The Cost of Veterinary Care for Animals

The Country Vet column talks about the high cost of veterinary care for animals, including feline leukemia virus; spaying rabbits; preventing ear mites; keeping cattle fever free; and preventing pulled tendons in horses.


The downfalls to performing a spay often revolve around the anesthesia. Sadly enough, these animals are often so small and easily stressed that the drugs we are accustomed to using for our other companion animals like dogs and cats may not be appropriate for rabbits.


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Information about the high cost of veterinary care for animals and how to make the right choices when caring for a sick animal. 

The cost of veterinary care for animals: What happens when you can't afford the best treatment? 

For many animal lovers and owners who face decisions about the health and care of their pet, the most difficult problem can be a matter of balance between what we feel in our hearts is right for our animal friends and what can be achieved both practically and, unfortunately, economically. For example, if a dog is diagnosed with a tumor or a horse with laminitis, both potentially fatal problems, veterinarians often suggest treatments including surgery, chemotherapy, or other drugs that will definitely treat the problem and may provide months or even additional years of life for the animal. However, if the owner has a somewhat modest or, worse yet, restricted income, the thousands of dollars involved in these treatments might not be available to treat the pet in such an optimum way.

When it comes to the high cost of veterinary care for animals, we all know what we would ideally like to do. However, for many folks, this best-treatment plan simply may not be an option. Should owners sell their car, move into a cheaper apartment, or forfeit the house so that their pet can live six months longer? I wish these were simple hypothetical dilemmas for many companion animal owners, but, alas, they are not. Where is the balance between a desire to do what's right for our pets and what's feasible for us?

As a general practitioner, I have become well acquainted with these gray areas and the complexities which simple lack of health insurance for pets brings. While we may not always be able to opt for the best treatment or care, we can try to be as informed and compassionate as possible, to alleviate the most pain and suffering we can, and to keep in mind that basic care for our companion animals should be no different than care for any member of our family. There should not be despair in being unable to afford the optimum treatments for our pets' problems. Indeed, many solutions to medical and surgical problems often begin and remain simple, in those gray zones, far from optimum. What matters is that we do care about the well-being of the pets that share our lives; and we can bring wisdom and solutions to almost any of their problems, if we are smart enough to look for answers. Keep those questions coming!

Our six-year-old cat was suffering from a tumor caused by feline leukemia virus and was euthanized in December. We can't replace her, but I would like to get another cat sometime if I weren't so afraid it would get the same thing. How soon is it safe to be thinking of this?  

—Christa Jackson
Lancaster, OH

Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is transmitted from one cat to another via bodily fluids — urine, saliva, blood, and milk. There is no way to tell how your cat was infected, but one usually assumes that exposure to the virus occurs through contact with an infected cat. Cats can even get the virus from their mothers through ingesting infected milk when they are kittens.

The virus usually requires the incorporation of cells into a cat's blood and bone marrow to remain active and infective. Outside the body, it dies within minutes. In rare cases, it can remain infective in the environment for up to 2-3 days, but, again, this is rare. Thus, there should be little chance of you having a live virus in the house or yard to infect a new cat or kitten, unless some other cat is still spreading the germs.

Be sure to have the new cat tested for the disease—a simple blood test is all that's required. If the animal is negative, a vaccine can be administered to prevent infection in the future—or you may simply choose to keep the cat under close scrutiny when outdoors in order to guard against cat fights, the major method of viral spread. If the animal tests positive, I would recommend retesting again in 2-3 months as many cats "clear" (get rid of) the virus over time.

It was recommended that we spay our one-year-old rabbit. We are worried about the surgery, and it's costly. Is it worth it? 

—Janet Allen
Memphis, TN

Ovariohysterectomy in rabbits is a common procedure to perform. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to having it done. The most common reason to perform an ovariohysterectomy, or spay, is to prevent uterine adenocarcinoma (a cancer) from occurring in the uterus, which all female rabbits are at risk of developing. This form of cancer is aggressive and difficult to remove once identified.

Spaying a rabbit also prevents the occurrence of pseudopregnancies which are false pregnancies that occur after a sterile mating or mounting by other does or female rabbits. In pseudopregnancies, does pull hair, build nests, and become aggressive for protective or territorial reasons.

The downfalls to performing a spay often revolve around the anesthesia. Sadly enough, these animals are often so small and easily stressed that the drugs we are accustomed to using for our other companion animals like dogs and cats may not be appropriate for rabbits. However, if dosed accordingly certain drugs, even inhalant gases, can be used safely and effectively to achieve lade of feeling and suitable anesthesia. The actual surgery is not complicated, and if the animal is in good health prior to the procedure it may be worth having her spayed.

Weigh the pluses and minuses. If you plan on this rabbit being around other animals, it is in her favor to have her spayed because of the behavior changes associated with pseudopregnancy. Also, as she ages, the risk of developing the uterine tumor becomes higher, and if she is suddenly diagnosed with it it's usually too advanced and too late to have it removed.

Our border collie, Stella, and four cats play together constantly. Stalls commonly scratches her ears after play. Is it possible that she has ear mites from the cats, and, if so, how do we treat them? 

—Danny Stamets
Lawrence, KS

Otodectes cyanotis (the ear mite) may cause an external ear infection (otitis externs) in dogs, cats, foxes, rabbits, and ferrets. The mites live on the surface of the skin and membranes of the ear canal, and feed by piercing the skin and ingesting lymph and serum, resulting in a bad irritation, inflammation, and a lot of crust formation. There are several species of mites that do the same but Otodectes is the most common.

