw.

The ASPCA estimates that 80 million dogs and 95 million cats are owned in the United States, which translates into many, many millions of people who have improved their own quality of life just by inviting the companions into their homes. But there is a big tradeoff: Someday, the animal will die – of old age, disease or an accident. And worst of all, sometimes the pet owner is put in the position of playing God.

The decision of whether to euthanize an ailing pet, while always difficult, used to be a relatively simple calculation: Is it more cruel to keep the animal alive than it is to euthanize it? But now, as treatment options for just about everything grow, the calculation required of pet owners is as much financial as medical or philosophical. So what is a pet owner to do when a medical condition can be treated but it carries a prohibitive price tag?

The Humane Society of the United States, as you might expect, recommends doing anything and everything to avoid euthanizing a pet because of financial issues, from negotiating a payment plan with your vet to offering to clean kennels or answer phones to pay off the debt. It’s worth a shot, we suppose, but some of the society’s other suggestions fall short of sound financial or familial advice, such as putting it all on a credit card or getting a second job.

At what point does love of an ailing pet, and the accompanying cost of treatment and medication, become destructive? Would it be worth it to get another job to pay for care, and in the process subtract from the time you have to spend with family and friends – and pets? Is it defensible to buy medication for a chronically ill dog even if it means your daughter or son has to go without piano lessons or a week at summer camp?

There is no right answer to any of those questions. Nobody can dictate the lengths to which you should or shouldn’t go to save the life of a pet, perhaps one that you care for more than you care for most people. But for those considering adopting or buying a pet, it’s absolutely necessary to consider not only the cost of shelter or breeder fees, food and standard veterinary visits, but also the potentially steep price of care should health issues arise.

Before you invite a dog or cat into your home, think about the man on Washington Street. If you end up loving your pet as much as he loved his, there will be nothing you wouldn’t do to save it. The question is, can you afford it?