How Much Would You Spend on Your Pet?

From airline tickets to organ transplants, local vets and rescue groups have seen it all.


Oh it’s good to be a pet around here.

Consider Kodi. When the 9-pound rat terrier came to Arlington about nine years ago and landed in the hands of the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, she wouldn’t open her eyes and was drooling. A vet found a stick stuck in her mouth and protruding into her eye cavity. Colleen Learch, a volunteer with the rescue group, agreed to foster Kodi and, when a pending adoption failed to come through, fell in love.

At that point, Kodi’s eye condition hadn’t improved, so Learch brought in a dog ophthalmologist to treat the eye and a chiropractor to provide some neck manipulation. When Kodi’s kidneys began to fail a year and a half ago, Learch fed her organics, took her to Reiki, acupuncture and laser therapy for pain, revisited the chiropractor and gave her extra fluids to help improve her condition. Which they did.

But then, in March, Kodi’s liver began to shut down. “I believe in my dog! This is not her end,” Learch insisted. “I’m not willing to give up.” Back to the alternative vet they went, at $165 to $190 a pop, depending on the treatment. And back to the family vet, too, adding at least another hundred bucks per visit to the terrier’s growing health care bill.

Kodi received more chiropractic treatment and more laser therapy, and by July of 2016, the 14-year-old was once again hunting in the backyard of her home in Waycroft-Woodlawn.

Fortunately Learch had pet insurance, which she says covered more than 50 percent of many hospital visits, and about half the cost of the holistics. Today, Kodi has “quite the integrative medicine [routine], as well as a team of four to five vets on her case at any given time,” says Learch, a vice president at a D.C. consulting and strategy firm. “Every day is a gift. Her quality of life has not faltered. She still goes on walks and bosses my husband, Brian, around. She just has some health issues.”

When it comes to pets with complicated medical histories, Kodi is hardly an anomaly. She’s in good company with Tonka Truck, an 8-year-old yellow Labrador retriever who’s had his own set of health issues, including two torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs). Those injuries might be traced back to the time the two young boys in his human family hooked him up to a sled (wanting to replicate what Dr. Seuss’s Grinch did with his dog, Max), reasons their mom, Kelly Edens. Or maybe they happened because Tonka is a big dog, clocking in at 110 pounds, and his joints weren’t fully formed. Whatever the case, he went from limping a bit to something being seriously wrong.

Surgery was an option, said the family’s vet, Jack Sexton of McLean Animal Hospital, but the procedure would require a specialist. In came Tommy Walker of D.C. Vets, an orthopedic canine surgeon from Purcellville who travels around the country, performing surgeries that a general-practice vet cannot. “When your dog blows his ACL, you go to the world-class guy your primary vet recommends,” says Edens, an executive recruiter who lives in Bellevue Forest.

The surgery wasn’t the end of Tonka’s treatment. Next came rehab. Every day for almost a month, Tonka went to swim therapy at the Old Mill Veterinary Hospital in Leesburg, where he recovered in special pools made for dogs, “chasing” a tennis ball on a stick in front of him to gradually ease his muscles back into production. He had daily private transportation to and from the facility on the “doggie bus,” and his family could visually track his progress. “You know your life has taken an unexpected turn when you get videos of your dog in hydrotherapy—that are narrated,” Edens says. Soon, Tonka was back to being his lovable, boisterous self.

But his medical saga wasn’t over. Not long after his rehab was complete, the Lab was socializing at a friend’s house when he startled a sleeping bullmastiff that promptly clamped its jaws down on Tonka’s back. The altercation was finally broken up by hitting the perpetrator over the head with a lacrosse stick—but not before it “put four wounds in Tonka’s back, leading to a punctured lung, lots of blood loss, and a terrifying emergency trip to the vet,” Edens recalls. This time it took Tonka about a month to recover, complete with ports and painkillers.

Then he bit down on a rock at just the right angle to cause a piece of his tooth to come off. The “slab fracture” required yet another surgery to remove the tooth.

Did Edens ever consider relinquishing her increasingly expensive pup as he racked up the vet bills? Or at least scaling back on the care?

“Of course not,” she says. “There’s no way as a parent you’re going to look at your two kids and say, ‘We’re not spending the money on this dog.’ You make sacrifices in other areas. Suffice it to say we could have had a couple of incredible Abercrombie & Kent three-week safaris in Africa for what we spent on this dog,” she adds. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Colleen Learch and Kodi the rat terrier. Photo by Liz Lynch

Today’s pets clearly aren’t relegated to the proverbial “doghouse” as they once were. A 2015 Harris poll found that a whopping 95 percent of U.S. pet owners now see their animals as part of the family. That number has risen 4 percentage points since 2012 and 7 points from when the question was first asked in 2007.

