By: Revanche

Pets and preparedness: Have an emergency plan

February 11, 2010

In a previous post, Pets and money: where do you draw the line?, we talked about a situation where a family had to choose between necessities and a pet’s health.  The woman literally didn’t know how she was going to feed her kids, but with an unemployed husband, she still brought home a sick puppy.

I’m an animal lover, as my “retirement plan” clearly indicates, but I’m also a very practical person as my blog shows.  At no point would I ever want to be faced with an either/or situation when it comes to the health of my family, including the furry, wet-nosed and four-footed members.

Knowing what I do about the costs of health care for animals, I could not, in good conscience, take on any more pets without a solid pet fund.  Saying that aloud makes me feel like a Murphy’s target was just painted on my back.

I recommend being proactive: get an emergency kit and fund put together. You never know when an incident may strike and if it’s minor, a kit could save you an expensive visit to the vet’s office.  

Lemons and the case for an animal emergency kit

So many people think: “it couldn’t happen to me.  My pet is calm, quiet, and well-behaved, he/she/it wouldn’t ever need emergency anything.”  Once in a while, that’s true. Some pets can go his/her/its entire life without needing more than routine maintenance.  It’s a rarity, though. 

I’m a mutt-lover.  Each of my three dogs were a variation on a Mutt, and only one of them developed truly life-threatening health problems later in life.  I was lucky enough to be working at a clinic at the time and he received top-notch care at a discount, but there were times I knew that, as a regular client, I would have been forced to make a final decision based on cost. Even with a 75% discount, I spent more than $3,000 on him on an $18,000 salary.  My other two live(d) unnaturally long lives – the chihuahua lasted about 18 years, the large breed mix is still hobbling along at 15 years of age.  We probably only have a few, if that many, years left together.  

Some people believe in the power of the purebred.  They think that good bloodlines are security, a bit of insurance against the run of the mill illnesses that plague mixed breeds, mutts, and scruffy rescues.  To some degree, they’re right.  They’re very unlikely to get a Parvo Pup from a reputable breeder – though there aren’t any such guarantees if you’re dealing with a disreputable breeder or even worse, a puppy mill. 

But the thing purebreds have going for (or against) them is the predictability of their breeds.  Labs have hip dysplasia, Dachshunds and other long, low-riders have spinal problems, Great Danes have gastric torsion, white Boxers are highly prone to cancer and lots of it.  None of these mean that every purebred’s fate is set in stone, it just means they’re highly prone to specific illnesses.

What you don’t get in that list of “what they’re prone to” is the list of “what else could happen.” 

GB: the cautionary tale 

My dear friends bought a very Marleyesque dog, we’ll call him GB for the Good Boy he really tries to be.  The cost of just bringing GB home was several hundred dollars, a cost that my pound/rescue supporting self will withhold comment on.  They spent hundreds on puppy obedience training, a crate, beds, pens, and all the other conveniences. 

The trouble started when GB got home. He was so excited and happy that he had to explore everything and everywhere, and everywhere bought him a big swollen bite on the face. It could have been a spider or insect bite, either way, he looked like one of those hugely magnified Hallmark cards.  Off to the vet! Hundreds of dollars and a few shots later, his swelling went down and he worked up a rash instead.

For two weeks he was on antibiotics to treat the rash, infected because GB wouldn’t stop scratching at it, and then his immune system went haywire.  He’d never had reactions to his vaccines before but after the bite, he was highly allergic to the vaccines and his vet decreed No More.

Life settled down a bit. I was asked for advice on some suspicious looking pink fleshy scabby things on his face, it seemed to be ok. For any other dog. Knowing GB, I sent them back to the vet anyway and sure enough, more meds.  Surprisingly, GB was still in the neighborhood of sub $10,000 at this juncture but he’s nothing if not high-achieving.

A few months later, he couldn’t keep anything down. I didn’t hear about it for about a day, but as they became concerned, my phone started to ring.  “Something to do with GB? Yes, take him to the vet.”

X-rays revealed that in his love of turf, he’d scarfed a tiny bit of netting with the grass and it had gotten caught somewhere on the way down to form a little net. Like a sieve, this one inch piece of netting cupped and blocked his intestinal tract, only allowing liquid to pass through. Three cups of dog foods a day came right back up.  Two surgeries, another $10,000 later, and GB was sent home with orders to gain 20 pounds during recovery.

He’s had other incidents, like chronic ear infections for his love of swimming with his head underwater, but I’m just grateful he made it through his first year. 

He’s a big ticket dog, for which a dog/pet health fund would be highly recommended as part of your arsenal as a pet owner.  Pet insurance is always a consideration but it can be hit or miss. I think the decision whether or not to carry pet insurance depends on your cash flow, earning and saving power, and the extent and quality of the coverage offered. 

On the more prosaic front, GB managed to injure himself again over the holidays, again sending his parents screaming for my help.  Luckily, it was one of the easiest things in his medical history to deal with: a broken dewclaw.  The dewclaw on a dog is that thumb-like nail that actually doesn’t serve a purpose but to get broken, chewed on, or hung up on things.  The canine’s external appendix, if you will.

For that, I just needed a pair of dog nail clippers, gauze, medical tape and some powder to stop up the bleeding.  After clipping off the shattered nail, I wrapped him up and sent him, fat-pawed and resentful, on his way.  An emergency visit for that would have cost them at least $100 for the late night visit and then a bit more for simple treatment.

