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Medical bills soaring for American pets

Americans increasingly are medicating their companion animals, even mortgaging their homes to do so.

March 18, 2007|Jeff Donn | Associated Press Writer

WAYNE COUNTY, N.C. — With aging, it has become a routine faithfully endured by the Guffords. Each day starts with a blood-sugar test and a shot of insulin. Then a couple of pills, maybe mashed into a bowl of tuna and canned carrots. Mixed with dry chow.

All for their 12-year-old dog.

Brownie takes more drugs than his human companions put together. He has been medicated in recent months for diabetes, infections, high blood pressure and his finicky gut, which rebels at red meat. Since 2005, he has also taken drugs for anemia and a spider bite.

"He's our baby, he's a family member, I would want somebody to do that for me," Ann Gufford says.

She estimates expenses of $5,000 over the last two years on medicine for the mixed beagle-cocker spaniel. He has lost a couple of steps on the squirrels outside their little home near Goldsboro, N.C. His hearing is failing. Still, without some of the drugs, he'd probably be gone.

"You cannot put a price on that," Gufford says.

"And I don't want to," adds her husband, Ben.

Americans have begun to medicate their dogs, cats and sometimes other pets much as they medicate themselves.

They routinely treat their pets for arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, allergies, dementia, and soon maybe even obesity. They pick from an expanding menu of mostly human pharmaceuticals such as steroids for inflammation, antibiotics for infection, anti-clotting agents for heart ailments, Prozac or Valium for anxiety, even the impotence drug Viagra for a lung condition in dogs.

Increasingly, they buy at people pharmacies or online and sometimes pay with health insurance.

Until a few decades ago, veterinarians concentrated on care that reflected the country's agrarian roots: keeping farm animals healthy to protect the human food supply. Instead of being medicated, a very sick animal was quickly sacrificed to save the herd. Pets were typically kept outside with the cows, chickens and pigs. A dog was lucky for a dry place in a crude shelter; a cat, for a warm spot in the barn.

Within the last five years, pets have overtaken farm animals in the pharmaceutical marketplace, claiming 54% of spending for animal drugs, according to the trade group Animal Health Institute.

Keeping more than 130 million dogs and cats alone, Americans bought $2.9 billion worth of pet drugs in 2005. Though equal to 1% of human drug sales, the market has grown by roughly 50% since 2000.

"As more and more drugs are being developed for people, more and more drugs are being developed for veterinary medicine. It's really a parallel track," says Dr. Gerald Post, founder of the nonprofit Animal Cancer Foundation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved more than 40 new pet drugs over the last five years.

One of them was Slentrol, which became the first government-approved slenderizer for obese dogs in January. It will cost up to $2 a day, though buyers could presumably put their animals on a diet and save money on dog food in the bargain.

"We're treating them like part of the family, so we indulge them," says Georgette Wilson, a vet for Slentrol's maker, the animal health branch of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. "We give them too much food. We don't exercise them as much as we can."

The market growth reflects an intensifying bond between pets and their owners, who are comforted by the unquestioning love of their animals in an affluent society where traditional institutions are frayed and mobility severs family ties. A 2002 survey for the American Veterinary Medical Assn. found that 47% of people viewed their pets as family members.

This attitude makes customers vulnerable to overspending, some vets say.

For example, a single three-month course of pet chemotherapy might cost $3,000, though chemo in an animal is meant more to ease symptoms than prolong life. It's a reasonable option for some pets. Researchers also have begun to test expensive targeted cancer drugs like Gleevec on animals.

"I really should have let him go before I did," says Margaret Park, of Raleigh, N.C., who had her failing Abyssinian cat treated with a second round of chemo. "When you've been treating an animal for a really long time, you lose your objectivity a little bit."

Unwilling to let go, some people go to extremes to scrape up the cash -- even mortgaging their houses, says Dr. Steven E. Suter, who treats pet cancers at North Carolina State University's veterinary college

When Ann Gufford's parents and Brownie fell ill two years ago, she visited all three daily at their hospitals. Gufford, who works as a laboratory technician in a hospital, says some co-workers think she "should just go and put that dog down and forget about it."

She adds disdainfully: "They have yard dogs."

Of course, many people still medicate pets sparingly. Laura James of Plymouth, Mass., said she and her husband had a tumor removed from their 11-year-old golden retriever. When the tumor returned, though, they decided to let "nature takes its course." Recently, they had to euthanize their pet.

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