Worth The Price

Dr. Evan Feinberg of Stevenson Village Veterinary Hospital says prevention is the key to pet health. (Justin Tsucalas)
Dr. Evan Feinberg of Stevenson Village Veterinary Hospital says prevention is the key to pet health.
(Justin Tsucalas)

“Can we have a dog — please?”

Who hasn’t heard that before?

But there are many considerations for families and individuals considering dog ownership. Who will walk, feed and clean up after the new family member? Is there adequate room in the home or apartment? Is there an accessible outdoor space where the dog can get exercise?

The ongoing costs of caring for a canine may be an afterthought, but they should certainly enter into a prospective pet-owner’s decision-making process.

While adopting a dog from an animal shelter is far less expensive than purchasing one from a pet store or breeder, it’s the expense that comes after the dog joins the household that may come as a shock.

Dr. Evan Feinberg and Dr. Julie Rabinowitz of Stevenson Village Veterinary Hospital offered some advice for how to keep costs down while still providing your pet with essential care. It starts with prevention, they said.

“Once-a-year visits are really the minimum,” said Dr. Feinberg.

With annual checkups, he said, vets are able to catch serious medical problems early enough to intervene effectively and relatively inexpensively.

“I just saw a Cavalier [King Charles Spaniel]. These dogs are really sweet, happy dogs, but they are prone to heart disease,” said Dr. Feinberg. “This dog had a heart murmur that he didn’t have at last year’s visit. [Without treatment] these dogs get sick really fast. If they come in every year, we can catch the disease early, and we can do so much for him. Once he’s in heart failure there’s not much we can do.”

Dr. Rabinowitz conferred.

“The average transaction per visit nationally is about $135. If we see pets regularly, we can keep the costs down. Otherwise, if they end up in an emergency room, it can cost up to $2,000,” she said. “And the feelings of guilt for the owners are really bad, too.”

Dr. Feinberg pointed out that veterinarians who see pets once a year have a perspective that an owner who sees the pet daily may lack.

“You may not notice changes. It’s like the grandparents who visit and say, ‘Look how they’ve grown!’” she explained.

Pet owners should be aware, he noted, that animals are innately programmed to suppress illness and pain.

“It’s the pack mentality. They hide illness and pain because the pack will push them away if they are sick,” said Dr. Feinberg.

Medications to prevent heartworm and ticks are also a good investment.

“Heartworm medication only costs about $80 to $90 a year, and medicine to prevent Lyme disease costs about $150 a year,” said Dr. Feinberg. “We haven’t had a ‘real winter’ for two years now, and ticks are a bigger problem now than ever. In Pikesville, the wildlife is in our backyards, and ticks carry the diseases of that wildlife. We are seeing more tick-borne diseases. I see Lyme disease once or twice a week.”

At Stevenson Village Veterinary Hospital, the doctors have changed vaccine protocols so most dogs don’t need to be vaccinated as often — a money-saver for most pet owners.

“We look at it from the point of view of risk or exposure,” said Dr. Feinberg.

Dr. Feinberg also recommends preventive dental care. While costs vary depending on the situation, having a professional cleaning for your dog can run at least $250.

“I’d rather not do a dental cleaning every year. We can do it once, get the teeth perfect, and then you can start with dental care at home,” said Dr. Feinberg. “Even if you brush only twice a week and spend $15 for toothpaste once in a while, that can help to prevent dental disease.”

Dr. Feinberg said that dogs who aren’t amenable to having their teeth brushed can still benefit from other at-home dental preparations such as powder sprinkled on their food or, if extra calories are not an issue, dental treats.

Many pet owners now purchase health insurance for their dogs. Wendy Goldband of the Baltimore Humane Society said it is an investment worth considering.

“When you look at the annual costs of health care for your pet, it is close to the annual cost for pet health insurance. If something happens, and especially as your pet gets older, and you are suddenly faced with an ER bill of several thousands of dollars, you’ll be glad you have it,” she said.

Goldband stressed that pet owners should purchase insurance early in their pet’s life when the dog is young and healthy and before it develops any medical problems. Just like insurance companies for humans, insurance plans for pets take age and health into consideration when it comes to premiums.

Dr. Feinberg said that when one particular pet insurance company was purchased by a regular insurance company, he and his staff noticed all the claims were suddenly being denied.

“There is tremendous variation from one provider and plan to another,” he warned.

Beyond insuring a pet during your own lifetime, some pet owners set up trusts to make sure their dogs are well cared for after they die.

“Many animals come to us [the Baltimore Humane Society] when their owners die and no provisions have been made for them,” she said. “Who do you want or not want to care for your animal after you’re gone? Have you left any money for the dog’s care?”

Local law firms can help proactive pet owners set up trusts for their pets.

Another area where Dr. Feinberg suggested pet owners can save money is on fancy dog food and supplements.

“I discuss this with many clients. If the fad is now organic dog food, that doesn’t mean it’s better. It’s a lot of marketing for a limited difference,” he said. “It’s the protein, calories and carbohydrates in the food that matters. A balanced diet, exercise and meeting your dog’s emotional needs — that’s what’s important.”

For additional information on the costs of pet care, visit http://aspca.org/adoption/pet-care-costs.aspx.

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