I’d recommend having a Pet Kit on hand for some of the more routine things that your pet could require.  My own held the following:

1. Nail clippers. Not the ones that look/act like a guillotine, my dogs hated those. The ones that were more like scissors. They’re easier to control and less uncomfortable for the pet.  These are good for basic maintenance, and for situations like GB’s. 
2. Cotton balls, long Qtips, and gauze.  Pets get into stuff, getting scratches, scrapes and all over in dirt, grass and blood.  They’re kind of like kids that way. It’s easier to assess the situation when they’re cleaned up.  Long Q-tips are great for keeping ears clean, especially if you’ve got a chronic ear infection on legs. (We did.)  Water dogs should also have cotton stuffed in their ears to help protect them from ear infections as well – be sure to check with your vet before you do anything like that, though!
3. Medical tape or wrap that sticks to itself. I used Vetwrap which is like a hybrid between Saran Wrap and medical tape.
4. Towels/rags: Always useful after baths, wrapping up the bedraggled, and containing messes (ahem, vomit).

As far as a pet fund goes, I’d be most comfortable with having at least $1,000 per pet assuming I’m still maintaining an outsized amount of cash on hand.  If not, I’d like to have closer to $5,000 squirreled away per pet. They can borrow from one another but I don’t like to take for granted that they’ll take turns being sick or injured.

Disclaimer: I’m not a veterinarian- I cannot diagnose your pets. When in doubt, please see your vet. 

8 Responses to “Pets and preparedness: Have an emergency plan”

  1. Shelley says:

    Strangely, we had dogs and cats in our lives for my first 30 years or so and I don’t remember emergencies. My first pup died of leptospirosis back in the dark ages before there was a vaccination against it; others died of old age. One ran away and I never found him. But nothing with major vet bills. I know know if we were very lucky or perhaps my parents a bit hard-hearted. No idea.

  2. L.A. Daze says:

    Ugh. The medical emergencies we’ve had with our labs…first lab had hip dysplasia and had to undergo surgery for that. But before any of that happened, he was bitten by another dog and developed an infection that nearly killed him. He was still a puppy. After his surgery, his hip was STILL giving him issues. Poor dog. He also had skin issues and had to be treated for that. The two blackies…one had skin issues and the other one suffers from ear infections and allergies. Dogs are not cheap. And all three of them are purebreds.

  3. Dave says:

    =[ I live in apartment right now where pets are not allowed. I guess I’ll count my pennies so I’ll be ready once I move out of here.

    $1000-$5000 per pet is a boat load of money =o

  4. I also live in an apartment where dogs aren’t allowed. If I want to keep a cat it would be an extra $30 per month. I hope to get a cat after I graduate and move out of this apartment. I am hoping that vet expenses for cats won’t be as expensive. I sure won’t be without a pet fund when and if I do get a cat.

  5. Oh, my goodness. GB actually outdoes the beloved, late, and great Thousand-Dollar-a-Day Dawg!

    TD-a-Day earned that title after she ate the arm off a leather chair. What a pooch!

    Miraculously, she did NOT need surgery after she swallowed the sewing needle. That was an interesting experience.

    Poor old GB sounds like one of those pooches that goes around with a cloud over his head. I had one of those, too: a doberman pinscher affectionately known as Wop-Tick (one ear, having been broken by the idiot who docked the ears of all the pups in his litter, always wopped over, and the dog was a tick magnet), truly was accident-prone. He would run full-speed into walls and charge into thickets of cholla cactus. When I was about to get married to a man who did not, not, NOT want a dog, I gave Wop-Tick to a friend who doted on him and who ended up spending many thousands of dollars on him.

    Oh, BTW: the greyhound’s vet reported that chronic ear infections can be caused by allergies (as well, of course, by swimming underwater…). If this dog tends to allergies, he might be helped by a nonallergenic diet. In the case of the hound, getting him completely off corn did the trick.

  6. Len Penzo says:

    Mutts are much hardier than pure breds. I’ve owned both and it’s no contest. The genetic diversity of mutts makes for a much hardier dog.


    Len Penzo dot Com

  7. Anonymous says:

    I have horses, basset hounds, cats, chickens and a rabbit. Over the years I’ve relied heavily on my Veterinary Merck Manual to refer to symptoms and treatment. Though I am not a vet, I’ve learned to treat many illnesses myself. Knowing when to get the animal to a vet is important, though. Learning normal vital signs of each species really helps when a pet is sick. I always keep a supply of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories on hand (for me, injectibles), and keep all the pets up to date on vaccines, parasite control and pay close attention to their individual dietary needs. This has saved me a bundle.

  8. Laura J says:

    I thought my dogs were bad until I read this story. We have 2 little rat terriers. The first was very healthy for the first 4 years of her life. Then we bring home the little one and the problems begin. We find out that our youngest is blind in one eye and has retinal bleeding and may need the eye removed (getting this diagnosed cost in the range of $500). Then, the older one gets her nose bitten almost off and it costs around $1600 to repair that in the middle of the night. About 2 weeks after that the little one eats a mushroom our of our yard, gets high and costs about $800 in medical bills since we didn’t know what she had eaten until the next morning. She also has had about 4 skin/ear infections and that is never cheap. Luckily we haven’t had to take the eye out, but I have at least $1000 in the bank specifically for our dogs now. I had to raid my regular emergency fund for all of that before. So far, it has been 7 months with nothing, but I definitely learned my lesson. (I think I just tempted fate).

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