Ear mites are very persistent and resistant parasites. They cause the animal to shake its head and scratch or rub the affected ears. A waxy, dark-brown, flaky exudate, commonly referred to as "coffee grind" debris, results and accumulates in the canal. If you look closely, you might even be able to see small white or flesh colored mites on the debris.

Treatment involves first removing the debris which the mites create and then ridding the mites themselves. Instillation of a bland oil (mineral or baby oil), or some type of cerumen (wax) lysing agent (make sure its nonalcohol based), into the ear canal on cotton or cotton swabs may be useful in loosening and removal of the debris. If the debris is not removed, medication to kill the mites is ineffective and often times the itchiness remains. Avoid pouring anything directly into the ear canal; if the ear drum is ruptured secondary to the mites, this is often very caustic and may injure the inner ear as well. Also avoid packing the debris further into the ear as you clean.

A particularly useful product for killing the mites often contains the miticide pyrethrin or some other chemical in an oil solubilizing base. This can be obtained from your veterinarian and will kill the mites. Other treatments include injections of drugs such as ivermectin, which are effective against the mites but currently not recommended or licensed for use on all animals, especially collies and collie cross dogs. These animals have a different barrier between their blood and brain tissue which may predispose them to neurologic disease or even death if the wrong products are used in inappropriate doses or forms.

An important treatment for all parasites is cleanliness of the environment, which means cleaning and vacuuming the carpets and bedding and hot washing what you can to rid the area of mite eggs and debris.

Our Jersey cattle have been lucky enough to dodge shipping fever and the severe pneumonia and cough it brings. But we're interested in purchasing a few cows who might have had this in their herd, although they look healthy now. What do you think? 

—John Wilson
Eau Claire, WI

The disease known as shipping fever is probably the most serious disease faced by the dairy herd or cattle feedlot owner. There are several known factors which cause the complex and some unknown ones as well. Shipping fever is caused by a bacteria known as Pasturella multocida and a virus called Parainfluenza working together at a time of stress. Other viruses may be involved as well. The characteristic fever (104 degrees Fahrenheit. or higher), loss of appetite, and nasal discharge commonly appear at times of stress in the herd or animal, such as moving or shipping, hence the name shipping fever.

Shipping fever differs from simple cold or pneumonia in that it tends to be quite contagious. Although stress precipitates the disease, even animals not apparently under stress frequently come down with it because of its tendency to spread. Pasturella tends to be the most invasive and problematic organism and appears to be at the root of the disease. Pus and infection from this bacteria may clog the lung, causing pneumonia, cough, fever, and even death. Animals in the late stages of the disease are reluctant to move and will stand with their head and neck extended, gasping for air.

The key to treatment is once again prevention. It goes without saying that you should buy only healthy replacements. Furthermore, don't buy from commission sales; buy directly from the farm where the animals were born and raised if possible. Secondly, regardless of the source, keep newly purchased animals separated from the main herd for at least two weeks. In this period, try not to change their feed suddenly, vaccinate them, or subject them to frequent handling.

To more directly answer your question, it would be prudent not to purchase any animals with a history of this disease in their background. This disease is so contagious that the transfer of animals from herd to herd is likely to initiate a recrudescence of this nasty underlying respiratory illness.

Our Quarter Horse mare is constantly pulling tendons on the turns. Should she be walked or mildly exercised right after an in jury or not? We would like to prevent scar tissue from forming, and have heard different ideas on when to return her to working. 

—Sarah Malloy
Half Moon Bay, CA

The best treatment for a "pulled tendon" — which classically appears as a swollen, hot, painful back of the leg or simple vague lameness — is ice, wrapping and rest, rest, rest ! When an injury first occurs (within 24 hours), ice should be applied for approximately one hour, three to four times a day. The ice or cold water is not only analgesic (pain killing) but controls hemorrhage by constricting the vessels and slowing release of inflammatory mediators (chemicals) from the lining of vessels and cells. Bandaging should be constant, firm, and uniform to collapse the tissue planes and reduce fluid buildup between them. Exercise will only aggravate further injury and shoes should be removed in the early recovery stage.

Within two days of the injury, the repair process begins. It is at this stage (2-28 days) that controlled, slow movement stimulates circulation, maintains some flexibility in the limb, and helps with structural repair of the tendon fibers if the injury is not excessive. Passive motion of the limb — your holding and moving the limb gently — will strengthen the fibers still in place and decrease the chance of adhesion formation. After two days, alternating warm and cool (not ice) washes provides for rapid vasodilatation and increased lymph flow. Lymph helps clear the injured tendon of waste products from the trauma.

"Sweats" — topical medications that improve circulation — are also beneficial in this period if applied appropriately and rinsed from the skin before reapplication. Hydrotherapy, turbulator boots, or whirlpools all stimulate circulation, as does the product DMSO, which can be prescribed by your veterinarian and should be used with gentle movement. Aspirin, phenylbutazone, and flunixin are anti-inflammatories which come in oral and injectable forms; these will decrease the swelling and make movement easier.

Within two months, walking can be supplemented with swimming, underwater treadmilling, or very gentle jogging exercise. Bear in mind that the longer you are able to stretch out the rehabilitation period, the better the chance of healing the tendon completely. Support bandages should still be used in this period on both the injured leg and the opposite limb to prevent further tendon damage.