The Day I Spent $5000 On My Dog

Something bad happened to my best mate Buffett on a regular walk along our local creek. A trip to the emergency hospital and a couple of thousand dollars later, Buffett was safe, and I’d taken a second look at pet insurance.

On Saturday I took my best mate, Buffett, for a walk along our local creek.

Buffett isn’t the smartest Labrador in the world. Then again he doesn’t have to be – he’s a true penthouse pet who lives with me in the Melbourne CBD and works part time as the security guard at our office, sniffing down visitors for concealed weapons (and meat treats).

As per usual, he was running about 100 metres in front of me, darting in and out of the bushes. Just as I was about to whistle for him, my breath left me – about 50 metres ahead (halfway between me and Buffett) was a 1.5-metre tiger snake. Buffett took one look at me, raced to the snake, bit it, then chased it into the bushes.

I’m a country boy. I know how this ends.

Five and a half minutes later, Buffett was at my local vet. They poked and prodded him for a while before they announced he needed to go to the animal emergency hospital.

When I arrived I was ushered into a small waiting room – a sterile box consisting of two seats, a table and a desktop computer. A young woman with a stethoscope around her neck and Hollywood nails came in, double-clicked on a PowerPoint presentation, and left without speaking.

“So your dog has been bitten by a snake,” started the presentation.

“Jesus, they’ve done this before”, I muttered to myself. The next 20 or so slides explained why snakebites were bad (uh-huh), offered tips to avoid your pet being bitten (good advice … but a bit late), and detailed the extensive lifesaving procedures that were needed (kerrching!).

Clearly I was being softened up. So I hit escape on the PowerPoint preso and googled “cost of anti-venom”. And then, right on cue, the vet walked in.

The only technical tool she brandished was a Casio calculator. She began punching in numbers. “This is very serious. If your dog is to survive he will need two vials of anti-venom, and ongoing hospitalisation. We estimate the cost at between $3,000 and $5,000.”

I didn’t flinch. “He’s my best mate. Money isn’t a problem, just make him better.” Nice words, but in order to start the procedure the vet needed something more than a heartfelt declaration. She needed cold, hard cash.

Over the next few days of sitting in the emergency department I saw this same situation over and over: a family darts from their station wagon, races into the hospital, and is ushered into the little room. In walks the calculator-carrying vet. Out walks a little girl, crying. What would you do?

“Just recently spent $17,000 to try and save our sausage dog. It was all the money we saved for an investment property. He died during the operation…. but I have no regrets. He was like a son to us.” – Shane (Melbourne)

The Price of Pets

Well, when I spoke to people this week about it, their responses were split down the middle. Half said “but you can buy another dog for $500!” (or words to that effect). They viewed their pets as replaceable. And if it’s a choice between putting food on the table for your kids or saving the family cat, that’s completely understandable.

The other half was adamant their pets were irreplaceable, and would pay whatever it cost. My old editor, a hardheaded bloke, told me this week that over the years of his dog’s life he’d spent about $50,000 – “and I don’t regret one cent of it, I still miss him, even today”.

There’s got to be a middle ground. After all, Australians have 38 million pets and, according to researchers IBISWorld, we spent around $7.9 billion on them in 2010.

This weekend has given me countless real-world examples of why you don’t want the first time you think about Fido or Fifi getting ill to coincide with standing in front of a calculator-wielding vet.

No-one plans for their pet to get sick – in much the same way that we don’t expect to be in a car accident. Yet we all have car insurance, so what about for pets? Turns out you have two options.

The first is to self-insure, whereby you set up a high-interest online savings account and deposit $300 or so a year. If Fifi or Fido manages to stay away from snakes and cars throughout their life, you may end up in front.

There are some problems with self-insuring: you have to have the discipline to do it, and even if you do, the medical solutions for pets are now nearly as advanced as they are for humans – and they cost about the same. If your pet gets ill or is injured, the costs could add up to well beyond what you’ve saved.

The second option is pet insurance, which until I was caught down the creek I was happy to say was a load of rubbish (as do most pet owners: according to consumer group Choice, only 2 per cent of people insure their pets).

Yet after a bit of digging I soon discovered that, so long as you buy the right policy, pet insurance is a smart investment. The yearly cost to cover your pet for treatment of illness or injury ranges from $250 to $350.

Find out the best pet insurance deals on the market here.

The three golden rules when buying any insurance

First, read the policy properly – as we’ve found out recently, some insurance contracts may as well be written in Greek, so it pays to work out exactly what is included and excluded in your cover. Some insurers won’t pay out for pre-existing conditions, older pets, or even certain breeds.

Second, choose the highest excess you can confidently afford to pay in the event of a claim (like $500); this will lower your yearly premium.

Finally, only insure for events that can financially devastate you. Insurers are only too happy to sell you a high-priced all-inclusive type of cover that allows you to claim vet visits and a host of other extras – but you’ll pay through the paws for it. A lower-cost option is to get fully covered in the event of accident and illness, and pay for any other vet treatment like immunisations out of your own pocket.

• Get the facts on the best Aussie pet insurance policies here.

I’m happy to report that Buffett is back snoozing on my couch (helped along by a daily diet of 16 valiums). He’s missing hair, has a bucket on his head, and generally wanders around the house in a shell-shocked state, but at least he looks like he’s had $5,000 worth of work done.

He is of course totally oblivious to both the cost and my annoyance at having to apply lotion to his backside every hour. I don’t care. Having my best mate sitting on the couch with me is worth more than money. A card at the animal emergency centre said it best: he’s the heartbeat at my feet.

Tread Your Own Path!

Now read: My plan on how to manage your money in 10 minutes.