Puppy (and Kitty and Goldfish and Parrot) Love The High Cost Of Caring for Fido and Fluffy
We Westchesterites love our pets—a lot. Indeed many of us are ready, willing and able to go to the ends of the earth—and, sometimes, the end of our bank accounts—to keep our pets healthy. Got a problem with that?
by Lois Podoshen Illustration by Mick Wiggins
At first glance, Dr. Pisciotta’s medical office in Rye looks like any other physician’s office. The walls are covered with literature touting glucosamine for joint health, informing about diabetes and explaining tests necessary for optimal senior healthcare. Dr. Pisciotta’s patients, however, often come in on little cat feet, wear fur coats that you can’t get at Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus and have been known to leave puddles on the waiting room floor. Yes, Dr. Pisciotta is a veterinarian, one of the many dedicated animal doctors who help Westchesterites keep their treasured pets healthy. And many of this county’s pet owners are ready, willing and able to go to the ends of the earth—and, sometimes, the ends of their bank accounts—to do just that.
Veterinary office waiting rooms may be adorned with whimsical posters of cute little kittens and fluffy pups, but behind those walls are bastions of high-tech equipment and modern techniques aimed at keeping Fluffy, Fido and Polly not only healthy but, medical science willing, long-lived. Take Dr. Pisciotta’s office, which has a laser unit that the doctor reports “diminishes blood loss in procedures like cat de-clawing.” The office also has a sonogram machine and other high-end medical equipment. According to Administrator Valerie Perl, “animals get the same high-quality care
When people say their pets are “just
like family” (the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association found that at least a third of dog owners say that they consider their pet to be a child or a family member), we accept it when they are talking about a cuddly calico that curls up beside them in bed or a loyal Lab that barks at the first sign of danger to its owner. But when Bronxville resident Barbara Miller says that about her pet fish, Zipper, most people
Two years ago, Miller was concerned about her koi, Zipper (named for the pattern on his back), because he had developed an ulcer on one side of his body. “You could see that it was raw and horrible,” she says. “We watched him get worse and worse. Zipper had to be suffering. If I didn’t do something before too long, I knew he would die.” Miller called Dr. Pisciotta, who took on the case. In fact, he made a “pond call.”
“I had to put on my waders to get to him,” says Dr. Pisciotta. “He was the biggest fish in the pond [Miller has 15 koi, plus five catfish]. Before we could treat him, we had to catch him, which took a half hour.” Dr. Pisciotta kept Zipper’s face covered with a wet washcloth while a culture was taken, and Zipper was found to have a bacterial infection. After trying simpler techniques like quarantining him in a separate treatment tank that Miller set up with special medication, more aggressive measures had to be taken. Dr. Pisciotta taught Miller how to give the fish daily antibiotic injections. “We knew Zipper was better when we came to examine him the next time because we couldn’t catch him,” Dr. Pisciotta says.
“Some people say he’s just a fish,” says Miller. “But I got him when he was only two inches long. He was a foot long and seven pounds when he got sick. He’s part of the familyâ€¦a wonderful fish!” Today, thanks to both his devoted owner and his persistent vet, the happy and healthy Zipper is 16 inches long. Vet bill: about $250. Healthy fish in a big pond: priceless.
According to the latest statistics available from the American Veterinary Medical Association, nearly 60 percent of American households have a Zipper or a Fido or a Fluffy. In Westchester County, that translates into more than 196,000 pet-loving homes, and the numbers are rising. Dog and cat ownership has increased nationwide more than 16 percent in the last ten years. “That percentage reflects the degree that animals are supportive to our lives,” says Dr. Douglas Aspros of Bond Animal Hospital in White Plains. “Most people don’t see their pets as accessories but as family members.” One reason for this: “We move around a lot now and are more geographically removed from our families,” Dr. Aspros opines. “And marriages are lasting a shorter time, so the real constant may be our dog or cat.” Plus he says, “Our animals offer a respite from our work obligations.”
But caring for a pet has its own obligations, not the least of which are financial. According to Dr. Aspros, the typical vet visit in Westchester runs between $45 and $55—that’s without routine bloodwork, which can run anywhere from $80 to more than $1,000. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, pet expenses in the U.S. have grown from $17 billion in 1994 to an estimated $31 billion this year. And that’s not just for Alpo, chew toys and kitty litter. If a pet gets a serious illness, medical options are available, many of them just as complicated—and as costly—as for humans.
“Everyone is going high-tech,” says Dr. Brian Green of Sleepy Hollow Animal Hospital, “and it’s saving lives.” Among other things, Sleepy Hollow Animal Hospital has a sophisticated surgical monitor for blood pressure, respiration and temperature readings that is hooked up to heating pads that trigger when the animal’s temperature goes below a certain degree. “Before, we used hot water bottles,” Dr. Green reports.
Dr. Green relates the story of one of his patients, Belle, a basset hound puppy adopted from a mall pet shop. “I examined the dog after the owner had her for just four days. The pup had kennel cough, which, over the course of the next few days, developed into severe pneumonia.” The dog had to be transferred to the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan, where she was on life-support for a week, hooked up to a respirator. “We told the owner the chances for survival were poor,” Dr. Green recalls, “but she said, â€˜I adopted this dog. It’s my responsibility to see this through.’ It had me near tears.” Belle survived—at a cost of more than $18,000. Says Dr. Green: “It is remarkable that Belle’s owner was so devoted to a dog that she didn’t even know yet!”
