News & Politics

How Much Is Too Much When Spending on Your Pet?

What would he spend to save his dog, Lilly? $2,000? $5,000?

This article is from 2006's Pet Guide package. The information may be out-of-date, so please call locations listed for new information.

To see the new Pet Guide from 2008, click here.

It was a Sunday night, November 27, and my wife, our daughter, and I had gone to a movie. We returned home around 10:30.

We live on a quiet Bethesda street that gets little traffic. I parked the car but stayed in it to listen to Jerry Seinfeld on XM radio. My wife, Judy, and 14-year-old daughter, Sara, walked to the front door where Lilly, our black, 24-pound puffball, was yapping happily.

We adopted Lilly from an Anne Arundel County shelter five years ago. They told us she was half black Lab and half Lhasa apso. People who see her think she is likely half Tibetan terrier. We'll never know.

She was part of a litter of six puppies, three brown and three black. Lilly was just what we were looking for–cute, not too big, and full of life.

When we adopted Lilly, we had just moved to our first house after 12 years in an apartment building that didn't allow animals. To be able to own a dog was one of our top reasons for buying a house.

Sara and Judy opened the door, and Lilly rushed out onto the porch. When Lilly wanted to wander in the front yard, Judy kept watch.

Lilly had stayed in the yard without a leash before. But then a rabbit ran by. Lilly's head cocked when she saw it. Judy and Sara, meanwhile, saw an SUV approaching, going too fast. They yelled for Lilly to stay.

Lilly had taken obedience training, and she obeyed simple commands.

But not with a rabbit in her sights.

Lilly took off after the rabbit–right into the path of the Chevy Tahoe. As Sara and Judy screamed, Lilly hit the front bumper, bouncing off at an angle that left her sprawled on the street.

The Tahoe continued on its way. The driver either didn't realize he had hit a dog or didn't care.

Judy and Sara ran to the street. Lilly was pulling herself over to the edge of our yard. I was still in the car. I had seen and heard nothing.

Judy reached down to pick up Lilly. The dog squealed, curling herself into a ball. Her eyes stared into space.

I heard a thump on the window of the car. Judy was holding Lilly.

"We have to take her to the emergency room," Judy yelled.

It was almost 11 PM on a Sunday. Where would we go?

I decided to dial the number of our regular vet and see whether there was an emergency service. When I found the vet's card, I saw an emergency number on it.

I dialed, and a woman answered. "My dog was just hit by a car–can I bring her over?"

She said to go ahead; they were open all night. I hung up without confirming where to go. I assumed it was Benson Animal Hospital, our vet in Bethesda.

We drove to Benson, but the place was locked. I banged on the door, thinking a caretaker would appear, but succeeded only in arousing all the dogs inside.

My daughter took the phone, redialed the number, and figured out that we needed to bring the dog to an emergency room on Nebel Street in Rockville.

The doctor at Metropolitan Emergency Animal Clinic saw Lilly right away. Within minutes, x-rays were taken, an IV put in her front right paw, and pain medicine administered.

The prognosis was mixed. There was no damage to internal organs, no broken bones. The bad news was that there was nerve damage in her front legs. She couldn't stand and might be paralyzed.

Her blood pressure was at the minimum to sustain life. She would have to remain on intravenous fluids and stay the night.

As we prepared to leave, a nurse gave us an estimate of how much it would cost to treat Lilly overnight–$500 to $750. There was an unspoken question: Were we okay with paying this?

There was no issue of our not treating our dog. But I did think for a minute: At what point would money enter the decision? Would it be at $2,000? $5,000? How much would be too much to keep Lilly alive?

We went home, not sure what the rest of the night would bring. The phone, thankfully, did not ring. The hospital asks that an animal be out by 8 AM; at that point, you take it to your regular vet.

When we arrived to pick up Lilly, she was doing better. Her blood pressure had stabilized, her left paw was hitting the ground, and her right paw had feeling. The bill came to more than $600. Lilly limped out on a leash. We drove her to Dr. Benson.

There Lilly would recuperate. More x-rays, more painkillers, more nights of boarding. At the risk of sounding like a bad parent, it was then that I began to feel as if I were in a cab with the meter running, not sure where the driver was going. Like most people, we do not have pet insurance.

Judy and I visited every morning. It was on Wednesday, when I saw $484 on the bottom of the chart, that it occurred to me Lilly needed to come home. It wasn't the $484 that concerned me but the fear that there were numbers I couldn't see. It seemed unfeeling to ask how high the bill could go.

The vet warned that Lilly wasn't eating, she had diarrhea, and she needed time to heal. They asked what she liked to eat, and Judy promised to bring some spaghetti. I lobbied the doctors to let us take Lilly home.

"We can't send the dog home with diarrhea," one of the doctors said.

I had to admit that was a problem. And I knew that it was best for Lilly to stay.

On Thursday afternoon, Dr. Benson approved Lilly's release. He gave us antibiotics and painkillers to take with us. The vet's bill for the four days of care was $700.

By her second day at home, Lilly began returning to her old self, although motoring on three legs instead of four. She is still limping along, a little less each day.

Sometimes I look at Lilly and think, do you know how much it cost to keep you alive? Of course she doesn't. We did what we had to do to save a member of our family. After all, it was our own fault she had the accident. She has made her last unleashed visit to the front yard.

I am thankful we never had to come to a decision that weighed money versus the life of our dog. I know many people do get to that point. The question haunts me.

I am glad Lilly will never know that I was even thinking these things.