A few days later the veterinary oncologist cheered me up, there really was something that could be done. But then, he started talking about money: It costs thousands of dollars.
I spent about $2,000 in three days at two vet practices. The next required CT Blue is another $2,500, and then radiation therapy can cost at least $9,500.
It’s a problem many pet owners face: Medical bills for a dog or cat can easily run into the thousands of dollars. But for most of us, they are our beloved family members. And about 86 percent said if a pet needs extensive veterinary care, we’ll pay for it all.
This sentiment is more about love than actual mathematics. When I added up Blue’s projected total costs on paper, it was a cold shock of reality. Getting the best treatment for his tumor will cost more than $15,000 — if everything goes right. I had already spent a lot. And it was unclear how long he would buy it.
Oncologists at NorthStar VETS in New Jersey make sure that pet owners are upfront about what they’re getting themselves into financially, because many people can’t afford these costs—many don’t have the money in the bank to cover them on their own. , or their children, medical care. The challenge I get is usually the heartbreaking beginning to the end of their pet’s story.
Like human health care, veterinary medicine is a spiraling cost market. According to the American Pet Association, pet owners will spend $34.3 billion on veterinary care and products in 2021, up from $24 billion in 2010.
As with human health care, there are now advanced treatments for pets in the veterinary field, including dermatology, ophthalmology, orthopedics, and my dog, oncology.
The founder of NorthStar VETS added radiation oncology to his clinic’s services in 2014 after his dog developed a brain tumor. He had to drive from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to find radiation therapy that could cure cancer, so he partnered with a company called PetCure Oncology. Opening a radiation center on the NorthStar campus in May 2021.
And my adopted shelter came in for treatment a year later.
PetCure provides what is called stereotactic radiation. For these people, radiation is the gold standard treatment: In 2015, former President Jimmy Carter had stereotactic radiation for melanoma in his brain; In 2019, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was diagnosed with a pancreatic tumor.
Stereotactic radiation for dogs is available primarily at university-affiliated veterinary teaching hospitals and a few private practices around the country. If pet owners live near one of those facilities and have the financial means, their beloved animals can receive cancer treatment just like former presidents and judges.
“It’s the exact same type of cancer people see in human cancer centers all the time,” says Ben Chiswick, PetCure’s vice president of operations and growth. “It is more precise and effective than other types of radiation therapy. The more precisely the beam of radiation falls on the tumor, the less it hits the surrounding, healthy tissues, where these negative effects come from.”
Stereotactic radiation is administered to the dog under anesthesia every one to three days. In Blues’s case, the cumulative anesthesia and radiation effects of the recommended three-day regimen left him briefly disorientated and often exhausted, but much better than traditional radiation courses delivered daily for weeks.
I had the opportunity to live near that clinic. After spending $5,000 in vet bills for a previous dog’s leg injury, I also purchased pet insurance when I adopted the Blue II. Over its lifetime, premiums average about $700 a year — less than many people’s health insurance policies pay for one month. I probably would never use it, but Blue was there if I needed it.
Why I can’t live without a dog anymore
Now I needed it. When I asked the specialist on the phone if Blue’s pet insurance policy would cover this type of radiation therapy, I was told yes. So I greenlit the CT scan, checked the available credit on my Mastercard to cover the costs until the insurance payment came through, and rushed to get her into the radiation machine faster than the tumor could grow.
There are more than 100,000 veterinarians working in the United States, but the growing pet pandemic and the high demand for care have forced many pet owners to wait longer. Veterinary oncology is even less so. Only about 1,000 veterinarians have degrees in medical or radiation oncology or surgery. According to Chiswick, a single entry can take four to six weeks across the country; Every place I called near my home in New Jersey told me there was a two to six week wait for the initial consultation.
My regular vet said it wasn’t fast enough. Blue needed us to find a better way.
So I got up at 3am, drove to NorthStar’s emergency room when it might be free, and waited a few hours to convince them to take Blue in for a consultation. My regular vet digitally sensed his papers and x-rays.
