Surprising benefits of having pets — but be prepared for the costs

Yesterday, I told you about AARP’s list of 50 things you can do to help improve your longevity. Another tip on their list was to get a pet.

Studies show keeping and caring for pets can lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart disease. Pets encourage you to move around, walk, and get healthy physical activity, which benefits your weight and longevity and prevents chronic diseases.

Pets also provide emotional support and social interaction. Research shows pets even help improve cognitive function and help prevent, or even reverse, dementia.

Clearly, having a pet at home is a great investment for your health. But how much should you plan on investing to keep your pet healthy?

Pet costs can stack up fast

You should initially plan to spend $565 for a dog’s and $365 for a cat’s initial health exams and equipment. On average, annual veterinary medical costs run about $235 for a dog and $160 for a cat. Lifetime medical expenses for a dog run about $10,719. For a cat, they run oddly higher at $12,050, according to the ASPCA.

However, if a pet has a serious accident, or develops a serious illness, costs can quickly skyrocket. Today’s veterinary medicine is just as obsessed with new drugs and technology as human medicine, all of which translates to higher costs, but often with little payoff. The vets have all these new tools, so they want to use them. (Instead of the simple and humane euthanasia of bygone days.)

Just diagnosing a potentially life-threatening illness can cost $2,000. And one weekend in intensive care at a small animal hospital can rack up the same. Removing a bladder stone from a cat (a common painful condition) averages $1,846. And orthopedic surgeries on broken limbs can run you $7,000.

Veterinary experts counsel that many dogs do well getting around after a simple leg amputation. That way, your dog will suffer less through surgical procedures, recovery and rehab. And you won’t run around, like the southern proverb, “busy as a three-legged dog with an itch,” trying to arrange ongoing care and find a way to pay for it all. Plus, costs for chronic medical conditions can also run into the tens of thousands.

Note that dogs can become over-vaccinated, just like people, resulting in serious life-threatening reactions. In one case, treating a bad vaccine reaction ran more than $30,000.

Keep a close eye on Fido

Sometimes, the dog knows better than we do about the return on investment for going to the vet. Many dogs stiffen their bodies, hyperventilate, and sweat through their paws when going to the vet. Although our own dog, Max (a Great Dane blue), actually enjoys going to the vet. Probably because he is the handsome “big dog” — literally — and has all kinds of attention, compliments and treats lavished on him.

When dogs are in pain due to an illness, they may actually try to hide it. Over millions of years living in the wild, animal instincts developed to hide pain from potential predators who see it as a sign of weakness and vulnerability. (Humans in the workplace seem to have picked up on that trait quite “successfully” as well.) So, your pet may suffer in silence, despite all your attention and veterinary medical efforts.

Standard insurance policies don’t cover veterinary medical care. (A standard homeowner’s policy covers damages and injuries to others by pets on your property and sometimes off property. So – ask your insurance agent.) And expenses are not tax-deductible. You can get a pet insurance rider for routine veterinary medical care, but Consumer Reports notes it is rarely worth the cost. The North American Pet Insurance Association says the average yearly cost of accident insurance is $465 for dogs and $316 for cats.

But the good news is, there are plenty of things you can do to keep your pet in good health…without spending a fortune. In fact, keeping your pet healthy and happy is a lot like what you do to keep yourself healthy and happy.

Healthy living with pets

First, as with your own health, practice prevention. It’s not expensive. Monthly preventive treatments for heartworm, fleas and ticks cost less than $10. You can go online to shop for the same products offered at your local vet. Just make sure they are made in the USA.

Second, pay attention to diet. Certain foods can be toxic, such as chocolate, grapes, walnuts, raw garlic, and raw onions. Excessive intake of fatty foods can cause pancreatitis and liver toxicity, which may be fatal in some, especially smaller breeds.

Third, keep your pets’ ears and teeth clean. Veterinary dental cleanings require expensive (and potentially dangerous) anesthesia.

When a serious problem does develop, ask about all the options. (Not just the “latest, greatest” drug or technology the vet clinic has acquired.)

Also, shop around for veterinarians. There are wide ranges of costs. The government doesn’t regulate veterinary medical care. Although you may not be able to afford a “boutique” medical practitioner for yourself, all of our pets are essentially in the “boutique” healthcare market. Veterinary doctors are the last bastion of traditional, fee-for-service medicine.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I took courses at University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine so I could learn more about pathobiology and physiology because the program was (and is) very science-based. Even then, the medical school gave the short shrift to basic, whole organism biology and physiology.

James A. Serpell is a veterinary medical ethicist (yes, they have those too now) at the U Penn’s vet school, where they continue to offer the very highest tech vet medicine.

Dr. Serpell points out that you need to balance your own emotional needs with your pets’ wellbeing. As with humans, more care and more high-tech treatments for your pets are not always the best answer. Sometimes, it is in the best interest of your furry companion to say a loving goodbye and let them rest in peace.

Then, when the time comes, adopt a young pet who will benefit from your care and attention, and do you worlds of good too.