Inside the Brown Bag

By Peg Brown

Our family members have always been serious pet lovers…not the hamster, reptile, small dog kind of family—more devotees of big dogs, wayward cats and an occasional horse. Family photos confirm that both of my parents were brought up with family pets, and I can attest that for most of my life, dog and cat hair on dark clothing was always an accessory to any outfit we wore. (Long before those oversized tape rollers were available we wrapped our hands with masking tape in what was always a losing battle to appear well-groomed.)

Most of our pets were second hand and free—adopted at random and on the spur of the moment from friends and neighbors who hadn’t yet invested in birth control for their pet. The only time I ever remember paying for a dog was when I thought I was doing my parents a favor by purchasing a collie to replace our beloved Thai, a mixed breed English setter. I never asked if they wanted another dog. My boyfriend and I at the time just appeared with Duffy on my lap in a little blue convertible Triumph with their surprise anniversary present. What was I thinking? Although Duffy was a good dog who eventually weighed well over 90 pounds, shed enough hair over his lifetime to fill hundreds of plastic bags, and drooled his way through each day—he nevertheless required a great deal of attention. I simply dropped him off, went back to college and eventually moved to Rhode Island, leaving my parents with a new 12-year commitment.

As much as we loved our pets, we could never have envisioned how the costs of caring for them would approach the costs related to pet care today. I am sure that we took our dogs and cats for their rabies shots, but I know we never treated them for heartworm or applied flea-prevention medicine that now costs about $100 for six applications. I am also sure that we took our pets to the veterinarian at other times, but it was usually a medical crisis, such as an unfortunate encounter with a car.

I think one of more interesting lines I read while preparing this article was a quotation from a veterinarian in California, “In the past, children were a reflection of us, and people are now extending that to their pets.” Pet services today cover the basics—food and vet visits—but now also include training, grooming, dental cleanings, dog walkers, behavioral therapists, holistic medical treatments, organic food, outfits complete with matching hair ribbons and booties, medical insurance, custom beds and—oh yes—doggie daycare. In fact, one estimate by Forbes magazine suggests that maintaining a big dog in the city can cost well over $80,000 during that pet’s lifetime.

While the largest percentage of the $60 billion Americans spent on their pets this year was for food, over $25 billion was spent on vet services and medications. According to the Wall Street Journal, actual costs for veterinarian services rose over 131 percent in the last decade. While these increased costs reflect exactly what is happening in health care costs for humans, much is being spent on services for pets we never would have considered. Dental services for example—I don’t ever remember brushing our pets’ teeth—or having a professional remove the tartar. A close friend of mine recently received an estimate from one vet of over $600 to clean her adopted rescue dog’s teeth. She ultimately found a vet who performed the service for just over $250—a bargain!

Losing a pet is always a traumatic experience. Once in a while we got a reprieve from making that tough decision and our pets just passed away or succumbed to a tragic accident. However, almost always our family has had to make the decision of when to “put the pet to sleep.” That process too has undergone many changes. Today, you make an appointment and immediately are asked to make decisions. “Do you want to be with your pet? Do you want the remains returned to you? If you do, which of the following urns or containers would you like to purchase (there’s a brochure)? If not, do you want us to put them in a communal pet cemetery that we use? Do you want the remains in a separate grave?” All of this while you’re holding your still living pet. And, most veterinarians require you to pay up front before they give the final injection.

Gone are the days when we buried our pets in the backyard behind the shed. Today, full burial services are available. Custom plots can run almost $1,000—upright markers only. Maintenance fees at some pet cemeteries can be $500 for a 20-year pre-paid maintenance fee. Caskets are available in regular, deluxe and ultra-deluxe style, hinged or not, with top and/or bottom lining, a color interior, pillow and blanket (pink or blue—24” for $280). Burial shells, optional burial shell coverlets, memorial plaques (with or without photos), and optional urns—ceramic, cedar or maple—are also available. Cremation costs vary by weight. (Bit of Heaven Pet Cemetery & Crematorium, Houston, TX). And trust me; this is a growing and popular business all over the country.

And now a word about doggie daycare. Many families in which both adults work often look for ways to give their pets the opportunity to develop social skills, get regular exercise and interact with their peers. Doggie daycare and sleepovers are a big business as we continue to treat our pets like children. “Good” doggie daycares allow owners access to video monitoring, give written activity reports to owners after each session and, in some cases, the pets “get to sleep en masse in the big lounge with couches, beds and crates. If your dog isn’t digging the lounge scene, there are private suites with a couch and TV for overnights.” (Review by a customer of Doggieville Dog Daycare and Sleepover, Mountain View, CA).

Author’s notes:

41 percent of American pet owners claim that their animal’s presence in their beds doesn’t bother them. (Mayo Clinic Report, October 2015)

Let me close with an apology to Luke, our Golden Retriever. “I completely missed your special day on April 11 which was designated as both National Pet Day and National Companion Animal Day. I’ll double up on the presents next spring.”