Is Paul O’Grady mad to spend so much money on his terminally ill dog?

Paul O’Grady, the comedian-turned-dog-advocate, hit the news this week when he talked about spending over £8000 in vets’ fees to treat his nine year old Cairn Terrier Olga for cancer of the kidney. The Daily Mail reports that Paul has ignored advice to have her put down, and instead he’s paying for intensive chemotherapy and surgery to keep her alive. The story has ignited a debate about veterinary fees and pet insurance: Judith Woods, a feature writer for the Daily Telegraph, has added her own tale of spending £3600 when her Manchester Terrier, Daisy, developed a rare form of kidney disease. She had her pet insured, so her feature extols the benefits of pet insurance for these unexpected occasions.
Paul and Judith are clear in their opinions, with no doubt that they have made the right decision for their own pets. It’s the online comments on the stories that are interesting, with members of the public sounding off with their own thoughts on expensive treatments for pets, and the pros and cons of pet insurance.

The Daily Mail readers’ comments to Paul’s story are mostly short and positive: “It’s lovely that he’s done this for his beloved dog”, “Good on you, Paul, you are a true dog lover” and “If I was as rich as him, I’d do the same”.
Telegraph readers have responded in a predictably more loquacious way to Judith’s feature.
First, of course, there are many “dog lovers” who are supportive of giving pets all reasonable treatment that can be afforded, accepting that high quality veterinary care can be costly, and agreeing that pet insurance can be a sensible way of budgeting for unexpected health crises. When completing a survey of attitudes to dogs on a recent trip to a slum in Delhi, I found that around 60% of the local population “liked dogs”, with 40% disliking them: I now find myself wondering if a similar proportion of attitudes exists in the UK population. For the 60% who care for their pet dogs, it’s hard to consider withholding treatment.

There are plenty of comments from the opposite side of the spectrum – perhaps the 40% who aren’t so fond of dogs. Some of these “anti-treatment” comments are worth discussing in more detail:
“All pet insurance does is persuade owners to consent to prolonged and possibly invasive treatment of their pet. Unless they own a valuable breeding animal they would be kinder and more sensible if they had a really sick pet put to sleep.”
While it’s true that it may make objective sense to have an ailing animal euthanased, when it’s your own pet, surely it’s wise to analyse the options available? Once a clear diagnosis has been made, vets are often able to give a reasonably accurate estimate of treatment, prognosis and life expectancy. If you are able to pay for the treatment (via insurance or otherwise), and if the vet can reassure you that your pet will not suffer during the process, many people conclude that the correct course of action is to give the animal extra life. Why should anyone else feel that they have the right to tell them otherwise?

“Look at the dog and think, ‘If that was me what would I want?’ Or, ‘Am I keeping the dog alive for the dog’s sake, for my sake or I do I lack the moral fibre to do the right thing?’”
I am sure that most owners look at their pet and ask these questions before making a treatment/euthanasia decision. And most vets take time to guide owners through this process. Most vets and owners would agree that if a pet has no hope of living a good quality life, euthanasia is the kindest option. And treatment for serious disease may not be as uncomfortable as people expect in pets. Treatment modalities like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment are often deliberately used in lower doses in pets compared to humans, so side effects are usually less severe. Nobody want animals to suffer pain or discomfort for the sake of a few more weeks or months of life.

“These poor animals haven’t a clue what is happening to them in the vets’ surgeries, all the pain, trauma and strange smells….. people aren’t doing it in the interests of the animals they are most of the time doing it for themselves. Better IMO to let the animal have a peaceful end – a right denied to humans. And don’t get me started on animals with limb amputations.”
Anyone who has owned an amputee dog will know at once that the person who made this opinionated comment has not known any animals with limb amputations (they often have marvellous lives, with no discomfort or visible disability). I suspect he’s also had a similar lack of experience of vets’ surgeries and sick animals recovering from illness.

“I have come to the conclusion that Veterinary Surgeons generally, are individuals who parasitically feed off pet-owners emotions. The fees they charge can bear no resemblance to costs incurred. Have their charges ever been investigated? I suspect this is yet another bunch of rip-off artists. They know you will pay to save a soulmate… So they take you for an expensive ride.”

I’m sorry that this person has such a negative view of my profession: what else can I say?

“As for vets, I told my son to be either a vet or a lawyer. They make the fees up as they go along, nobody really questions the amounts and they get paid even if the client dies.”

This person should really do some proper research before making recommendations to his son. Vets’ salaries are not as high as people may expect. In the USA,  $80460 (£50824) is the median pay, with veterinary graduates struggling to pay off huge university debts. In the UK , according to this website, “the average starting salary is between £21,800 to £33,500 a year, depending on experience. Further training and experience can increase salary to £36,500 per annum. Senior vets can earn around £44,000 to £53,000+” .
So while vets may earn a substantial salary, it’s nothing special compared to doctors (Salaried GPs earn between £54,319 and £81,969). solicitors (between £25,000 and £75,000)  or dentists (between £50,000 and £110,000). And did he tell his son about the high suicide rate in vets – higher than any other profession, and around four times the national average? The job of a vet is not the easy, money-spinning dream career that some people seem to believe.

“I have heard that vets in England charge more if you have insurance, but it wasn’t made clear if this is because they run every test necessary when the insurers are paying but stick to the bare minimum for hard up punters.” 
This person probably is closer to the truth than they realise. The reason why vets “stick to the minimum for hard up punters” is that these clients are unable to afford anything else. Is there anything wrong with this?

Something else needs to be explained: this odd statement in Judith Wood’s feature. ” Vet fees have doubled in a decade, and are rising at an annual rate of 12 per cent.”
Vets’ fees per item have certainly not “doubled in a decade”, nor are they rising at 12% per year. But more advanced tests and treatments are now available to those who can pay for them, which is why the amount spent on pets may indeed have “doubled in a decade” and may be continuing to increase.
The key truth that seems to have been missed by everyone writing on the subject is this: diagnostic tests are amongst the most expensive items on the veterinary menu. The specialised machinery needed to carry out laboratory tests, ultrasound scans, x-rays, MRI scans and other work-ups can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. Yet these pricey investigations are often the only way to achieve an accurate diagnosis, which is the key fact that’s needed to decide on treatment and to predict the prognosis.

Do you want to be able to do the best for your pet if he or she falls ill? If you do, get your pet insured so that you can give your vet the go-ahead to carry out the tests needed to give you the best advice possible. And don’t listen to the “objective” scoffers who tell you that you would be better to have your pet euthanased: talk to your vet and make the decision for yourself, based on facts, not opinions.

 

 

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