Cancer care for pets is hugely costly


When my happy, energetic 12-year-old mutt had what appeared to be an eye infection, I didn’t think much of it and took him to the veterinarian. A few X-rays later, that watery eye turned out to be the result of a tumor. I was distraught. Blue needed to see a specialist.

A few days later, a veterinary oncologist lifted my spirits when she said there was, indeed, something that could be done. But then, she started talking about money: It would cost thousands of dollars.

I had already spent about $2,000 in three days at the two vet practices. The CT scan Blue needed next would be another $2,500, and radiation therapy after that could cost at least $9,500 more.

This is a problem that many pet owners face: Medical bills for a dog or cat can easily run into the thousands of dollars. But for many of us, these are beloved family members. And some 86 percent have said we would pay whatever it takes if a pet needed extensive veterinary care.

That sentiment is more about love than actual math. It was a cold shock of reality when I added up Blue’s total projected expenses on paper. Getting the best available treatment for his tumor could cost more than $15,000 — and that was if everything went right. I’d already spent a lot. And it was unclear how much time it would buy him.

The oncologist at NorthStar VETS in New Jersey said they make sure pet owners understand up front what they’re getting into financially because many people can’t afford that kind of cost — many don’t have enough money in the bank to cover their own, or their kids, medical care. The call like the one I got is usually the heartbreaking beginning of the end of their pet’s story.

Like human health care, veterinary care is a marketplace of spiraling expense. According to the American Pet Products Association, pet owners in 2021 spent $34.3 billion on veterinary care and products, up from $24 billion in 2010.

And just as with human health care, there are now advanced treatments for pets in a range of vet fields, including dermatology, ophthalmology, orthopedics and, in my dog’s case, oncology.

The founder of NorthStar VETS added radiation oncology to his clinic’s services after his own dog had a brain tumor in 2014. He had to drive from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to find radiation therapy that cured the cancer, so he partnered with a company called PetCure Oncology to open a radiation center on NorthStar’s campus in May 2021.

And that was where my adopted shelter mutt ended up for treatment a year later.

PetCure provides something called stereotactic radiation. This is a gold-standard radiation treatment for humans: In 2015, former president Jimmy Carter had stereotactic radiation for melanoma in his brain; in 2019, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had it for a tumor on her pancreas.

For dogs, stereotactic radiation has been mostly available in veterinary teaching hospitals affiliated with universities and a handful of private practices nationwide. If pet owners live near one of those places and have the financial wherewithal, their beloved animals can receive the same cancer treatment as a former president and a justice.

“It is…

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