DennisBeaverOctober 5, 2013 • By Dennis Beaver

Last week we told you about Samantha, a 20-year-old student at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, California. She took her sick cat to an animal hospital in Fresno, paid $65 for an examination and was later informed by the doctor that it had pneumonia with a 50/50 chance of survival. Treatment could run as high as $500.

Samantha authorized treatment, but the next day, her kitty died and she was billed $350. During our phone conversation, she explained why she should not be required to pay the animal hospital and that “they owe me a refund.”

“This was such an emotional time for me, and they knew it. I loved my little kitty and couldn’t just let her die. I would have felt so guilty. So, I believe they took advantage of my feelings. Besides, the cat would have died anyway, I don’t owe them a thing, and they should refund the $65.

“I know, that if I had no money, they would have been required to treat my cat for free,” she also maintained.

While 20 years of age makes one an adult legally, real-world maturity is always years away, with some people never quite getting there. Samantha was headed in the wrong direction, and we felt it our duty to at least try to help her understand why she owed the money, both legally and morally. Finally, we asked her to send us a photocopy of the check which we urged her to send to the doctor.

Samantha did raise some interesting questions about free veterinary care, balancing feelings with the economics of pet ownership and seeking the answer to a simple question: What if your pet dies — so you still have to pay the vet?

For the answers, we turned to friends of this column, Drs. Lee Fausett and Rhett Swasey of the Hanford Veterinary Hospital in Hanford.

Pets are an emotional investment with a real cost

“Samantha’s example is fairly common, and to begin with, there is no such thing as free veterinary care. Society absorbs the cost for human care when someone cannot pay, but nothing like that exists for veterinary care,” Fausett notes.

Swasey next described one family’s reaction when denied free care: “Terribly upset, either having no means of paying or who just go through life always looking for someone else to pay the bill, they created a real scene, yelling, ‘You have to treat our dog, we know how this works!’

“I calmly explained this is not the same as a human emergency room or hospital. Veterinarians can refuse to accept a patient. Once we administer care, with reasonable assurance of being paid as agreed upon, we are obligated to continue, but we can and occasionally must refuse to accept or continue care. It is the economic reality of running a business, having to pay overhead, staff, medication and so on.”

‘They drove off in an expensive new car!’

Fausett considers “pets to be an emotional investment and the dividend is life itself, the joy of playing with your cat or dog, coming home to have your nose licked by this friend who you love and just wants to make you happy.

“But this investment has an emotional price as well,” he cautions.

“It is normal to have guilt feelings — almost a feeling of betrayal — when told that putting your pet to sleep needs to be considered, where treatment could be much more than you can afford or isn’t likely to have the desired outcome.

“Sometimes pet owners face difficult, hard choices that they really do not want to make, and we try to help them come to that. We often have a heart-to-heart discussion about the importance of alleviating suffering when there is something that we cannot treat. There is also a cost to properly take care of the remains of a deceased pet, and the owner is also responsible for that as well.”

Budget for your pet’s health care

“Today, we can treat and cure conditions which only a few years ago meant a death sentence,” Swasey points out. “And, just as with human health care, the expense has gone way up as well. For most people, $2,000 for their dog’s surgery or broken leg would be a major expense.

“So, open a pet health savings account and save at least $100 a month, or consider pet insurance, which runs from $30 to $90 a month. Only about 3 percent of pets in the country are covered, and the need is very large.”

And Samantha?

She sent us a thank you card which read, “I thought about what you told me, about morality and keeping my word.” Inside was a photocopy of her check for the vet.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.