Yorktown Heights resident Jacki Zaslow was ecstatic. “Dr. Green just called me,” Zaslow said. “â€˜Lucy is out of surgery.’” Lucy, another one of Dr. Green’s patients,
is an adorable West Highland terrier imported from Ireland, whom Zaslow loves to death and for whom she would do—and apparently has done—almost anything and everything. Lucy’s recent surgery was to correct dislocated knees. “I didn’t even know dogs had knees,” Zaslow admits. “Sometimes, because of her legs, she would just stop walking and I’d have to carry her home.” After the surgery, Lucy was given a fentanyl patch similar to ones given to human cancer patients for pain. Zaslow, who couldn’t be there for the operation, received a digital picture of Lucy in recovery via e-mail. The operation, which took one hour and cost $3,000, was a success, but it was only one of many health problems the dog has experienced.
At 12 weeks old, Lucy began vomiting frequently. Ultrasounds and X-rays were taken. Her diet was changed. She was tested for a slew of congenital illnesses. Blood tests were taken to determine if she had Addison’s disease, a rare hormonal disorder. And Lucy was taken for consultations with a veterinary gastroenterologist. Endoscopic biopsies were taken, and, ultimately, exploratory surgery was done. To date, no definitive diagnosis has been established, and Lucy continues to vomit regularly. “I have to feed her six or seven times a day in tiny amounts, about one teaspoon’s worth, or she throws up,” Zaslow says.
As soon as she got Lucy, Zaslow made sure to obtain health insurance, but, like so many of us, she wound up in a dispute with the insurance company. “They determined that Lucy’s condition was not covered because it was pre-existing,” she says. The insurance runs $360 a year; the vomiting episodes alone have already cost Zaslow $14,000.
Veterinarian Thoulton Surgeon is such a modest, mild- mannered man, you don’t realize until his cellphone “rings” with the sounds of a purring tabby that he really is “the cat’s meow.” Dr. Surgeon of New Rochelle is one of two Board-Certified dental vets in New York State. There are only 73 in the world. Originally from Jamaica, he wanted to become an engineer but won a scholarship from the Jamaican government to study veterinary medicine. On a dare from his friends, he took the scholarship—and a certain longhaired domestic cat named Trooper is glad he did.
Nine years old and blind, Trooper was rescued from the streets of New York City by her current owner. “Trooper,” reports Dr. Surgeon, “had one of the most devastating conditions a cat can have—gingivostomatitis, an inflammation of the gums and the soft tissue in the back of the mouth and pharynx. The cause of the disease is unknown, and it is excruciatingly painful and debilitating for a cat and a frustrating disease for a vet.”
Although everyone told the owner to put Trooper to sleep, she just coudn’t. She chose to have the cat treated and was told to see Dr. Surgeon. He used a “multi-modal approach”: CO2, laser therapy, full-mouth extraction, alveolar socket removal, and multiple pain management approaches.
Trooper turned out to be a fitting name. After three weeks of intensive homecare, which included pain medication and rinsing to irrigate the mouth, the cat is fine. “In fact,” Dr. Surgeon informs, “she is healthy and crunching on hard food without her teeth, food that she couldn’t eat before. And within six weeks of the treatment, she gained one and one-quarter pounds.”
We’ve all been there: our child wants a pet. but after
the novelty wears off—sometimes it’s a matter of only a few days—the animal becomes our responsibility. (In our house it was a parakeet named Woodstock.) But what happens when that child is an adult and the pet in question is not a gerbil but a thoroughbred racehorse with health problems?
“My son was in a relationship with a woman who bred horses,” says Sue Glickman, a real estate broker and animal lover from Bedford. “He decided to buy a horse and went to Ohio to get a thoroughbred, but it was eventually determined that the horse, Emmy, had an earlier injury that was not taken care of. The relationship ended and we got her, with her whole hindquarter out of line.”
Glickman boarded Emmy on a farm upstate that tends to animals that have been neglected or abused. “Emmy is 13 years old,” says Glickman. “She receives exams, shoes and dental treatment just like any other adolescent.” But what Emmy also receives, which your teen does not, are special visits from a veterinary chiropractor who comes all the way from Florida to give her two-and-a-half-hour manipulations at $500 a pop. “She’s in pain,” Glickman explains. “We just want to get her well.” Trying to get Emmy back in shape costs the Glickmans between $6,000 and $8,000 a year—and they say it is well worth it.
“I have always wanted a horse,” Glickman says. “When you meet Emmy, you just gotta love her. You couldn’t get a better horse.” Emmy will never win the Belmont, but she clearly has won the heart of the Glickmans.
But Emmy isn’t the only pet on which the Glickmans shower their attention and money. They have a little Bichon, named Mon Petite Chou-Chou (that’s French for “My Little Cream Puff”). “I don’t believe I’ve done anything for Chou-Chou that a good parent wouldn’t do,” says Glickman. She admits, however, that when it snows, she carries Chou-Chou outdoors to “do her business.” And? “Last year when the snow was higher than Chou-Chou, I dug tunnels for her to go outside.”
Okay, so maybe you don’t dig tunnels in the snow for your dog, but you did take Fido to the vet for check-ups and shots, had his teeth cleaned, fed him a high-quality diet and he’s come through yet another year happy and healthy. Rejoice! Celebrate! Order a special doggie birthday cake from the “Barkery” at All Paws pet gourmet shop in Rye. And don’t forget to invite “Mon Petit Chou-Chou”—she just loves a party.
Lois Podoshen is a freelance writer from Yorktown Heights. She dedicates this article to the memory of her two parakeets, Woodstock and Candy.