I'm In Five-Figure Debt Because Of My Dog

When my dog was diagnosed with life-threatening cancer, I went into five-figure debt to pay for treatment. And I don’t regret it.

My Citibank credit card balance is just a few cents shy of hitting $17,000. The majority of the balance, $11,000’s worth to be exact, is expenses from X-rays, CT scans, echocardiograms, and chemotherapy drips. But none of it’s for me — it’s all for my dog.

I first noticed the strawberry-red growth in Pearl’s mouth over Labor Day weekend. She performed a particularly big yawn and there it was: a menacing red mass that hadn’t been there a few weeks ago at her last checkup, but clearly meant business. I spiraled into a fit of tears on my kitchen floor, picturing the next few months of her life, fighting the growth with tubes, needles, and the dreaded cone of shame. She was blissfully unaware that life was about to suck, which made me feel both at ease and profoundly sad.

My visions weren’t far off, but I’d have to wait for an official diagnosis to know that. Because it was a holiday weekend, the vet was closed until Tuesday. It was also my boyfriend’s birthday, and the celebration was overshadowed by the impending bad news. I spent those three days alternating between trying not to think about it and obsessively googling all the things you’re not supposed to google when you suspect your 10-year-old pet has cancer. He assured me it could be nothing, but I knew the second I saw the mass: My dog was dying.

First thing Tuesday morning, the vet confirmed my fear that something was definitely wrong. That appointment was the official marker of “before” and “after.” I had a choice to make: Follow the road of next steps and seek treatment, or opt for palliative care?

Pearl came scampering into my life at full speed in 2010. A rescue organization pulled her from a kill shelter in Coppell, Texas, where someone surrendered her for being “too much” — their words, not mine. As someone who also identifies as being “too much” for most people, she was my perfect match. Where others saw too much energy, I saw a zest for life; where they saw too much neediness, I saw loyalty and empathy. We developed a friendship so strong, it bordered on codependent. What can I say? She was there for me in ways humans weren’t.

I was going through a major depressive episode when I adopted Pearl. My mother was two and a half years into her grueling three-and-a-half-year battle with lung cancer, and I was at my emotional breaking point, balancing the pressures of adjusting to post-grad adult life with the knowledge that she would die sooner rather than later. A lot of people gently warned me that adopting a dog was, given the circumstances, perhaps not the smartest decision. I ignored them. I was losing someone I loved and craved the companionship of someone who would still be there when I came through on the other side. That’s exactly what I found, plus a lot more.

Pearl is one of the last remaining beings in my adult life that knew my mother. More importantly, she knew me when I had a mother at all. She’s seen me at my lowest and, even on the most difficult days, given me a reason to get out of bed. I fully embrace the cliché that even though I saved her, she’s the one who saved me. I’ve often wondered if that was selfish of me — getting a dog to make myself feel better. All I know is I’ve spent every day trying to give her the best life possible as a thank-you for being my best friend. Which is why I would do anything to give her another chance at life, no matter the cost.

Until the tumor, and save for a nasty ear infection she had when I adopted her, Pearl was the picture of health for over 10 years. I knew her better than anybody, and given her limitless energy, never-ending positive attitude, and desire to personally meet and greet every human she encounters, I believed she wanted to fight. Her mind and body were strong, so I decided to seek treatment. I knew I’d do whatever I could to keep her alive. Even though it’s a normal part of being a pet owner, the guilt of making such a huge decision for her ate away at my conscience. It also ate away at my bank account, which in turn ate away at my conscience. It was a vicious and draining cycle.

I knew treatment would be aggressive, emotionally trying, and expensive, but nothing prepared me for just how bad it would be. We began with dental radiographs (three of them, each costing $140), which led to a biopsy (IDEXX Biopsy with Microscopic Description, $336.38), a gingival mass removal ($25), four incisor extractions ($80 each), and a CT scan (with contrast and anesthesia, two sites, $1,125). Not to mention the extra charges for things like examinations ($65 each), consultations ($180 each), IVs (catheter and fluids, $75 each round), anesthesia (inhalation, $200; injectable, $52.14), and medication (clindamycin capsules 75 mg, $35.16 for 28; carprofen caplets, $15 for 5). These are only some of the numbers that keep me up at night.

A few pathology reports later, Pearl finally received a formal diagnosis: a maxillary fibrosarcoma, aka a locally invasive, aggressive tumor that was destroying the bones in her jaw. By this point, I’d spent thousands and the dumb thing was still in her mouth. But we’d come this far, so what good would stopping do? I was swimming in a sea of unexpected and unspellable but desperately necessary line items.

