Pet Care Fees Are Too High For Some Southern Californians

A middle-aged man carrying a large golden retriever suddenly appears at the base of the concrete steps that lead up to the main entrance of the animal hospital. The man enters through the door and immediately heads to the blue rubber-lined bench in the center of the lobby. The woman, presumably his wife, makes a quick dash from the door to the receptionist’s desk, where she frantically pleads with the receptionist for help.
At this point, the man, nearly falling over himself, has leaned over and placed the dog on the tile floor next to the bench. The dog stays in the exact position that he was in while being carried. Despite his obvious lack of breath the man is talking calmly into the dog’s large floppy ear. ‘Good boy, Rusty. Good Boy.’ The receptionist pages a technician from the back.
‘He can’t stand up,’ the woman says now to Rhonda Partida, the technician who has emerged from the back through one of the exam- room doors.
‘Something is wrong with his back leg,’ the woman continues, her statement barely making it out of her mouth as she holds back her tears.
‘Poor baby,’ Rhonda says, ‘We need to get his weight and vitals. Do you think he can walk to the scale?’
‘I don’t know,’ answers the man, ‘We found him like this when we got home.’
‘OK. Have you noticed anything unusual about Rusty in the last few days, like maybe his appetite, behavior, anything?’ Rhonda says as she begins to lean over to take a closer look at the dog.
‘No, nothing, until today,’ the man responds.
‘OK. Can you carry him to the scale? Or do you want me to get some help from the back?’ Rhonda continues as she strokes Rusty’s golden-brown head.
‘I got him,’ the man says as he leans over and again speaks to Rusty. ‘Good boy. That’s a good boy.’
The sad eyes that pets show us in times of need or pain are very moving and have a way of piercing right into your pocketbook. Every year, Southern Californians spend large amounts of money on veterinary medicine and related services. Perhaps it is because of the financial state of the area, or maybe it’s simply because we love our pets so much, they are like family. Treatment coordinator of Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in Laguna Woods David Valentine, a 28-year-old technician who has worked in the industry for the last 14 years, says there is no set maximum amount when it comes to caring for his Labrador-mix ‘Nestle.’ He has, however, seen his fair share of people willing to dish out the big bucks to make sure that the four-legged member of the family receives the best treatment and life expectancy that money can buy.
‘I have seen bills between $16,000 and $20,000 that people just come in and pay at the drop of a hat,’ he said.
These bills are usually the result of extensive tests, boarding and, finally, extensive procedures like hip replacements and liver transplants.
LHAH is a full-service veterinary hospital and boarding facility that has been serving the needs of Southern California residents and their pets for 30 years. The staff prides itself on being a large service-oriented hospital with board-certified specialists, comfortable boarding facilities with exercise areas, state of the art ‘Hydrosurge’ bathing systems and an on-site doctor-approved pet supply center. LHAH is a part of the expanding veterinary medicine industry that has become more specialized in the last 10 years.
In the past, full-service general practitioner hospitals like LHAH were the norm, but today, the American Veterinary Medical Association recognizes 20 veterinary specialties, which include anesthesiology, behavior, dermatology, emergency and critical care, internal medicine, cardiology, oncology, neurology, radiology and surgery.
Despite the increase in veterinary specialists, LHAH is still thriving as a strong base for many clients their pets and the numbers don’t lie. LHAH costs $2,000 to $4,000 a day to operate and averages a total of about $8,000 a day in revenue. They net an average of $3.5 million a year. The hospital still provides that community-centered feeling and service that maintains lifelong clients. In addition, the quality of the staff and the services keep a constant stream of new files being added to the over 4,000 current patients. Pet owners of all ages, races and income brackets make up the clientele that spends hundreds and thousands of dollars on the quality of life for a single pet, when possible.
The nonstop business behind the counter seems uninterrupted. This however, changes as soon as you walk through the single door that leads back to the part of the hospital where only staff and furry creatures are allowed.
