Every pet parent will eventually experience the shock of an unexpected veterinarian bill.
The situation can make you feel helpless. My personal experience: I found a sore hdiden in the tuffs of fur on my dog's neck. My stomach dropped. It was the first time I'd ever come across a wound on my little guy, and I was willing to do whatever necessary to help him. I immediately took him to see his veterinarian. The price didn't even cross my mind.
When the vet looked at his sore, he easily diagnosed the wound as a 'hot spot' -- or an area that's been repeatedly irritated by a dog's scratching. The remedy was pretty simple: shave the fur, clean the spot and provide us with oral antibiotics to help the healing process.
The solution worked like magic, but it came at the cost of about $200 -- and did I mention my rent was due the next day?
The medical care price was a manageable burden. I consider myself lucky the problem wasn't more serious.
"Every pet bill we get we’re like, 'Oh wow!' Because you don’t think about those things, most people don’t," Assemblymember Devon Mathis said. "You don’t think about how much it’s going to cost if your cat gets sick, or your dog gets sick. You just don’t think about these things. And a lot of people see their pets as their kids."
Assemblymember Mathis, his wife Aubrey and their five children have two dogs, two cats and more horses than he can keep track of at their home in Visalia. Mathis is pushing legislation that attempts to relieve the cost of some veterinary care for Californians through a tax credit.
"With the bill, the idea is this cost is intensive and families have to make these hard decisions," Mathis said. "You always hear stories about how animals help pull somebody through who’s in the hospital and it’s like, well, what if that pet was in the hospital?"
Front Street Animal Shelter's Gina Knepp said the unaffordable cost of veterinary care is one of the biggest reasons pets are abandoned at shelters, like Front Street.
Knepp recalled a recent situation, when an owner brought their wounded dog to Front Street after getting an expensive surgery estimate -- "on the back of the estimate was instructions to take the animal to a shelter and then re-adopt after" the shelter had taken care of the procedure, Knepp said.
Downtown Dog Rescue down in South Los Angeles shared another story of a dog being brought to a shelter for the same reason: the family could not afford the cost of care after their pet walked in glass and cut his paw.
It's easy to jump to conclusions and vilify the people who drop their pets off at shelters, but for many people it's a situation they are forced into because of their economic status.
According to a 2015 study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), pet owners with an income lower than $50,000 were "significantly more likely than their wealthier counterparts to re-home animals due to cost and housing issues." The survey found low-cost or free veterinary care would have helped these people the most.
Mathis' proposal would create a credit amounting to half of what a taxpayer incurs in certain veterinary costs for their dog or cat each year, not exceeding $2,000. Those costs can include, but are not limited to, vaccinations, annual check-ups, surgeries and drug prescriptions.
Mathis said he's willing to work with fellow lawmakers in possibly included more animals, besides dogs and cats, in his definition of pets.
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed all tax break bills that landed on his desk -- including two high-profile pieces of legislation by Democrats looking to lower the costs of diapers and tampons -- but on the topic of caring for a sick pet could hit Brown closer to home. At the end of last year, Gov. Brown's 13-year-old Pembroke Welsh corgi Sutter passed away from an aggressive form of cancer. "I have plans to talk to the governor about this bill, personally," Mathis said, "because I know he recently went through a loss too."
But would a tax credit effectively ease the burden of veterinary cost for low income families?
According to state officials, many Californians eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit that went into effect last year did not apply. Brown said in a statement nearly $2 billion of combined state and federal tax credits was left on the table, unclaimed.
Officials said the credit was created to be "a tool to help lift working families and their children out of poverty," but if a third of those households didn't claim the EITC -- is it likely they would apply for Mathis' veterinary cost tax credit?
"It’s really not going to help the people who need it the most," Front Street's Knepp said. "Once again, it’s a tax break for people who can afford that level of veterinary care."
Mathis says the concern of people not applying for the credit is a problem with any credit. "That’s just the tax problem in general," he said."It’s really hard because, with any system out there, there’s always that gap of trying to get the information to people. That hurdles always going to be there regardless of what you do."
OPTIONS TO MAKE PET CARE MORE AFFORDABLE
Though Assemblymemeber Mathis' legislation is just at the start of making its legislative process, pet owners have other ways to try reducing their veterinary bills.
Dr. Blythe Jurewicz with UC Davis' Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital said pet insurance is a great option and can help owners who find themselves in an emergency.
"As a general practitioner, we see a lot of emergencies where dogs... have eaten rocks, have eaten foreign things that they shouldn’t when they get into the garbage, or animals that escape and get hit by cars," Dr. Jurewicz said.
Just like medical insurance for people, Jurewicz said there isn't a one-size fits all approach to pet insurance. Here are 20 questions the veterinary school suggests new pet owners ask themselves when looking for a pet insurance provider:
And in some cases Shelter Intervention Programs or Pet Retention Programs, like Downtown Dog Rescue in South Los Angeles, might be able to help. These programs partner with local shelters to reduce their intake of animals by counseling owners and offering solutions that could be better than giving up their pet.
In the case of the family who almost gave up their dog who injured his paw, Downtown Dog Rescue provided them with a voucher for some of the veterinary care cost. Contact your local shelter to learn more about pet retention support in your area.