“Think about that unconditional affection they offer just when we need support, that immediate forgiveness if we step on a paw or forget a meal, and that ability to make us laugh no matter how bad things seem around us,” says Jennifer S. Holland, an author based in Wheaton, Maryland, whose latest book is Unlikely Friendships: Dogs, part of a four-book series on animals.

“They see us at our worst and often bring out our best—be that our silly, playful side or our instinctive need to care for another,” she continues. “In fact, that internal drive to take care of a ‘helpless’ creature—what keeps us from ditching our screaming kids—must be another reason we’re so willing to spend large sums on our pets.”

Add to that advancements in veterinary medicine that place it on par with human health care and you’ve got yourself a whole new category of household spending. “The profession is steadily progressing,” says Adrienne Hergen, a vet at Shirlington Animal Hospital. “You can do pretty much anything to an animal that you do to a human.”

A colonoscopy on a dog? Sure.
Give a cat a kidney transplant? Yes.
Interventional radiology? Yup.
Target tumors with chemotherapy? Of course.
Canine brain surgery? Check.
Medication and therapy for feline neuroticism? Uh-huh.

With the rise of veterinary specialization, there are pet internists, oncologists, cardiologists, dermatologists, ophthalmologists, behaviorists, board-certified dentists and neurologists, as well as physical therapists who conduct rehab for orthopedic injuries. Nearby Springfield is home to specialty clinics such as Radiocat, which offers curative treatments for hyperthyroidism in cats, and the Regional Veterinary Referral Center, which offers onsite CT scans and ECGs.

VCA SouthPaws in Merrifield and the Hope Advanced Veterinary Center in Vienna offer specialists as well as 24-hour emergency care. And a growing number of Northern Virginians are making the 100-mile drive south to Helping Hands in Richmond, which provides low-cost advanced surgeries and dental procedures.

Another option if Snoopy or Tigger is really sick and needs specialized surgery? A mobile surgeon can step in to perform the procedure in the home vet’s office.

Tibor Lazar, founder of Lazar Veterinary Surgery in Reston, is one such doc. He does an average of three surgeries per day in Arlington, Falls Church and McLean, among other places, with a repertoire that includes everything from repairing fractured bones, torn ligaments and misaligned kneecaps to fixes for laryngeal paralysis (airways that have stopped working) and total ear-canal ablations to clear up persistent ear infections. Lazar travels to the established hospital, scrubs in, operates and scrubs out—usually leaving the follow-up care to the family vet.

“We have so many options for specialty medicine,” he says. “For owners who are motivated, they can get it done.”

Tonka the yellow Lab with his brothers, Will, 13, and Jack, 15. Photo by Liz Lynch

Paying for it is another matter. Like state-of-the-art treatments for people, high-end animal care doesn’t come cheap. But that isn’t stopping pet owners from doing whatever it takes. Lazar tells the story of a Lab mix who needed a knee surgery that cost in the $3,000-$4,000 range. “The owner had to make a decision: Fix her dog’s knees or get new teeth [for herself],” he says. “She went with the dog.”

In another case, he says, a family shelled out something in the $20,000 range after their dog was hit by a train and suffered multiple spinal fractures.

The price tag isn’t a reflection of vets trying to gouge their customers, Lazar says. Animal doctors, like human doctors, make enormous investments in their medical training and specialized surgical equipment, and they need to recoup those expenses. “Clients aren’t necessarily paying for the surgery time,” he explains, “but [rather] the ability to have the procedure.”

Still, for those who don’t have pet insurance, the price tag can be painful. “The cost of medicine is high generally,” says Chris Vanderhoof, a vet with Caring Hands Animal Hospital in Merrifield. “An ACL tear in a person can cost at least $20,000, but, with insurance, people may pay about $1,000 to $2,000. For a dog, [the surgery] costs $3,000 to $5,000 but if you don’t have pet insurance, you pay all the costs.”

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the pet insurance business, now an $863 million industry, saw nearly 13 percent growth between 2012 and 2017. Though only 12 percent of pet owners nationwide have pet insurance, the option is gaining popularity—particularly among millennials, who are twice as likely to buy it than Gen Xers, baby boomers and Matures, according to the 2015 Harris poll.