The worst of it was the right caudal maxillectomy, a difficult surgery whose line items totaled $5,326.58 and couldn’t all fit on one page. Pearl had to stay in intensive care at the animal hospital for three days and two nights, but the unsightly red mass was finally removed. Along with it came the last shred of my sanity and a chunk of her jaw, causing part of her face to permanently droop. (It sounds a lot worse than it looks.)

All I know is I’ve spent every day trying to give her the best life possible as a thank-you for being my best friend. 

One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was in serious dog debt. It happened quickly. One line item became five then 10 then 50, and soon, I was in over my head. Pearl has pet insurance, which works just like human medical insurance: Pearl has a policy number, a monthly premium, and an annual deductible, and I submit her claims through an app much like I do my own. Once she meets her deductible, I’m reimbursed for the cost of covered procedures at a certain rate. Deductibles and reimbursement rates are calculated when you first enroll your pet and are based on factors like age, health history, and pre-existing conditions. If you enroll your pet when they’re young and healthy, their premium and deductible will be low, and their reimbursement rate will be high. If you enroll your pet later in life, like I did, the rates are still decent, but not quite as good. What matters most is signing them up before tragedy strikes.

Not all pet insurance programs are created equal. Some cover vaccinations but not spay/neuter procedures. Others cover annual checkups but put caps on annual or lifetime payouts. It’s impossible to know what might happen to your pet, but I do recommend having pet insurance — and getting it early. As your pet ages or if the worst happens, at the very least, you’ll break even on all the monthly premiums you’ve paid through the years. When vet bills start to snowball, reimbursement checks are a bright spot in a mailbox stuffed with debt consolidation offers. Those checks certainly helped, but they didn’t magically make all of my financial problems disappear.

I didn’t have extra thousands of dollars in my checking account for emergency dog methadone injections and fentanyl patches. I didn’t have the money for cytology and OR fees. But I did have the credit. So, I kept swiping my credit card and racking up debt, because I’d have rather lived with a temporarily lower credit score than without my best friend. I hemorrhaged money that I certainly didn’t have to spend, but the thought of not spending it never crossed my mind. Once you’re on the path of investigating your dog’s health, it’s hard not to keep going.

What was I supposed to do? Asking my parents for money has never been an option afforded to me, especially once they went from two to one. The thought of crowdsourcing funds to pay vet bills through GoFundMe makes my skin crawl. If I was going to get her treated, there’d be no point in half-assing it. I couldn’t NOT do it, so I kept handing over my credit card. It wasn’t the smartest decision, and I’m owning up to that. But I truly felt like I had no other option, and I still stand by it. I’d rather live beyond my means than lose my dog.

I took the whole thing extremely hard. Much harder than Pearl did, who, despite every IV and injection, still loved going back to the vet and the animal hospital, because that’s where she got to meet and get petted by humans. I convinced myself her condition was my fault and beat myself up pretty hard. Why didn’t I brush her teeth more often? Why didn’t I check her mouth every morning and night for signs of something bad? How could I have let this happen? I didn’t sleep for weeks. All I could do was hold her in the middle of the night to make sure she was still breathing and make sure she knew she was loved. During those sleepless nights, I thought about the money.

When I turned to friends for moral support, I didn’t find it right away. Many weighed in (quite comfortably, I’ll add) about my decision to keep pursuing treatment. They’d ask, “Are you sure you want to do this?” and “Have you thought about the costs?” and “Can you even afford that?” I know they had good intentions, but I still wish they’d kept their opinions to themselves. It’s easy to give advice when it’s not your dog; it’s harder to be supportive without sharing your reservations and judgment.

I don’t feel guilty charging thousands of dollars to my credit card. And that’s what makes me feel guilty. The fact that I’m swiping without a second thought to my finances or my credit score — is there something wrong with me? I’m aware that using my credit card to keep my dog alive is an odd form of privilege. Not everyone has excellent credit to ruin, and not everyone sees dog oral surgery as a necessity. But since I could, I did it.

I started to think I was the only person who shared my point of view. So instead of turning to friends for moral support, I turned to strangers on the internet. A simple Twitter search for “vet bills” returned countless dog, cat, guinea pig, hamster, and reptile owners in the same boat as me: in serious but unapologetic pet debt.

