Cats. Money. Grief. Stress.
May 22, 2016 1:17 AM   Subscribe

All three of my cats have been hospitalized this year for various reasons. I’ve spent about $10,000 on vet bills since February of this year. They’re still not healthy.

Some details:

All cats are in the 11-12 year old range. So not young, but not elderly.

I am one of those people for whom my pets are like children. So "put the cat down" is not really a feasible option for me unless the cat is genuinely suffering with a terminal diagnosis. That does not describe my cats at the moment. All three have rebounded, at least for now, from the acute illness that landed them in the hospital. All three are trotting around, meowing, playing and being their usual selves.

In each case, the cat became abruptly deathly ill due to reasons not related to the other cats being ill. Hospitalization was necessary and extensive diagnostic testing to figure out what the problem was. There were also the expenses associated with taking them to their regular vet(s), which in each case eventually realized they were out of their depth and referred me to the local specialty emergency vet.

Two of the cats are on an insanely expensive commercial raw food diet, and it’s looking like the third one might have to join them. I’m sticking with this diet because even the highest quality canned food seems to make one cat in particular very ill, and making my own raw food at home makes me nervous about the whole bacteria thing.

I make a okay salary but certainly not one where I can painlessly absorb $10,000 in four months. For the most recent hospital visit, I had to sign up for a Care Credit account because my credit cards were maxed from the last visit. Which leads me to the next problem…

No cat is totally well right now. All three are in dire need of tooth cleanings, at $450 a pop. One kitty will likely need close monitoring of her condition for the rest of her life. Another cat has had IBD-ish symptoms for years and I finally pushed my vet for a B-12 test, which showed that not only is he low in that (I’m giving him injections), but he also has something wrong with his pancreas, requiring a full blood panel and ultrasound to properly diagnose. I just...I can’t...argh...

Finally, I’m sick to death of being in vet offices and hospitals. The local specialty hospital is depressing, chaotic, disturbingly disorganized, and no visit there takes less than three hours.

I guess the issue is, not one of the cats is ill enough to warrant euthanasia. With proper veterinary care, they can continue to live at a high quality of life for much longer to come--at least, I really fucking hope so! If this were just one of the three cats, it would be no big deal. But taken collectively, this is destroying my finances and general life plan. I’m sick of vet offices, having huge swaths of my time gone and stumbling into work exhausted because of another late night at the emergency vet. I’m tired of watching the cats and worrying that each cough or sigh or upturned nose at a food dish is yet another impending disaster.

I love my cats so, so much. They are worth much more to me than anything else money could buy. But I’m at a loss as to how to proceed. I certainly don’t qualify for financial assistance. And I don’t want to forgo important things like teeth cleaning that would leave them living in discomfort. I just don’t know what to do next. Is there anything I have not thought of?
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A better vet?
posted by taff at 2:41 AM on May 22, 2016 [14 favorites]

First, I'm sorry you are going through this. I just had both of my beloved senior cats come down with cancer last December (Merry Christmas, right?) Unfortunately, they both died. In the meantime, I bled so much money that I am now entitled to a lifetime "valued customer" discount at the vet. It's difficult and it's stressful.

First, the money which is gone, is gone. You can't get it back, and you need to let it go.

Second, your relationship with your vet sounds as though it is the source of a lot of what makes this so awful. You need to find a new vet and then work out a sensible care plan for your cats over the coming year. There are so many things you can do as the platonic ideal of a pet owner, but you don't need to do them all straight away. My old guy wouldn't tolerate the vet, so he couldn't ever get his teeth cleaned. I brushed his teeth twice a day and gave him dental treats. It maybe wasn't ideal, but it was fine. Discuss which conditions need to be managed with what straight away, and focus on the minimum to stabilise them, and not the Best Possible Treatment.

Again, I'm sorry for all your stress and worry.
posted by frumiousb at 3:43 AM on May 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

What taff said. It seems to me that it's possible that this particular vet or network of vets saw you coming a mile away, as the saying goes. Did you get a second opinion on any of these life-threatening issues (other than a referral from your regular vet to the specialist hospital who may or may not pay referral fees to the original vet- not sure how that works, other people may know more)?