Insurance or not, many owners don’t think twice about the expense if it means they can provide a better quality of life for a very sick pet. Anna Barrett’s Italian greyhound, Tina, was a “regular cancer dog” due to her history of mast cell tumors, a condition in which rogue cells build up in the tissue. Then Tina contracted lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system. Her treatment consisted of mostly weekly visits to SouthPaws in Merrifield, which offers several chemotherapy protocols.

“Tina actually enjoyed visiting her friends on chemo days,” Barrett says, even though chemotherapy can cause vomiting, lethargy and a loss of appetite in dogs, as it does in humans. Tina’s shifting drug regimen also caused side effects and led to one particularly pricey emergency vet visit.

From the time of her diagnosis to her eventual passing at age 13, Tina lived six months. Barrett estimates she spent about $7,000 on treatments, regular blood work, emergency care and prescriptions. She has no regrets and still misses Tina today: “Our time together was worth every single penny.”

Kitten whisperer Marnie Russ, with a little help from her rescue dog, Skeeter. Photo by Liz Lynch

Veterinary care isn’t the only scenario that prompts animal lovers to open their wallets. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects better than average growth for the pet industry—11 percent between 2014 and 2024—thanks to the rise of pampered perks ranging from gourmet food and monogrammed accessories to high-end grooming salons and doggie day care centers. The Animal Pet Products Association estimates that pet owners will spend nearly $70 billion on their charges this year.

Some owners shell out thousands of dollars just for the sake of togetherness. In 2011, Rosslyn residents Laura Chamberlin and Richard Salazar adopted two street cats, Lily and José, in Brazil while Chamberlin was doing stints there for the Foreign Service. When her assignment ended in 2016, the couple traveled with both felines from Brasilia to Sao Paulo to Atlanta to Albuquerque (both Chamberlin and Salazar are originally from New Mexico), with “Lily meowing bitterly pretty much the whole time,” in the airplane cabin, Chamberlin says. “We made no friends, slept very little and really annoyed the two creatures we’d lugged across the hemisphere.” They spent about $1,000 for the privilege, too.

When it came time to report back to Washington, D.C., the couple drove the two cats across country “going from pet-friendly La Quinta Inn to pet-friendly La Quinta Inn” for three days. Lily reprised her bitter yowling for about five hours of each nine-hour drive.

“After each transition, Lily sulks and hates us for a few days,” Chamberlin says. But she can’t imagine the alternative—abandoning the two furry creatures who have become family.

Later this year they’ll leave for Tanzania and do it all over again, readying the necessary health certificates and required cat vaccinations before they board their flights. Fortunately, the East African country doesn’t impose a quarantine on incoming animals, a policy that factored squarely into the couple’s decision about where to bid for their next post.

Leaving Lily and José “simply [isn’t] an option,” Chamberlin says. The cats were quarantined once, for a post in Ghana, she says. Never again.

When the love is there but the money isn’t, caring for a pet requires a little ingenuity. “Just because someone can’t afford to pay $5,000 doesn’t mean they don’t love their pet,” says Chelsea Lindsey, a communications specialist at the Animal Welfare League of Arlington (AWLA). “A big reason people surrender their animals is that they can’t afford to treat them.”

Faced with rising medical expenses for Tina, her Italian greyhound, Anna Barrett launched a GoFundMe page and asked friends and family for help. “Tina made more money in two hours than I make in two weeks,” says Barrett, who works as an Animal Control Services coordinator for AWLA and personally fosters high-risk animals that have nowhere else to go.

One thing cute animals have in their favor? They are fundraising magnets. Describe their suffering and post a photo and your pet’s surgery could very well be paid for in minutes, Lindsey says. AWLA once raised $800 for a sick guinea pig after posting its photo online. The same phenomenon occurred with Lucy, a German shepherd who needed a leg amputation. One AWLA donor gave $800 within five minutes of the dog’s photo going live.

There are kindhearted souls who will to go to extremes to help animals they’ve never met. Like Riccardo Savi, a professional photographer who saw a photo on Facebook of a sad-looking dog that needed a home. The only problem was, Savi was in Arlington while the dog was in Italy—in a small town about 100 miles outside Rome, where Savi is from.

Unfazed, Savi launched a full-on international rescue operation, mobilizing a crew of people in Rome to coordinate with the rescue group. A friend in Italy got his nephew to fly the dog—a fluffy Maremma sheepdog named Balto—from Rome to Frankfurt to Denver. (Savi and his fiancée, Leigh Vogel, split their time between Virginia Square and Aspen, Colorado.)