The NorthStar emergency vet said not to bother waiting for me; An oncologist may come to Blue that day or the next day. He had to sit in the back when they squeezed him. Fortunately, a medical oncologist was able to evaluate Blue the same day.
This dog knows 40 commands and can play cards. The hospital hired him.
A CT scan and radiation oncologist consultation were done within a week, and within two weeks of visiting my regular vet, he started his first treatment. About 48 hours after the treatment ended, he was back running around the park chasing squirrels in his yard. He had no side effects other than the eye drops. He had a lump on his face where the cancer had destroyed some bone, but he was on a doggy version of ibuprofen and showed no signs of discomfort.
The little skunk even realized that now begging is always useful to him.
What was the price at that time?
I purchased the Blue health plan individually and it was a year old. (According to PetCure, a growing number of customers get pet insurance through work, just like human health insurance.) Over its 12-year life, I paid about $9,000 in premiums. The policy paid more than $10,000 for his initial cancer treatment, in addition to other reimbursements for minor vet bills over the years. I covered a little more than $4,500 in deductibles and co-pays from my personal savings because I set up insurance with a 70 percent reimbursement rate and lower annual premiums.
Of course, if the dog never had an expensive diagnosis, the math goes the other way. My other dog follows a similar policy. So far I’ve paid more for insurance with it than I used to. 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.
“Every client we see benefits from it,” says Chiswick. “It’s a cost-benefit analysis, just like in human medicine. You could be throwing money away or you could be saving thousands of dollars.”
As of May 2022, Blue was among only 4.41 million insured pets in North America, according to the Pet Health Insurance Association of North America. In the United States, it’s mostly dog owners with these policies, but we represent a small fraction of the 69 million US households with dogs.
Even so, the pet insurance market grew 27.7 percent last year, according to the association. Based on my conversations with experts as well as Blue’s veterinary team, many of the people who buy these policies are like me: We’ve been hit with a big vet bill in the past.
More importantly to me, if he lived long enough to qualify for another round of stereotactic radiation, Blue was still covered. Well, it was an “if”.
Even with $15,000 spent on her treatment, her expected survival time is only 6 to 18 months. The doctors warned me that Blue would probably be on the low end of that range because her cancer is a squamous cell type. Aggressive type, fights against it. A second round of stereotactic radiation is offered only six months later and only takes about half the time of the first round.
In other words, if Blue made it to mid-October, I could go through it all over again and help her make it through Christmas.
When Blue was first diagnosed, all the pet friends I asked for advice said they would do anything they could to save their pets.
A man whose teenage daughter is battling cancer and who spends most of her time quarantined at home with the family dog says she is now going into debt to save the dog’s life.
Another father, who recently completed radiation therapy for eye cancer, said he would not hesitate to try to save his two children.
A cat-owning friend who survived stage 3 non-B-cell lymphoma said she too will continue Blue’s work.
A woman I worked at a hair salon told me she once spent $15,000 on a dog’s surgery, without pet insurance, and would do it again without question.
As pet parents go, I’m pretty common – and part smart, part lucky – to do whatever it takes to get my dog the best possible treatment.
Larissa Love, director of clinical communications at PetCure, says her team hears the same thing every day from callers to their hotline.
“They keep saying it,” Love told me. “We hear about a husband whose wife just died of cancer, and it was his dog, and he’s going to do everything he can to save it. This is a full circle family member. “Clients with cancer say their dog or cat got it, and now they say they’re going to get their pet.”
Sadly, in the Blues’ case, his swelling flared up again at the end of June. Another $2,000 CT scan (covered by insurance) showed that even if we added “boost radiation” and chemo, the cancer would go away.
So, as I write this, we don’t have much time left.
He is comfortable and on pain meds, and I take solace in the fact that I did the best I could for him. We spent another two or three months walking in the park, swimming in the river, and lying in bed.
If I had it to do over again, I would do the same thing.
Kim Cavin wrote about Blue in her 2012 book, Little Boy Blue: A Puppy’s Rescue from Death Row and His Owner’s Journey to Truth.