If you find, after a reasonable search for a second opinion, that your cats actually do have life-threatening or quality-of-life-destroying illnesses that can only be kept at bay with tens of thousands of dollars and/or heroic measures, you are not morally or ethically required to pay for that. You are not a bad person if you euthanise them and, in fact, it would be a kindness to do so, for an animal that is having to spend so much time in terrifying vet hospitals being poked, prodded, and medicated. If you choose to continue risking your financial future, because the idea of euthanising makes you feel too unhappy or you fear life without them, please consider looking into therapy, because this is about you and not the cats - you need to learn to take care of your own financial future and stability first.
posted by cilantro at 3:54 AM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Find a different vet. I went from a vet who ordered every expensive diagnostic test in the book and made me feel like a heartless monster if I questioned anything, to a vet who was conscious of costs, tried to find less expensive ways to do things, and didn't make me feel like a shit if I had questions or said no to a treatment or test. It was amazing and I still felt that my cat was getting excellent care.
posted by amro at 3:54 AM on May 22, 2016 [11 favorites]

$450 for a teeth cleaning?!? That's daylight robbery! My private dentist doesn't charge that much to clean MY teeth!

Find a different vet that's not robbing you blind.

Next time you get a cat, take out insurance.
posted by tel3path at 4:48 AM on May 22, 2016 [13 favorites]

I agree that a different vet might make a big difference. It doesn't sound like your current vet is bad, but like you just aren't on the same page regarding spending. My regular vet has been great with doing basic testing, but recognizing early on if a referral if necessary. That has really helped keep expenses manageable.

Another suggestion I have is to make sure you're taking care of yourself, too. I'm like you with my dog - he's family, I would do anything for him, etc. - and at times that has caused me to completely prioritize him over myself, making me literally sick from stress and worry. Make sure you're getting enough sleep and eating right, so that you can think clearly. Would seeing a therapist help? I've talked to mine a lot about the stresses of pet ownership and it's been very useful.

Finally, I just want to say that I'm so sorry for what you're going through. I've spent over $6,000 on veterinary care for my dog, whom I've had for less than seven months. Every penny has been worth it, but it's been trying financially. For what it's worth, you sound like an amazing pet owner and your cats are so lucky to have you.

And $450 is perfectly reasonable for a dental. Tel3path, the reason your dentist doesn't charge you that much is because you (I assume) don't have to be anesthetized and monitored to have your teeth cleaned...
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:53 AM on May 22, 2016 [12 favorites]

If you ask a mod to post where you are with an email address, you will likely get many recommendations about vets people here trust. That could help.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:03 AM on May 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

I paid a great deal more than $450 to clean my dog's teeth when she was around 10. She passed away less than two years later. I wish I had just skipped it.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:28 AM on May 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

re cat teeth: are your cats also on dry food? Eating dry food is a very good way to keep cat teeth healthy (it scrubs their teeth like crunching bones).
posted by jb at 5:31 AM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

There's a lot of good advice above, and I just wanted to chime in about the raw food. We feed our dog a raw food diet, and yes, it's expensive - but "you can pay the grocer, or you can pay the doctor" - right? It may seem like one more financial burden, but commercial foods that are inexpensive actually cause a lot of pets health problems (and dry food doesn't clean teeth.) I do think it's a good way to lower vet bills in the future, especially dental bills. We don't feel squicky about bacteria - I worry more about people with dirty hands touching my food than I do about something on a counter I can wipe off. That's the one change for the better for your cats that I'd say is worth sticking with.
posted by peagood at 6:17 AM on May 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

Nthing that you need a vet you can really talk to. I hit a point like this with multiple vets telling me to do multiple things. This is much more likely to happen when you are going to the emergency vet's, I'm afraid. Finally, someone from my general practice-- which had been sold and become chaotic much like you describe-- called me one night to ask about what was going on. We had a very long talk and it was a great relief. I also wound up finding one person at the emergency vet's and one vet tech who took a special interest and kept an eye on the situation and would call occasionally. From there on out-- having certain people who took some ongoing responsibility-- things were much less scary.