“When we saw [Balto], he was in a bad way. We thought he was about 14 years old,” says Vogel. “He had open stitches in two different areas, a staple in his ears, a raging ear infection and needed 22 teeth pulled.” They immediately took him to the emergency vet in Denver, where he began the long process of healing.

Over time, Balto began to look more like a 6-year-old dog. But because he grumbled at Savi’s children, Savi and Vogel couldn’t keep him. They took him to the Aspen Animal Shelter, where he was placed with a family with no kids. Between the vet care and the flights to get Balto stateside, Savi estimates they spent between $6,000 and $7,000.

“It was a good thing to do,” he says.

Animals that are surrendered in Arlington are generally pretty lucky, given that our area is chock-full of animal enthusiasts and home to a robust rescue community.

Just ask the staff and volunteers at AWLA. They are full of stories of dogs and puppies, cats and kittens, rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, and the occasional rat that are transported from other places—the Carolinas and West Virginia are common origins—and arrive in less than optimal health, but then receive surgery, recover and are adopted. These success stories are made possible by local vets who donate their time and forfeit most of their usual fees, and because adoption charges are paid by the adopters.

Many local vets are just plain accommodating. “I enjoy working [here] on my days off,” says Shirlington Animal Hospital’s Hergen, who does pro bono work for AWLA in her free time (as does Lazar, the mobile vet surgeon). “They have a list of sick pets. I help in the low-income wellness clinics. They’ll also send over animals multiple times a week. It’s important to give back to the community. I believe very strongly in what they’re doing.”

Another prominent force in the community is the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, founded in 2001 by Pam McAlwee and Ross Underwood, the business partners behind the popular Lost Dog Café franchise as well as its sister eatery, the Stray Cat Café. Early on, McAlwee and Underwood were working with the Spotsylvania County Animal Shelter, which was euthanizing many dogs, when it occurred to them that they could spay or neuter the animals and find homes for them in and around Arlington, where the demand for pets was substantial.

Today, the foundation takes in animals that are compromised or about to be euthanized, spays or neuters them, vaccinates them and holds same-day adoption events on the weekends. Its budget of about $1 million—primarily fueled by adoption fees and donations—is mostly spent on vet bills. Since its inception, the organization has placed some 27,000 cats and dogs in permanent homes.

“We are known to be the rescue that will take in cases that others can’t support,” says Learch, the Lost Dog volunteer (and proud owner of Kodi the rat terrier). She says she has seen the group acquire dogs from puppy mills, hoarding situations, deadly fires and even a Canadian sled dog ring.

“We believe animals have value in their own right—not only in the level of satisfaction they give a human,” she says. “We’re entrusted to take care of them. Sometimes that means doing things that others think are crazy.”

Marnie Russ can relate. She takes care of critical care and neonatal kittens—those fragile little felines that shelters and rescue groups don’t have the resources to support. And we’re not just talking a few kittens. She hosts hundreds of them every season (although no more than 10 at a time) in her Shirlington townhouse, nurturing her tiny patients until they can eat on their own. Once they are healthy, she returns them to AWLA, the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue, Homeward Trails, or the Washington Humane Society for placement in forever homes. (Kittens are easily adopted.)

One spring day finds Russ caring for Elliot, a 6.5-ounce 3-week-old tuxedo kitty who has an upper respiratory infection and can’t breathe. Russ nebulizes the little guy with a micro blast of moist air and treats his infected eyes with ointment so he won’t lose his vision, or worse, an eye. He needs 5 ccs of milk every five to six hours, around the clock, which involves weaving a tube down his tiny throat. Russ manages all of this while working full time as a lobbyist for several nonprofits in Montana. Luckily, she works from home and occasionally gets assistance from the NOVA Cat Clinic, Arlington’s feline-exclusive hospital.

Four years ago, Russ co-founded the National Kitten Coalition, a nonprofit that trains volunteers to nurse vulnerable kittens to health. The coalition actively raises money through matching funds and grants, and Russ maintains an Amazon wish list where interested supporters can donate supplies.

What motivates her to sacrifice so much of her personal time … and sleep? “You can’t be in a bad mood around a kitten,” Russ says.
One of her former charges, Roo—a kitty born without joints in her legs—is now a permanent fixture in her house, along with Skeeter, a rescue Chihuahua mix, plus a new Persian cat named Gamila that she recently adopted from Kuwait (long story).
“It’s not work,” she says. “It’s like therapy for me.”

Carol Kaufmann is the author of 97 Ways to Make a Cat Like You and the series Safari, Ocean and Polar. She lives in Alexandria with her family and three rescued pets.

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