SUPERVET Noel Fitzpatrick has a lot to answer for.
Every week on his Channel 4 TV show, this Laois-born vet goes to extraordinary lengths to help distraught pet owners by saving their animals.
Just last week, he helped a paralysed cocker spaniel walk again by fitting her with a bionic hip and replacement feet.
Thanks to him and to the amazing medical advances that have been made in veterinary care over the last 20 years, people now expect their local vet to use the most up-to-date technology to treat their beloved pets.
Yet the inevitable cost of such treatment is rarely mentioned.
Alan Rossiter is the lead vet at the Blacklion Pet Hospital in Greystones and he has seen the Fitzpatrick effect in his clinic.
“TV shows like his have made a big difference to people’s expectations,” he says.
“People are more aware of what’s available in terms of treatment options and of the standard of care they should expect.”
However, the question that remains is whether people can afford to pay for these treatments.
One of the biggest drawbacks of being a pet owner is that pets don’t live for as long as we do and eventually get old and sick.
Two decades ago, euthanasia was often the only option for such animals but all you have to do is walk into a pet clinic today to see how much this has changed.
There are approximately 2,400 vets in Ireland and those that work exclusively with pets have clinics equipped with x-ray machines, blood analysis machines, ultrasound facilities, surgical suites, and advanced in-house laboratories.
This cutting-edge technology keeps animals alive for longer but it can also pose a dilemma for some pet owners.
When the pressure is on and it’s a life-or-death situation, how much would they pay to save their pet?
Francesca Teti from Glanmire, Co Cork knows the answer. Her two cats died this year but not before she spent upwards of €1,600 on their health.
She didn’t have insurance.
“I used to when I lived in the UK but when I moved to Ireland I discovered that lots of treatments such as tooth cleaning weren’t covered by my policy so I cancelled it,” she says.
“I was paying €400 for the two cats and I wasn’t getting anything out of it.”
So when one of the cats was diagnosed with cancer in January, she had to meet the full cost.
“There was a choice of expensive or less expensive treatment but we never got to make a decision as the cat died two days after diagnosis,” says Tete.
“In total, we spent €600 on scans, blood tests, tissue samples, hospitalisation, and cremation.”
Soon after, her other cat became ill and the bills were even more difficult to pay.
“The emergency vet charged €258 for one day of care. I had to put the money on my credit card. I had no choice as I didn’t want the cat to suffer.”
The following day, she transferred her cat to the care of her regular vet but eventually, he died too.
“We spent €1,000 on him in total but at least our regular vet let us pay in instalments,” says Francesca.
“This meant we could make decisions based on the care the cat needed rather than on the amount of money we could afford to spend in the moment.”
According to the European Pet Food Industry Federation, there are approximately 416,000 dogs and 318,000 cats in Ireland.
This means that a lot of people out there are likely to face financial dilemmas such as those that faced Francesca Teti.
I was recently one of those people. Two weeks ago, my 13-year-old dog Jimmy started panting and wouldn’t stop.
Then his back legs began to wobble and, within minutes, he could no longer stand up. We rushed to our local vet who immediately started tests.
My partner is a more experienced dog owner than I am and, once we’d told the vet what was wrong with Jimmy, he told him that we couldn’t afford to spend more than €400 on his care.
I thought this was heartless at the time.
Was this the value we placed on the life of our beloved family dog?
Three days of hospitalisation, x-rays and blood tests followed before poisoning was diagnosed.
Our dog has thankfully recovered and is at my feet as I write this but we’re now bracing ourselves to receive the bill.
CLARE MEADE of the Cat Hospital in Glanmire sees clients like Francesca and me every day.
“The average fee in our clinic is €55 but that’s for cases that are simple to diagnose and treat,” she says.
“Other situations can cost much more.”
She gives a recent example of a cat that couldn’t urinate. He required two operations and three days of intensive care. The bill amounted to more than €800.
She understands that such bills can seem high but is quick to point out the costs involved.
“Today’s vets need high-tech kit such as digital x-rays, intensive care oxygen therapy units, and gas anaesthetic machines,” she says.
“It’s thanks to these machines that it’s now possible to do things we couldn’t have dreamt of 20 years ago but everyone must realise there’s a cost involved.”
Donal Ryan of City Vets in Limerick agrees.
“It all depends on what’s happening with the animal,” he says.
“If it’s been hit by a car and needs surgery, for example, I’m not going to say that the sky is the limit but there’s no doubt the bill is going to be expensive.”
The size of the animal makes a difference to the cost of the bill too.
“You’ll need more medicine for a 90kg saint bernard than for a chihuahua,” he says.
The breed of the animal is another factor.
“West highland terriers, British bulldogs and cavalier King Charles are all fashionable breeds but they are predisposed to health conditions,” says Ryan.
“Owners are likely to have to spend more money on them.”