A brightly lit hallway stretches from one side of the hospital to the other. On the far back table, perhaps the most private area in the treatment room, David is finishing up a dental on a white poodle. The dog is under general anesthesia that will cost his owner $430 total with the dental work. Silver forceps hold open the dog’s mouth and his tongue flaps to one side. As David uses electric tools that resemble those found in a general dentist’s office to remove the tartar on the dogs’ teeth, Megan Cornelius, the youngest receptionist at 21 years old and a fourth-year double major in sociology and political science at UC Irvine, points at a bloody molar on the tray next to David.
‘That’s a big one,’ she declares.
David lets up on the dog’s mouth and turns to look at the spot that she is pointing at.
‘Yup. One extraction. Discovered it after I started,’ he says proudly.
‘Did you ask the owner if you could extract it?’ Megan asks as she eases into a moment of her own personal pride.
‘No,’ replies David.
‘Well that’s a big one so it is going to cost the owner $80 and they are going to question me about the extra charges on the bill. This is what happens when you guys do stuff back here without asking them first,’ she says firmly.
‘Sorry, I’ll explain it to them,’ David says sincerely, and he turns his focus back to his four-legged patient.
Rusty is then wheeled on a table from one of the exam rooms. Dr. Jon Sulzter is about five-foot-11-incles and middle-aged with graying hair. He is known throughout the hospital by the way he playfully picks on everybody. He has taken over Rusty’s case tonight, along with Erik Wood, a 21-year-old technician and brother of the hospital manager. Both Dr. Sultzer and Erik are not only missing out on a meeting but also delivered pizza.Erik and Dr. Sulzter continue to roll Rusty into the room to receive X-rays that will cost his owners over $100.
Although veterinary medicine today is using most of the same equipment and procedures as human medicine, animal hospitals like Laguna Hills, are trying desperately to keep prices as low as possible so that average people have as much access to services as the people who are dropping thousands of dollars. One factor that keeps costs on the rise is the increase in specialists in the field. ‘General practitioners aren’t doing as much as they use to. There is a specialist for everything and often shipping the animal off to a specialist is standard protocol,’ says David.
The increase in specialists has boomed in the last five years, especially in southern California, and is better for all except for the cost-conscious pet owner. The LHAH tries to aid the cost-conscious owner as much as possible. The hospital maintains special funds, through fundraisers like their annual bake sale, to help owners receive the best care possible and pay their bills on pets that are younger and have a good quality of life.
Rusty, Dr. Sulzter and Erik emerge from the X-ray room. Erik pushes Rusty’s table by the meeting which has been in progress for about an hour.
About 10 minutes later, Erik comes back through the door and grabs an IV catheter from a cabinet that is hanging over the almost empty pizza boxes. He looks down at the boxes wistfully and then hurries back through the doors. After another large section of the meeting, in which Dr. Acton explains that yearly vaccines for kennel cough are better than boosters every six months, Erik comes back through the door, throws a yellow tag on the exam room table directly in front of me and leaves.
I find Erik diligently working to finish his first serving of pizza. The tag is still lying on the exam room table.
‘Did you find out what is wrong with Rusty?’ I ask.
‘Yeah,’ he says as he swallows. ‘He had a large and probably cancerous growth on his leg and a break.’
‘Had?’ I ask, confused.
‘We put him down,’ he answers. ‘It’s what the owners wanted. I don’t think they could afford any more test or treatments.’
I turn and look again at the yellow tag and realize now that it was from the euthanasia tag used to identify Rusty once he is sent to be cremated. I look back toward Erik, who has managed to get more pizza, and then around the room. I felt out of the loop for the first time, not because I wasn’t welcomed or didn’t work there, but because everyone else knew all too well what that yellow tag symbolized. It no longer fazed them. It was part of the business. It was part of everyday life in this place. Today was a good day: Only one tag lay on the table while sounds of barking echoed in the distance.