One thing I came to realize-- there is a continuum of how much medical care you want for your animals and a lot of vets try to figure out where you stand and will suggest things based on that, so try to be clear with them. The in-depth conversation I had with that first vet was helpful for me in that way. They probably had me categorized at first as an owner who has deep pockets and will do absolutely anything. Just by going to emergency vet's and specialists, you are positioning yourself something like that in the view of any vet you see, if they don't have information to the contrary. In my talk with the vet, I told him I was all about respect for life and wanted the best care for my animals but I questioned certain interventions. You should be able to do this on a somewhat rational basis with your vets.
posted by BibiRose at 6:20 AM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Have you looked into Pet Health Insurance? It won't help your current debt, but it might help you get a handle on future bills. I don't have it personally for my kitty and can't give you specifics, but you might want to just look into it. There are several companies, but I'd probably start with the ASPCA.
posted by NoraCharles at 6:43 AM on May 22, 2016

My private dentist doesn't charge that much to clean MY teeth!

To be completely fair, it's unlikely that while your private dentist is cleaning your teeth you're doing your best to reduce his arms to bloody stumps.

$450 for a clean does sound very high, but not when you think about it as comparable to surgery.
posted by flabdablet at 6:46 AM on May 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

I would strongly, strongly recommend a cats-only vet practice, if one is near you. (If you are in the SF Bay Area I know two great ones!) I have four cats, and take them to a cats-only vet, and I think it makes a big difference. Even when I had to spend big $ on getting my Daenerys' stomatitis cured, and now her hyperthyroidism, I was in the hands of competent, compassionate people, and not getting the run around.

And when I had to take my Neville in to the emergency vet (nothing serious, thankfully!) they let me use an exam room to fill out paperwork, so he wouldn't be subjected to the sound and smell of dogs.

A "chaotic" vet practice that can't really diagnose or treat your cats' problems is a bad vet practice. Find another vet, ASAP, preferably a feline specialty practice.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:08 AM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am still paying off credit card debt incurred from various vet bills years ago; it's the #1 source of my nearly 5-figure credit card debt. It'll take me another 2 years to finish paying it off, and that's with pretty aggressive payments each month. I don't regret the money I already spent, but I also don't regret: 1. choosing not to do chemo for the 10 year old dog and letting her pass peacefully when it was time; 2. choosing not even to do expensive diagnostics for the 16 year old cat and just basing her palliative treatment on a best guess diagnosis. Even trying to keep costs down I spent more on the cat than I would have liked all told, but it's hard to say no when the costs accumulate over time rather than being a big lump sum.

This may sound heartless but believe me I loved those animals with all my heart and it's only after time to grieve their losses that I can think about it that way. I have no kids, I've been through marriage and divorce and my pets have always been my one constant, the one thing that is there for me. But you can't sacrifice your financial future for them; if the money's not there, the money's not there. That doesn't make you a bad pet guardian.

I think you need to have a heart to heart with your vet and let them know that cost is a major concern and you are at or approaching your financial limit. This should not be new to them and if they give you grief, it's worth changing vets. A vet (your current one or a new one if necessary) can help you decide how to keep your kitties comfortable and happy with the least financial outlay. I agree that maybe the teeth cleanings can be delayed or forgone; I say that as someone who has an appointment to get her 9 year old dog's teeth cleaned on Wednesday and is expecting to pay like $800 for it. And who just had to bring said dog to the vet for an emergency appointment because he half ripped out one of his toenails last week.

Honestly, I also would avoid the specialist vet if you can, even if it weren't chaotic and stressful. Clients at those kinds of clinics (I know, that kind of place is where I took my first dog and declined the chemo but only after they did expensive surgery because the biopsy missed that it was cancer) self-select to be the ones who can and will spend a lot to care for their pets. The ones who can't or won't afford it often don't end up there in the first place. So I think, through no fault of their own, the staff at specialist clinics tend towards "best care possible no matter the cost" in their recommendations and are less likely than a regular vet practice to be aware of or bring up the issue of cost.

