A few days later, a veterinary oncologist lifted my spirits when she said that indeed something could be done. But then she started talking about money: she would cost thousands of dollars.
He had already spent about $2,000 in three days at the two veterinary practices. The next CT scan Blue needed would cost another $2,500, and subsequent radiation therapy could cost at least $9,500 more.
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 dear family members. And something 86 percent have said we would pay whatever it takes if a pet needs extensive veterinary care.
That feeling has more to do with love than actual math. It was a cold snap of reality when I added up Blue’s total projected expenses on paper. Getting the best available treatment for her tumor could cost more than $15,000, and that’s if all went well. She had already spent a lot. And it wasn’t clear how much time she would give him.
The oncologist at NorthStar VETS in New Jersey said they make sure pet owners understand up front what they’re getting into financially because a lot of people can’t afford that kind of cost, many don’t have enough money in the bank to cover their own , or their children, medical care. A call like the one I received is often the heartbreaking beginning to the end of your pet’s story.
Like human health care, veterinary care is a spiraling spending market. According to the American Pet Products Association, pet owners in 2021 spent $34.3 billion on veterinary care and products, up from $24 billion in 2010.
And just like with human health care, there are now advanced treatments for pets in a variety of veterinary fields, including dermatology, ophthalmology, orthopedics and, in my dog’s case, oncology.
The founder of NorthStar VETS added radiation oncology to his clinic’s services after his own dog had a brain tumor in 2014. He had to drive from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to find radiation therapy that would cure his cancer, so he partnered with a company called PetCure Oncology. to open a radiation center on the NorthStar campus in May 2021.
And that’s where my foster dog from the shelter ended up for treatment a year later.
PetCure provides something called stereotactic radiation. This is a gold standard radiation treatment for humans: In 2015, former President Jimmy Carter received stereotactic radiation from melanoma in his brain; in 2019, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg I had it for a tumor in the pancreas.
For dogs, stereotactic radiation has been available primarily at university-affiliated veterinary teaching hospitals and a handful of private practices across the country. If pet owners live near one of those places and have the financial means, their beloved animals can receive the same cancer treatment as a former president and a judge.
“It’s exactly what humans with cancer get at human cancer centers all the time,” says Ben Chiswick, PetCure’s vice president of operations and growth. “It is much more precise and impactful than other forms of radiotherapy. The more precisely the radiation beam is aimed at the tumor, the less that beam will touch the surrounding healthy tissue, which is where the side effects come from.”
Stereotactic radiation is performed over the course of one to three days, each time with the dog under anesthesia. In Blue’s case, the recommendation was a three-day regimen with cumulative anesthesia and radiation effects that would leave him briefly disoriented and nearly exhausted, but much better than traditional radiation courses that take place daily for several weeks.
I was lucky to live near that clinic. After spending $5,000 on vet bills for a previous dog’s leg injury, I also purchased pet insurance when I adopted Blue II. Throughout his life, premiums averaged around $700 per year, less than many human health insurance policies cost for a single month. She might never use it, but if Blue needed it, it was there.
Why will I never live without a dog again?
Now I needed it. When I asked the specialist over the phone if Blue’s pet insurance policy would reimburse me for this type of radiation therapy, the answer was yes. So I gave the CT scan the green light, checked the available credit on my Mastercard to cover costs until insurance reimbursement came through, and rushed him onto the radiation machine faster than his tumor was growing.
More than 100,000 veterinarians work in the United States, but a surge in pandemic pets and a high demand for care have meant long wait times for many pet owners. Veterinary oncology is even less accessible. Only about 1,000 veterinarians have degrees in medical or radiation oncology or surgery. Getting access to one can take four to six weeks across the country, Chiswick says; every place I called near my home in New Jersey told me the wait would be two to six weeks just for an initial consultation.
My regular vet said it wasn’t fast enough. Blue needed us to find a way to make it better.
So I got up at 3 am, drove to NorthStar’s emergency department at a time when it was likely to be empty, and waited several hours while I persuaded them to admit Blue for a consultation. My regular vet had sent his paperwork and x-rays digitally.
