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My unexpected $2,400 vet bill

In exchange for that princely sum we didn't just get a dog back; Major is a bona fide member of the family.

By MSN Money Partner Nov 9, 2012 9:02AM

This post comes from Len Penzo at partner blog Len Penzo dot Com.


Len Penzo dot Com logo"Whatever it takes."


Image: Calculator © Image Source, Getty ImagesThat was the answer the Honeybee gave me three years ago after I asked her how much she would pay to save a pet's life.


Unfortunately, last week we got a chance to reconsider that question after we returned from a weeklong family vacation up the California coast.


Almost as soon as we got our 9-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, Major, back home from doggy day care -- essentially a kennel where dogs have the freedom to roam the facility alongside other canine "guests" and their human caretakers -- he began showing signs of illness.


At first it wasn't anything disconcerting. Just softer-than-usual stools.


Within a couple days, that condition progressed to diarrhea. Still, a little research indicated that common doggy diarrhea was typically nothing to worry about. A quick check of accompanying factors that would have suggested the need for immediate attention were thankfully absent: Major was still eating, there was no blood in his stool, and he was able keep food and water down.


Twenty-four hours later, however, things took a decided turn for the worse.


Our typically fun-loving, gregarious dog became completely detached from the family, uncharacteristically keeping to himself in the corner of our living room. Not long after that, he stopped being able to keep anything down -- not even the smallest amount of water.


Compounding matters, it was now Sunday, which happens to be the only day of the week that Major's vet is closed for business. So we had to take him to a 24-hour specialty veterinary clinic.


By the time Major arrived at the clinic, he was barely responsive and clearly in trouble. Needless to say, the vet began bombarding us with the necessary litany of questions in an urgent attempt to make a diagnosis.


Unfortunately, in Major's case, the symptoms he was displaying were indicative of multiple problems ranging from giardiasis -- an infection caused by the nasty giardia parasite that's typically acquired from pigeon droppings -- to a life-threatening intestinal blockage or even the deadly canine parvovirus.


Of course, the only way to know for sure why Major was suddenly fighting for his life was to conduct a battery of tests -- and they weren't cheap:

  • X-rays ($176.40).
  • Blood panel ($142.03).
  • Barium series and administration ($426.41).
  • Additional blood test ($75.34).
  • Fecal test for giardia ($53.02).

Add it all up and that's $873.32 just to (hopefully) figure out what was wrong. I know.

A cynical pet owner might suggest that the vet was recommending all those tests to pad the bill, but the fact is, veterinarians have a much tougher job than medical doctors when it comes to pinpointing the cause of their patients' problems. After all, unlike humans, our pets can't tell their doctors exactly where it hurts.


With time of the essence, we authorized all the tests and, after leaving a $1,000 deposit, admitted Major to the vet hospital. At the time, we had no idea whether he would make it through the evening, but we prayed that they could stabilize him.


By Monday morning, Major was stable but still suffering from diarrhea. Thankfully, the vet had ruled out an intestinal blockage, which meant there was no need for surgery.


Meanwhile, the vet bill was getting bigger by the minute. We were being charged $9.98 for every hour Major spent in the hospital.


The medicines used to help control his diarrhea and vomiting, and fight any intestinal infection that might be to blame, weren't cheap. Major was given nine injections at $70.35. Each. For those of you counting at home, that's $633.15.


And you think gasoline is expensive? The first IV given to my dog cost $147.26 -- and I was billed $44.10 for every additional liter of fluid administered thereafter.


By Monday evening Major had gone through five liters of intravenous fluid, but he was finally able to keep his water down. He also ate his first food in more than two days and kept that down, too.


We got Major back on Tuesday, about 10 pounds thinner -- and still not 100% -- but he was clearly on the road to recovery.


And I'm happy to say that, five days after we got him home, he was finally back to his old happy-go-lucky self.


As for the the final diagnosis, the vet attributed Major's ails to a somewhat mysterious affliction known as canine hemorrhagic gastroenteritis. Its cause is unknown, but the vet said stress seems to play a role.


When all was said and done, the final bill came to $2,406.88. Thankfully, we had enough money in our emergency fund to cover the expenses.