You sound like a wonderful, caring owner and your cats are lucky to have you. Good luck.
posted by misskaz at 7:18 AM on May 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

Perhaps talk to your vet about hospice care for one or more cats? That way you can make their time comfortable without having to go through major expenses.

I have a family-friend who is a vet who acknowledges that, while many vets treat the pet as the client, it's really the owner who is the customer. You have to work a treatment plan with respect to what the owner is willing and capable to support.

I'm sorry that your vet experience is making you feel like you're not doing everything you can. That sounds really harrowing during an already-stressful time. You don't need to do heroic interventions that are costly, especially on older cats. A reasonable vet will work with you within your budget to make your cats at least comfortable.
posted by bookdragoness at 7:30 AM on May 22, 2016

Fwiw, my almost 20 years old cat has never had her teeth cleaned, yet seems otherwise relatively healthy, i.e., appetite still good—considering she had a stroke last year.

And god knows, countless people in this country are in dire need of dental care. Nonetheless, they still carry on everyday. (Ask me how I know.)
posted by she's not there at 9:42 AM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

As painful as this may be, you might also consider surrendering one or more of your kitties to a loving no-kill shelter. Here in the bay area, there are some programs tbat pay the costs of healthcare for people who adopt chronically ill or elderly cats. So your babies might find great homes and you wouldn't be forced to choose between euthanasia and bankruptcy.
posted by janey47 at 9:54 AM on May 22, 2016

I am one of those people for whom my pets are like children. So "put the cat down" is not really a feasible option for me unless the cat is genuinely suffering with a terminal diagnosis. ... Is there anything I have not thought of?

Feelings and beliefs can change. Relatedly, people are capable of affirmatively changing their own feelings and beliefs. To say, "I am one of those people..." is a positive to the extent that it demonstrates self-awareness, but it also requires appropriate emphasis on the present-simple verb tense ("am").

I offer no judgment whatsoever about making an affirmative decision to maintain your present mindset: your pets equal children, medical bills continue, debt be damned. But acknowledge it as an affirmative decision. Because the option does exist. You wouldn't be the first pet owner to do so, and other people have made tougher self changes than this one, when compelled. What others can do, you can do. Sometimes people can't afford pets.
posted by cribcage at 2:06 PM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Skip the teeth. It's a rook.

Otherwise, having been a cat-parent to multiple cats at once, I had a soft limit for emergency care for each cat for their lifetime. I'm sure you love your cats, but don't drown yourself in debt for them. Take care of yourself first.
posted by osi at 12:15 PM on May 23, 2016

I wouldn't say that teeth cleaning is unnecessary, but if you have a choice between giving up your cats, drowning in debt, or putting off the teeth cleaning till you are out of debt? I beg you, please just put off the teeth cleaning.
posted by tel3path at 10:05 AM on May 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

"and making my own raw food at home makes me nervous about the whole bacteria thing."

Why is that? Do you cook for yourself? Preparing food for cats is not any different. Basic safe handling such as using separate cutting boards for veggies and meats, or even a separate cutting board/utensils just for cat food preparation will reduce the bacteria threat to a very reasonable minimum. Freeze everything in portions and only defrost what's needed for the day, safely in refrigerator.

Home-assembled/prepared food can be done at a very reasonable cost with some research/preparation, and will do wonders for your cats' health and might even eliminate the necessity of the very expensive treatments, including teeth cleaning.

I feed 100% raw food to my dogs, and over the years my vet bills are very reasonable. My 12 years old dog has only been to the vet 4 times, for his 3-year rabies vaccine. Because they chew through the bone etc., they never require teeth cleaning - their teeth are white, with maybe just a little yellowing for the 12-y-old, but I mean, it's not hurting him and I would not put him through anesthesia at this age if that can be avoided.

This article seems sensible.

I'm really sorry to hear you had so much stress with this. Best wishes for you and your kitties.
posted by LakeDream at 9:59 AM on June 20, 2016

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