NorthStar’s emergency vet told me not to bother waiting; an oncologist could arrive at Blue that day, or maybe the next day. He would have to sit in the back until, well, whenever they could accommodate him. Fortunately, the medical oncologist was able to evaluate Blue later that same day.
This dog knows 40 commands and can play cards. A hospital hired him.
Within a week, the CT scan and consultation with a radiation oncologist was done, and two weeks after the initial trip to my regular vet, the first treatment began. About 48 hours after completing his treatment, he was back hopping around the park and chasing squirrels in the backyard. He had no side effects apart from the temporary need for drops in his eye, which was dry. He had a lump on his face where the cancer shattered a bone, but he’s taking the dog version of ibuprofen and showed no signs of discomfort.
The little stinker even found that trick-or-treating now works for him every time.
What was the cost at that time?
I bought Blue’s health plan individually, when I was one year old. (A growing number of customers, according to PetCure, get pet insurance through their jobs, just like human health insurance.) During his 12 years of life, I paid about $9,000 in insurance premiums. The policy paid more than $10,000 for her initial cancer treatment, plus other reimbursements for minor vet bills over the years. I covered a little over $4,500 in deductibles and copays from my personal savings, because I set up the insurance with a 70 percent reimbursement rate, to keep annual premiums low.
Of course, if a dog never has an expensive diagnosis, the math is backwards. My other dog has the same policy. So far with her, I have paid more for insurance than I have used. And it’s typical insurance – I had to fight for days to get one of Blue’s claims paid in full. Still, I’m glad I have it. I will never have another dog without him again.
“Literally every customer we see would benefit,” says Chiswick. “It’s the same cost-benefit analysis as in human medicine. You may be throwing money away or saving thousands of dollars.”
According to the North American Pet Health Insurance AssociationAs of May 2022, Blue was among just 4.41 million insured pets in all of North America. In the United States, it is mostly dog owners with these policies, but we represent a small fraction of the 69 million US households with a dog
Still, the association says, the pet insurance market grew 27.7 percent last year. Based on my conversations with experts, as well as Blue’s veterinary team, many of the people who purchase these policies are like me: we’ve had a large veterinary bill in the past.
More important to me was that Blue was still covered if he survived long enough to be eligible for another round of stereotactic radiation. And yes, that was an “if”.
Even with $15,000 spent on his treatment, his projected survival time is only six to 18 months. The doctors warned me that Blue will probably be at the lower end of that range because her type of cancer is squamous cell. She is an aggressive type who defends herself. A second round of stereotactic radiation is only recommended after six months and would likely buy only half the time as the first round.
In other words, if Blue arrives in mid-October, she would have the option of going through all of this again, to perhaps help him get through Christmas.
When Blue was first diagnosed, all the friends with pets I asked for advice said they would do whatever it took to try to save their pet.
One, whose teenager is battling cancer and spends most of her time quarantining at home with the family dog, said she would go into debt to save that dog’s life right now.
Another, whose father recently completed radiation therapy for eye cancer, said he wouldn’t even hesitate to try to save his two stray dogs.
A friend who owns a cat who is a survivor of stage 3 B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma said she would also proceed in Blue’s case.
A woman who works at the salon where I get my haircut told me that she once spent $15,000 on a dog’s surgery, with no pet insurance, and that she would do it again without hesitation.
As pet parents, I am extremely ordinary, and part smart, part lucky, to be in a position where I can actually do whatever it takes to get my dog the best treatment available.
Larisa Love, director of clinical communications for PetCure, says her team hears the same thing every day from callers to the helpline they manage.
“They say it all the time,” Love told me. “We heard about a husband whose wife just died of cancer, and this was her dog, and he will do everything he can to save this dog. He is a full circle family member. Customers who have been through cancer say their dog or cat got them through it, and now they say they’re going to help their pet through it.”
Sadly, in Blue’s case, her tumor reappeared in late June. Another $2,000 CT scan (covered by insurance) showed that the cancer would still outgrow it even if we did a “radiation boost” and added chemotherapy.
And as I write this, we don’t have much time left.
He’s been comfortable and on pain meds, and at least it comforts me that I did everything I could for him. We earn another two or three months of walks in the park, swimming in the river, and snuggling in bed.
If I had to do it over 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 His Owner’s Journey for Truth.”