Alan Rossiter is keen to stress that pet owners always have the final decision regarding the cost of treating their pets.
“The only cost anyone commits to when they walk into a clinic is the cost of the consultation,” he says.
“After that, everything is explained to them and they can decide to go ahead or not.”
He gives the example of a lame dog he saw recently. It had serious damage to its knee and an x-ray revealed it would require surgery.
“I went over the options with the owner, explaining the costs involved.
"The best option for long-term recovery was surgery at the University Veterinary Hospital in UCD, which costs in the order of €1,200.
"The owner left our clinic with a bill for €200 for the consultation, sedation, x-rays, and two weeks’ worth of medicine having chosen to go ahead with the surgery. It was all explained in advance.”
This may sound completely rational but it’s not always easy for pet owners.
If treatments have changed in the past 20 years, so have the relationships between humans and their pets.
Donal Ryan has seen these changes in his clinic.
“So many people see their pets as babies,” he says.
“People who have no children, who are lonely or maybe people whose children have left home can find that animals fill that emotional space.”
Such strong attachments can cause problems when animals become ill.
“Dogs and cats live for up to 15 years in general,” says Ryan.
“Those years can go by quickly and when pets get ill, people can be overcome by emotion.
“It’s our job to keep them informed about the cost of treatment but in the end, it’s their choice.
"They can opt for a Mater Private standard of care if that’s what they want and if they can afford to pay for it.”
All the vets interviewed for this article agreed that having pet insurance would protect pet owners from having to decide how much a pet’s life was worth.
Rossiter refers back to his lame dog.
“Irrespective of whether he was insured or not, the advice we would have given would have been the same but the fact the dog was insured made the decision to go ahead with the surgery much easier for the owner,” he says.
Policies vary depending on the insurer, level of cover and age of the pet.
However, most pet owners can expect to pay €15 a month for a comprehensive policy that covers €4,000 worth of vet’s fees in a year.
“It’s less than a pint a week,” says Clare Meade. “All pets should have it.”
Meade believes most vets do what they can to help uninsured pet owners who can’t afford the cost of treating their animals. One of the ways in which she does this is by allowing her clients to pay their bills in instalments.
“We would never leave an animal in pain,” she says.
“Many clients pay over months or even years in some cases. We look after their pets when they need it, whether they can afford to pay at the time or not.”
She would never consider euthanising a healthy animal.
“If owners ask us to put their healthy pets to sleep, the norm is for us to take these animals and find loving homes for them, not to put them to sleep.”
Despite the advances in care and the money spent on treatment, there can come a time when euthanasia is the best option for an animal. This is where a vet’s experience really comes into play.
“You have to find a balance between prolonging their lives and not dragging out their suffering,” says Ryan.
“Euthanasia can be a gift when the time is right.”
Modern-day veterinary medicine may be expensive but it offers a lifeline to pets and their owners.
“Pets that previously had badly broken legs amputated can now have them repaired,” says Rossiter.
“Pets that would have been put to sleep are alive. But most importantly, pets that would have suffered now do not have to do so.”
Miriam Walsh, from Midleton, Co Cork, never thought she’d be a cat owner, but now has five.
Mostly rescue cats, they range in age from ten months to 16 years.
“I never liked cats before we got our oldest, Simba,” says Miriam.
“That changed as soon as we got her, and it soon became the norm for us to have cats around. I don’t think we could ever not have a cat now, as they are great company and always there for you.”
She makes light of the work involved.
“The worst thing is there always being fur on your clothes and having to de-fur yourself before you leave the house,” she laughs.
That being said, five cats is her limit.
“I think it’s important to have time to give to each of them and to notice if they are sick or upset,” she says.
“I don’t think it would be possible if we had more.”
For the first 12 years of cat ownership, Miriam didn’t have pet insurance.
However, when she switched to the Cat Hospital, veterinarian Clare Meade urged her to consider it.
“We only took it out to keep her happy, at the time,” says Miriam.
“I never thought we would use it, but now I’m glad we have it.”
It’s certainly saved her money on vet bills. Now that her cats are getting older, they have more health problems.
Simba has arthritis and her bills are covered.
“When her son, Tigger, was sick, the insurance covered life-saving treatment, which gave him an extra year to live. His treatment would have cost us €1,988, otherwise.
“Having insurance meant we were able to tell the vets to do whatever they could, without worrying about the bill running up into the thousands.”
She knows the insurance will pay off in the future, too, especially now that the youngest cat, Paloma, has been diagnosed with a heart murmur.
“There are going to be costs associated with that, but because she is insured, the vets can give her the best possible chance,” says Miriam.
She urges all pet owners to take out insurance.
“It’s about €120 a year per animal,” she says.
“But, compared with a bill for €1,988, you’ll wish you had paid for the insurance.”