Find out if your pet's breeder, vet or trainer is biting the hand that feeds it.
1. "I'm a breeder all right . . . of health problems for pets."
All Ellen Szalinski wanted was a German shepherd puppy. What she got, after buying Bravo for $650 from a breeder, was a 4-pound, nine-week-old dog loaded with parasites and health problems. "As a consumer, I was an idiot," says the publications manager at Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital. The breeder had promised that the puppy would bulk up in a few weeks, but two years and about $5,000 later, Bravo had endured knee operations and been treated for cartilage abnormalities and ruptured ligaments. "For what I spent, I could have made a down payment on a condo," Szalinski says, adding that Bravo is now healthy.
Poor nutrition and care during the first few weeks of life, while a puppy is still at the breeder's, can cause sickness for months or even years. You can increase your odds of getting a healthy purebred by choosing breeders who use the services of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, an organization that tests everything from thyroids to kidneys to hips; you can learn about specific breeds' health issues on OFA's Web site, www.offa.org. Ask breeders for a trial period in which to assess the pup's health and temperament. If you're not satisfied, you can return the dog for a full refund. A breeder who says no likely doesn't stand behind his animals.
2. "Your cat's fine, but your wallet needs a transfusion."
It's midnight, your Siamese suddenly falls violently ill, and your regular vet's office closed hours ago. Going to an emergency animal hospital may not be your best move, says Jeff Werber, who owns the Century Veterinary Group in Los Angeles. Bad-apple clinics can play on owners' anxieties, charging hundreds of dollars for nonemergency X-rays, blood tests and overnight stays.
Before you find yourself in such a situation, establish an emergency plan. If possible, choose a vet affiliated with a veterinary hospital accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association, which will have passed voluntary on-site reviews in 19 categories, from surgery to continuing staff education. You can find one near you at www.healthypet.com. Meanwhile, keep in mind that "80 percent of animal 'emergencies' that happen after hours are not life-threatening," Werber says. Before hightailing it to any 24-hour emergency clinic -- remember, even good ones charge extra for off-hours visits -- he suggests paging your vet. Often a phone consultation is sufficient for your pet's regular caregiver to assess the "crisis" and advise whether Smokey needs to go to the kitty ER.
3. "Ready for your annual cash-draining?"
Annual checkups should include a head-to-toe exam of a pet, along with vaccines, if necessary, and lab work for older pets. These exams can cost upwards of $150, and many vets tack on additional fees for such things as superfluous tests on a pet's blood and urine. Also, veterinarians and researchers debate the necessity of giving vaccines such as parvo and distemper annually.
How can you avoid overcharges? When it's time for an annual visit, ask the clinic to fax or e-mail an estimate and be prepared to discuss whether your pet needs the vaccines suggested, especially if it stays indoors. Ask about reduced rates on exams for additional pets; some vets offer discounts. Or go elsewhere: Organizations such as your local animal shelter, humane society or pet supplies store often provide services for a fraction of what a private-practice vet will charge.
Other services might be worth doing yourself -- in particular, teeth cleaning. Toothbrushes designed in recent years that slip over a finger, such as Four Paws Petdental Finger Toothbrushes ($5 at www.petco.com), are much easier to run over a pet's teeth than traditional pet toothbrushes.
4. "We can 'insure' that you'll lose money."
With the boom in pet care services and veterinary specialists, as well as advances in veterinary techniques in recent years, animals are undergoing more extensive and costly procedures to fix what ails them. That's driving more owners to invest in pet insurance. A 2002 study of pet owners using AAHA hospitals found that one in 20 now carries pet health insurance, five times 1997's figure.
Unfortunately, pet insurance woes can be similar to human insurance woes. Premiums can run as high as $6,000 over a pet's lifetime, according to Consumer Reports, and preexisting conditions such as epilepsy or untreated hip dysplasia can disqualify your pet. If Sparky does qualify for a basic plan, reimbursements can be paltry, like a mere $10 per checkup.
If you shop well, however, insurance can sometimes be worthwhile. Emergency or surgery insurance plans cover large expenses for minimal premiums -- often less than $10 a month, which isn't bad when you consider that procedures for accidents or cancer treatment can easily run north of $3,000. Premier Pet Insurance (www.ppins.com) and Petshealth Care Plan (www.petshealthplan.com) offer low-cost programs that cover up to $8,000 a year in emergency care. Pet Assure (www.petassure.com) costs $99 a year per dog and $59 per cat and offers 25 percent off the cost of major surgeries and other pet services at thousands of vet offices nationwide. Even without insurance, though, you may have recourse for big-ticket expenses. Many vets, if you ask, will negotiate weekly or monthly payment plans.
5. "Go ahead and sue me. You'll get chicken feed."
Did your vet make a big mistake with your pet's care? You're not alone. More owners are suing their vets for Spike's negligent care than ever before. "Where I used to see one or two cases a month, now I'm seeing half a dozen or more a week," says veterinary insurance consultant William A. Grant II.
Some states, such as Oregon and Colorado, have recently introduced legislation allowing owners to sue for emotional loss and other issues, potentially pushing claims into the six-figure range. Since pets are deemed property under almost all state laws, however, owners can generally be compensated only for the market value of a pet, which means zippo for your beloved ex-stray. Hiring a lawyer for a regular suit will likely cost more than your pet's care, and heading straight to small claims court is no sure bet, since it's just your word against a professional's, says Grant. Your best bet if you have a serious complaint against your vet -- such as misdiagnosing cancer for Lyme disease -- is to file a claim with your state's consumer affairs office and ask for a judgment on the vet's behavior, then take that judgment to small claims court. If nothing else, you might at least get reimbursed the cost of care.