Tom Neel, a student, is in debt caring for his therapy cat. “I know that’s a little weird to think that I’d rather starve than to let my cat be unhealthy, but he’s my best friend,” Neel told me. “I love him a million. I don’t want to leave him untreated because that causes pain, but if I can’t get enough to pay for his bill in two weeks, I don’t know what I’m gonna be able to do.”

I don’t feel guilty charging thousands of dollars to my credit card. And that’s what makes me feel guilty.

Rachel, an editor (she asked me not to share her last name), recalled the tough decisions her parents made a few years ago when their family cat Gus needed emergency surgery that cost around $10,000. “We were all at a loss in the vet’s office because that is so much money, and because how could we let Gus die? That wasn’t even an option. But $10,000?! That is something my family had never spent on an animal’s health in one sitting; it was shocking. But after a few minutes, my dad decided to open a new credit card that he could use to pay for the surgery the next day. I’m pretty certain that he only ever used that credit card on Gus’s surgery,” Rachel told me. “Now that I’m the sole caretaker of a cat myself, I’m imagining if I was in the same situation with Chester, I would immediately use my credit card or open a new one. What else are you supposed to do?”

Diana Pinguicha, a freelance writer and artist, found herself in over her head when her cat Jubas was diagnosed with bladder stones. Treatment required exams, emergency tests, X-rays, surgery, and an overnight vet stay. “I ate pasta and canned tuna for weeks and would do it again, because the option was not to do it and let Jubas die,” Pinguicha told me.

While many pet owners start GoFundMe campaigns to help pay high vet bills, others sell goods or services to raise funds. In my search, I found a number of Twitter users selling everything from the clothing in their closets to handmade jewelry to custom playlists. Pinguicha is offering art commissions of her sketches at discounted rates in hopes of attracting new business for example. Everyone I spoke to echoed the same sentiment: It might sound ridiculous, but they would do anything for their pet.

Talking to pet owners going through the same thing made me realize just how embarrassed I’ve felt about my extreme pet debt. But it’s clear I’m not the only person who would choose financial insecurity over their furry friend. I’ve been sad about Pearl dying from the day I met her, and I always knew this day would come. That she would eventually get old or sick or both, and I’d have difficult decisions to make. But it turns out the decisions were incredibly easy for me. I think for a lot of people, the thought of spending thousands of dollars to keep a senior dog alive is the worst-case scenario. But through it all, I keep thinking, It could have been so much worse.

To some people, owning a pet seems like a selfish act. We bring them home for our own comfort, rely on them on our darkest days, and make important decisions on their behalf without giving them much say, if any at all. As the critic John Berger pointed out in his 1980 essay “Why Look at Animals?,” keeping domestic animals as pets is a “modern” concept. Berger examined the “marginalization” of animals over time, arguing that keeping one as a pet means leaving it “either sterilised or sexually isolated, extremely limited in its exercise, deprived of almost all other animal contact, and fed with artificial foods.”

While I think his take is a bit extreme, I understand his point. Reflecting on my relationship with Pearl, I’m aware of how narcissistic I sound: I got a dog to make myself feel better, and then I made financially irresponsible choices so she could continue to make me feel better. That may be true, but more than anything, I just want my beautiful, intelligent, curious, and cheerful friend to live. She gave me another chance at life all those years ago, and I want to do the same for her.

When the vet tech brought Pearl out to me in the waiting room after her maxillectomy, after we’d spent three days and two nights apart and I could finally rub her paws and scratch her ears again, I spiraled into a fit of tears, not because I was sad, but because I knew I made the right choice for us.

After an agonizing seven days, I got the call: The procedure was successful, and every last bit of the tumor was removed.

The story still isn’t over, and the charges have slowed, but are still coming. Pearl is currently getting chemotherapy (Adriamycin, $173.25) with a healthy side of line items (IV catheter $100.43; chemotherapy administration, $48.50) every three weeks to decrease the chance of, or at least delay, metastasis. She’s still happy, healthy, and taking it like a champ with very few side effects. She loves going to her appointments. Only now, the smile she flashes is slightly crooked.

I’m slowly chipping away at my dog debt, but it’ll be awhile until my credit card balance is less than five figures again. I’m optimistic that Pearl will outlive her dog debt. But if she doesn’t, I’d still swipe all of my credit away again in a heartbeat, costly line items and all. ●

Elizabeth Ann Entenman is a freelance writer living in New York. When she's not reading or writing, she’s reorganizing her bookshelves yet again and taking pictures of her dogs (and ones she meets on the subway).

This story is part of a series about debts of all kinds.

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