Yes, that's a lot of money. But in exchange for that princely sum we didn't just get a dog back; Major is a bona fide member of the Penzo family. And for that reason alone I'd do it all over again -- even at two or three times what I paid this time around.


Whatever it takes, indeed.


More on Len Penzo dot Com and MSN Money:


Nov 11, 2012 1:04PM
I paid whatever it took to keep my cat and best friend alive. He have my mother an addt'l 5 years of wonderlife. Originally rescued by Az Second Chance Humane Society with an arrow shot completely through him, saved him and I adopted him. A year later he got crystal and had to have an operation of 3300.00 not counting the ER visit just prior. Special perscription food for th next 12 years and dental surgery. He was more than a pet and seemed to know exactly what you were saying. All the trama's I went through he would crawl up and put his nose on my tear, then wipe it away with his fur. He'd put both paws around my neck and sqeeze tight as if to say its ok. A heart of gold with shoulders of steel. He suddenly could not poop and was misdiagnoinsed on a fri night by an incompetent vet dr ratala (rat in first part of name) that bloated him. I called on Sunday am and she again misdiagnoised him over the phone. that eve she finally took an xray and he had a blockage & surgery. THEN SHE LEFT HIM ALONE WITHOUT ATTENTION, CARE, OR COMFORT AND WENT HOME. HE DIED OF THROWING UP AND TOO WEAK TO STAND TO GET IT OUT SO WENT INTO HIS LUNGS DUE TO HER INCOMPETENCE. All the years he gave others,, in the end died alone in a steel cage with the one person who took an oath to care for animals. She knew his history of throwing up, had not eaten and on an empty stomach did not give him any nausea meds in the anesthesia or afterwards, then just put him in a cage and walked out to her comfort of her home without a care! He died Labor Day 2012 and I am still greiving. He was healthy, all organ, blood work, all excellent. NO reason to die except neglect. KNOW your vets! ASK questions. Insist on nausea meds, and listen to your pets! They will tell you! He did NOT like this vet when we had to see her once. HIs regular vet was out of office ands forced to see her. I should have listened to my gut and taken him elsewhere. He didn't deserve this. Follow your instincts! NEVER leave them alone. Its better to die at home in your arms than alone in a steel cage!
Nov 9, 2012 7:37PM

Just this past summer, I spent just over $160 for 3 days at the local Vet's just to stabalize my dog who had a broken pelvis, trying to decide if she would benefit from an operation.  Another $240 at an animal ER to have the damage properly assessed, then a $2000 deposit at a animal speciality hospital only to find out that she would not ever recover & "fixing" the break would probably result in a slow decline.  After a overnigt stay there & a through evaluation, the Vet recommended putting her down.  Of all that, we got a refund of $1400.  So..., (160+240+600=) for $1100 we "got 5 nights in the 'Hospital", excellent 24/7 care (I was impressed, & I am a nurse!!), our pet was kept pain-free, & the assurance we did all we could for her. 

To put that in perspective, I recently had an emergency that requited an overnight 'wait' in the ER myself--the hospital bill was just over $800--that is for one night folks.  For the same level of care, I paid an adverage of $220 a DAY(&night).  My Mom was in the hospital 3 nights for a broken hip recently; it cost $33,000 without the cost of the operation.

Was it worth it?  You bet!  It was a bargan.

Nov 9, 2012 6:04PM

Try giving your dog probiotic pills you get in the health food department.  I have a cat that does the same thing for no reason.  Gets very expensive fast.  When we go on vacation, she's always sick with what was described in your article.  Now I just keep her on probiotic capsules (vegetarian ones).  I sprinkle one capsule on her food each day, even when we're on vacation (my mother does this for her) and so far the last two times we've came back, she hasn't been sick.


Animals must go through stress like some of us humans.  Good luck.


Edit: Just wanted to let you know that it was our Vet, that told me to try this :)

Oct 16, 2013 10:43AM
I know Obamacare is a hot topic right now but did you know you can also get affordable health care for your pets too!? Pet Insurance is an easy, affordable way to ensure your dogs stay healthy and help elevate some of these high, unexpected vet costs if and when they should arise. Like most human health plans, they also include preventative/regular check ups for your pup! Read this full list and review of the top pet insurance companies: Hope that helps and sorry to hear about your experience. 
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