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Vet Care Nightmare
Why we spent $6,500 this month … and counting
Shelby, Ginger Peach and Jolie in more active times.

For the month of August, my husband and I have spent $6,500 on veterinary care for two of our four dogs. What I find particularly maddening is how we have done everything possible to ensure our dogs stay healthy, and yet, do we really know if it made a difference? I naively thought that by giving my dogs the best of everything—a raw diet, vitamins, supplements, holistic treats, mentally stimulating toys, daily exercise—they would remain immune to illness or injury.

Shelby had been acting strange for five months. My senior Pit Bull mix spent more time apart from the rest of the pack. Though never much of a food hound, she always came running for meals. This had changed; she’d either come at a walk or not at all. Eventually, she preferred to eat her meals outside instead of her usual spot in the kitchen. When I offered a treat, she’d gingerly pick it up out of my hand, then drop it to the floor before tentatively mouthing it. At nearly 10 years old, we suspected hearing loss and tooth decay, but it was neither. She had cancer.

My seven-year-old Dalmatian, Jolie, should’ve been at her healthiest. Between agility, Rally obedience, and hikes along the river, she was a compact, muscled 38 pounds. But for eight months, she suffered chronic lower back pain. Chiropractic adjustments, acupuncture, massage and laser treatments helped ease the pain, and she returned to normal activity. Two weeks ago, she woke up unable to move her head to the left. When she attempted to lay down, her high-pitched cries brought me to tears. A neurosurgeon solved the mystery: She had a bulging disc that required immediate back surgery.

After months of speculation and worry, we’re relieved to know what exactly is wrong with Shelby and Jolie. But now a new anxiety grows, like a storm cloud. Will they survive their respective journeys to wellness? How do we know that the decisions we make will improve their quality of life? Would we have been better off feeding a premium kibble, skipping the vitamins and supplements, and taking fewer agility or Rally classes so we had more money to feed these insatiable vet bills?


Julia Kamysz Lane, owner of Spot On K9 Sports and contributing editor at The Bark, is the author of multiple New Orleans travel guides, including Frommer’s New Orleans Day by Day (3rd Edition). Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poets and Writers and Publishers Weekly.

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Submitted by Shawna's mom | August 25 2011 |

Hi Julia,
So sorry to hear of all the worries+heart aches with your pups. As for the cancer, a specialist at VCA Aurora told me the only way to test for cancer is via ultrasound,I believe. I know your diet + it's a good one. I refuse to believe it would cause any of these problems.

I am a bit surprised your holistic vet did not discover the disc problem tho. Makes me wonder if a change is in order.

I used to carry pet insurance, but found it too costly. I think I may look into it again, but only for emergencies,such as you described. There are lots of pros+cons+I know you'll do your research.

Yeah, you can feed the kibble to save money, but.....is that what your heart tells you is best for your dogs? Only you can decide what to do.
Keep the faith!

Shawna's mom

Submitted by mary | August 26 2011 |

No matter what you do illness happens. I had four dogs,one had cancer, cushings, diabetes, and renal failure and I gave them the best but one can only do so much. There are those who feed their dogs non premium foods no suppliments and they live long healthy lives. There are human non smokers, healthy living and those who smoke and live less healthy lives and the healthy ones die of lung cancer. So, I just figure it is their destiny. I still raise my 2 dogs in a healthy enviroment but that doesn't mean they can not suffer from ailments. I just try to have them live a good life just like you have with your dogs. You did the best for them and that is all you can do.

Submitted by Connie | August 30 2011 |

What a horribly timely blog post for me. I could not write anything sooner because this was the exact day that we put down our sweet yellow Lab and the pain has been intense that I did not do the right things for her when diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma and in her after surgery care. We spent $10,000 in two weeks in an attempt to let her recover from the complication of esophagitis after the cancer surgery. I will try to lay out my mistakes in case someone reads this and sees any similarities in their own cases. I now understand why people with tragedy in their life become crusaders because it seems the only thing that makes sense is to keep someone from having to go through the same situation.
Bad path number one: In my case as a 13 year old dog with a persistent cough that could not be diagnosed, she was not a good candidate for surgery as much as the vet breezed through the record and said he didn't see any problems with her having surgery. As I have read in other blogs, people have chosen palliative care for the rest of the older dog's life rather than putting them through surgery. IF I had remembered that blog post from 2009 I might have resisted the rush to surgery. IF I had researched more….gotten a second opinion. Now I can see that most likely she had acid reflux disease. All her life she loved rolling on her back and doing that dance. After she had surgery two years ago for a benign adenoma on butt area she had a cough that would not let her roll on her back. Now it can make sense that acid was coming up and making her cough. We had her in to the vet several times to question this cough thinking heart or lungs. They took an xray and said it was old age of her wind pipe. They gave her antibiotics to clear up any respiratory cause. It did not lessen her cough. We should have tried another doctor or specialist.
During the surgery I would guess that the acid of her stomach came up and burned out her esophagus. After this cancer surgery she would not eat or drink and had intense pain with swallowing. After many tests at the referral hospital she was diagnosed with one of the worst cases of esophagitis seen. Maybe if I had fed her for a week before her surgery canned dog food instead of high quality kibble and given her pepcid there might not have been such damage because there would have been less acid in her stomach. (And we did follow the rule of no food after 7 pm the night before.) Maybe if I gave pepcid after the surgery…Maybe if again I had taken her to a second vet...
Bad path number two: Deramaxx. Given as a pain med right after her surgery. We still didn't know it was esophagitis that was the problem. And we got that med down her and it probably made it worse and worse and possibly doing even more damage. Lesson: Don't give deramaxx to old dogs with old GI tracts.
Bad path number three: After diagnosis of esophagitis she came home with a very long list of meds that they had given at the hospital. We put them in her food and used a syringe to feed her. She vomited from the horrible taste and probably aspirated again. When I was feeding her I thought it was the right thing, that she had to have food and medicine but it looks so wrong now. I should have let her rest and stopped all meds and just fed food at a very slow rate.
So maybe there were no good outcomes available for an older dog with cancer and I really don't care how much we spent if we just had her back for a few good weeks or months and I didn't feel so horrible for not demanding someone tell me how to give good after surgery care. I am horrified that I was able to toughen myself instead of giving tender understanding care. I am horrified at the fear and pain she suffered for two weeks at the end of her life in the hospital. They kept holding out hope to us…and we could access the money to try.

Submitted by Carolyn | August 31 2011 |

To Connie & Julia,
I am so very sorry to hear your heartrending stories. I am certain that you both are doing (and did) the best you could with the information at hand. My little old dog has heart disease so we are just starting to run the gamut of veterinary care ... and yes, she has had as healthy and "natural" a life as I could give her. Although her home prepared diet using healthy wholesome ingredients is expensive, at least I can say she has thoroughly enjoyed it! Thanks much for sharing.

Submitted by Pseedie | October 4 2011 |

...the way i look at pet insurance (and I'll only go with one provider as the others I've tried fall terribly short of what I would call quality) is that it the payments I send are a "bank account" for when I'm blind panicking and screeching my tires to the nearest emergency vet....at least I won't have to worry about the $$ side of things ~ when there's already too much to worry about with diagnosis, aftercare, medication, medication reactions, physical therapy, or worse, ongoing critical care. For me, it's peace of mind....that comes at a price. [= But soooooooooooo worth it when you need it!

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