Dogs may be "man's best friend," but in a still-struggling economy with rising veterinary costs, more Americans are choosing to put their ailing pets to sleep rather than pay for expensive treatments, experts say.
At Montgomery County Animal Resource Center in Dayton, Ohio, the rate of people seeking to euthanize their pets because they can't afford treatment is rising between 10% and 12% a year, says Director Mark Kumpf. And at The Pet Fund, which raises money for people who can't afford pet care, calls requesting financial support have doubled, says Executive Director Karen Leslie.
Each year, 3 million to 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized in animal shelters, including about 2.7 million that are considered adoptable, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Though "economic euthanasia" isn't tracked nationally, Kumpf, Leslie and some other pet experts say the cost of veterinary treatment has risen higher than many pet owners can afford and is contributing to an increase.
At the Thomas Beath Veterinary Clinic in Fredericksburg, Va., two-thirds of the pets put to sleep every week are euthanized for economic reasons, clinic owners say.
"I've never seen as many people lining up to turn over pets," says Kumpf, former executive director of the National Animal Control Association. "It's heart-wrenching to see so many people come through the door."
Americans own 83.3 million dogs and 95.6 million cats, according to research out last fall from the American Pet Products Association and the Humane Society of the United States. These owners spent about $55.53 billion on these pets in 2013, about $2 billion more than in 2012.
Costs are rising because vets are paying more for rent, employees, medication and equipment. The standard of care has also increased as vets adopt advanced treatments such as MRIs and bone marrow transplants, says Dog Fancy magazine editor Ernie Slone. Sophisticated medical care for an ailing cat or dog can easily run into thousands of dollars.
In December, a dog with salmonella had to be euthanized at Thomas Beath because his owners waited 10 days to bring him in out of fear of the costs of treating him, says Beath co-owner Jeanette Allard. But by then, their only choice was to pay $1,000 daily at a specialty hospital, which they couldn't afford, she says.
"It kills me because it's an emergency, so we can't help them," says Allard, whose facility is a low-cost clinic. "Pets to many people are like family members. … If you feel that way about your pet, you're going to be devastated."
Turning pets over to animal shelters isn't necessarily a better solution. Many shelters are under financial constraints themselves and, especially in rural areas with low rates of spaying and neutering, often have high kill rates. Local rescue groups, such as Lost Dog and Cat Rescue and 4Paws cat rescue in the Washington, D.C., area, move as many pets as they can from shelters into foster homes before they are put to sleep. But they, too, rely on donations to pay for medical care.
There are options for owners struggling to pay for vet care:
• Crowd-sourcing. Owners have used crowd-sourcing sites such as Gofundme to raise money for pet medical care. One person found a stray dog that was hit by a car and raised $6,000 to treat the dog's fractures on Gofundme. The dog, once named Crash, has a happy ending and a new name. Winston has starred in commercials for the Ohio shelter.
• Non-profits. Groups including The Pet Fund and Best Friends Animal Society and some shelters including Kumpf's will also help owners find ways to get help with bills. The Pet Fund, based in Sacramento, has volunteers around the country, and pet owners in every state are eligible for assistance.
• Insurance. Pet insurance can help with treatment costs, but it can often be more expensive than the treatment. Trey Simpson, 26, says without the Trupanion pet insurance he bought for his basset hound, Hashbrown, he likely still wouldn't have the pet today. But a 2011 Consumer Reports analysis of four policies concluded insurance was "rarely worth the price." Setting money aside periodically for vet bills and getting annual checkups at a low-cost clinic may be better options.
Rescue groups take in all the pets they can, as they know how traumatic it is for people to have to give up their four-legged companions. Barbara Hutcherson, director of programs at Lost Dog and Cat Rescue in Arlington, Va., says pet owners sometimes just can't "provide what that animal needs due to changes in their family finances or job changes that have caused them to have a tighter budget."
"The saddest thing that I see in my e-mail inbox is probably when someone needs to give up an older pet that they have had for many years because the care has become so expensive," she says.
Contributing: Jayne O'Donnell and Ana Christina Spies