Pets Are Like Family. But as Health Costs Rise, Few Are Insured That Way.

Selling pet products to humans is big business. Last year, according to the American Pet Products Association, owners spent nearly $70 billion on their pets.

While much of that money is spent on pet paraphernalia, some of the biggest, and most unexpected, costs are for drugs and medical procedures as pets live longer and occupy a more central role in homes. By one estimate, owners spend $9,000 to more than $13,000 for medical treatments over their pets’ lifetimes.

“Things have changed dramatically over the past 30 to 40 years with how people are viewing pets,” said Dr. Craig A. Clifford, a medical oncologist and director of clinical studies at Hope Veterinary Specialists in Malvern, Pa. “Thirty years ago, we called it the Snoopy generation, where the dog lived outside and wasn’t a big part of the family.”

Now, Dr. Clifford said, we live in the Brian generation, a reference to the dog on “Family Guy,” who walks on his hind legs, martini in paw, and chats with his family. “People are eating dinner with them and having cocktails with them,” he said, with a laugh. “That’s a paradigm shift about how pets are perceived.”

That kind of relationship can lead to some difficult decisions. While a new collar may be a happy expense, emergency surgery to remove a sock lodged in a dog’s intestine is not. And the cost for such surgery can stretch to many thousands of dollars, blowing up a monthly budget.

Consider Lord Tigglesworth, known as Tiggy to family and friends.

He was living a fine feline existence, as a fat cat with doting parents in Wilmington, Del. A few months ago, he began vomiting and eating less. Claire Anderson and Andrew Logan, his owners (or pet parents, as some call themselves), began to worry. At first, they thought he just needed some teeth removed, so they had that done.

“He was incredibly low maintenance in terms of any health stuff,” Ms. Anderson said of her 8-year-old cat. “He had lost seven pounds, and he only weighed 18 pounds to begin with. When he lost the weight, that’s when I knew it was more.”

It turned out that Lord Tigglesworth had cancer in his gastrointestinal tract. The treatment was effective, but he still didn’t eat. And giving him a pill — not an easy feat with any cat — was stressful for him and his owners.

The couple’s veterinarian prescribed an ointment called Mirataz, whose active ingredient, mirtazapine, was originally used to treat depression in humans but has a side effect of increasing appetite. Mr. Logan said he and his wife had already spent $6,000 on Lord Tigglesworth’s care, so they didn’t flinch at paying about $30 for a two-week supply.

“It’s been pricey,” Mr. Logan said. “But if you were to annualize this over our time together, it’s been cheap.”

Unlike humans, only about 10 percent of dogs and 5 percent of cats are covered by medical insurance, according to a survey by the pet association. And since 2015, the costs of veterinary services have risen over 10 percent for medical treatments and 5 percent for regular checkups, according to the Nationwide/Purdue University Veterinary Price Index.

“It’s not what veterinarians are charging,” Dr. Carol McConnell, vice president and chief veterinary officer for Nationwide, said. “It’s more what consumers are choosing to pay.”

Mirataz is made by Kindred Biosciences, a small pet pharmaceutical company in Burlingame, Calif. The company introduced the drug, its first, in August because nine million cats in the United States have unintended weight loss but only a third of them are treated with appetite stimulants, Kindred’s chief operating officer, Denise Bevers, said. 

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