6. "We'll give your pooch more than just kennel cough."
When Beverly Dame brought home her cocker spaniel, Wesley, after 12 days at a kennel near her home in Vermont, he had a gaping wound on his rear leg and was unable to climb stairs. Treatments cost her $231 on top of the $169 kennel fee. While the kennel owner denies any wrongdoing, he admits that grooming, not boarding, is the kennel's main business.
Kennels don't have to pass accreditation standards, nor are they rigorously monitored in most states. Inspections are left to local officials and can be spotty. How can you know if your pet will be housed in cramped, unhealthy conditions or four-star luxury? Ideally, you should pick one of the few kennels that not only are members of the American Boarding Kennels Association but also have been accredited by the group. Such kennels must comply with 200 strict standards, including providing an area where dogs can be exercised at least three times per day. You can find such kennels at www.abka.com.
If there are no accredited kennels in your vicinity, tour the facility before booking your pet there. Ask what health concerns pet supervisors are trained to detect -- runny noses or urinary problems, for example. Also ask about warranties: Many kennels now offer warranty contracts that, for $2 to $5 per boarding, will reimburse owners for vet costs up to a certain amount -- commonly $500 -- for injuries a pet sustains while in a kennel's care.
7. "I'll train your dog, even if I haven't been trained myself."
Because all owners want a well-behaved pet -- and some fear their dog may attack someone -- many people fork over as much as $300 an hour for obedience lessons only to wind up with a dog that does little more than sit and stay.
Part of the problem is that anyone can call himself a trainer. "You'll find trainers in pet stores, but sometimes you'll discover they were a cashier last week and then they read a book on training," says Babette Haggerty-Brennan, head trainer for Babette Haggerty's School for Dogs in Palm Beach, Fla. Look for one who has graduated from a program such as the one conducted by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers; you can find such trainers at www.apdt.com. Also, ask how many years of experience a trainer has -- training the family dog as a teenager doesn't count -- and how many dogs he's trained. Then ask for client references.
Group classes through local pet stores and community centers can cost substantially less, and good programs let you observe a class for free before signing up. Check to see how many dogs are being trained -- ideally, no more than five per trainer -- and how sophisticated the commands are. Basic obedience commands, such as "sit," "stay" and "down," are fine for puppies, but older dogs should learn commands for leaving the kitchen, for example, or "drop it" to let go of items picked up on the street.
8. "Before we examine your pet's head -- how about you first?"
Two years ago Melinda and Mark Ligos paid $1,200 to have a sock removed from their dachshund's intestines. Fed up with Ruckus's penchant for eating such household items, they hired a "pet psychologist" to stop the destructive behavior. For the New Jersey couple, the experience was a big flop. "We paid this psychologist $50 an hour basically to teach our dog to sit and stay," Melinda says. "When it became obvious that she couldn't prevent Ruckus from eating things around the house, she suggested we feed him carrot shavings 'because he obviously needed fiber.' We were so embarrassed that after 30 minutes we gave her $50 and told her she could leave."
For pets who are exceedingly aggressive or suffer from severe separation anxiety, animal "shrinks" have been known to help -- provided they're legit. True animal behaviorists, both individuals and veterinarians, are certified through either the Animal Behavior Society (www.animalbehavior.org) or the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (www.veterinarybehaviorists.org). Most have advanced degrees or have completed course work in animal behavior studies.
You might want to try a less sophisticated alternative first. Putting a pet in day care two or three times a week for $30 a day, for example, might give a dog the physical and mental outlet it's looking for and alleviate separation anxiety. Choose a center much as you would a kennel. Vets and certified trainers can give referrals, but you should pay a visit to the center beforehand to see that it's clean, that animals are under control as they play -- no more than 15 at a time -- and to verify that the center has a policy against aggressive dogs.
9. "Gourmet food, chow, same dif."
That gourmet dog food that promises to make Sparky's coat glow? You'll find roughly the same ingredients in your grocery's bargain-basement brand. Almost all pet food comes from the same source: animal by-products people don't eat.
While most vets agree that prescription foods for animals with special needs are in a class by themselves, they admit that choosing food for a healthy pet is mainly a financial decision. "The most expensive doesn't mean the best," agrees Los Angeles vet Werber. Be especially wary of diet foods, which are generally packed with added fiber to make pets feel full. Cutting back on regular food can achieve the same weight loss, says Werber, as long as owners supplement with vitamins. For example, Pet-Tabs, a multivitamin, runs about $8.50 for a 60-count bottle.
Across the board, look for pet foods tested and given approval by members of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, an industry watch group that sets standards for animal-feed manufacturing.
10. "As your pet walker, I may walk all over you."
Former New York City attorney Charlotte Reed came home from work early one day to find her dog walker ignoring her two dogs, Katie and Kidder, and instead blaring music as he danced in front of a mirror in Reed's new, $700 dress from Saks Fifth Avenue. "I walked in, and he stopped midway through a twirl," Reed recalls. The incident infuriated Reed so much that she left her law career shortly thereafter to form Two Dogs & a Goat, a pet walking and sitting company in New York.
Pet owners with demanding jobs increasingly rely on pet walkers and sitters, but with an estimated 10,000 sitters working nationwide, selecting a good one can be daunting. For starters, look for one certified by the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters or Pet Sitters International, which offer training in animal first aid, pet behavior, diet and exercise routines; search their listings at www.petsitters.org and www.petsit.com. Second, check a sitter's references and ask about backup care should he or she become ill. Finally, don't put your pets -- and your home -- in the care of a walker without proof of insurance. The minimum plan should cover $1 million and include both your animal and your home.