To even think about remortgaging your home, especially in the current precarious financial climate, is an act most would take only in extremis.
Yet this is the situation teacher Nicki Dyson, 32, from Hull, finds herself in — and not because of illness, redundancy or debts.
Rather, astonishingly, Nicki is considering such a drastic move to pay the gargantuan £20,000 cost of treating her beloved dog, a Chow Chow called Narla.
You might imagine most vets’ bills are covered in entirety by special insurance.
But, increasingly, pet owners like Nicki are discovering this is not the case — and find themselves receiving insurmountably huge bills in order to treat their precious animals’ health conditions or, heartbreakingly, to fund procedures to end their lives.
It’s a terrible quandary, forcing caring owners to quantify just how much their pet’s life is worth.
Tanith Carey with her eight-month-old kitten Claude who she bought as a gift for her daughter Lily’s 18th birthday
In the worst-case scenarios, the only option left to animal lovers is what is politely termed ‘economic euthanasia’ — a decision that can devastate owners for years.
Little wonder, then, that even leading voices in the veterinary profession are asking if owning a pet is becoming something only a privileged few can afford.
This month, vet Nigel Taylor asked his fellow professionals one simple, but salient question in the industry’s journal, The Vet Record: ‘Are we becoming unaffordable to owners?’
Nicki Dyson would certainly agree, after five-year-old Narla was diagnosed with a deformed elbow and leg joints.
Her condition, which causes bones to rub away the protective cartilage, means she has to be pushed in a pram and is on constant painkillers.
Now her joints have crumbled, she is left with the option of stem-cell treatment to ease her dog’s pain or an operation to fuse the bones together so she can keep walking, if her vets believe it’s ethically justified.
However, Nicki’s £60-a-month insurance policy won’t cover the treatment, thanks to a new loophole in her policy —applied after she had taken the insurance out — classifying the damaged joints as a single condition because they were diagnosed at the same time.
Though she took her case to the financial ombudsman, it ruled in the company’s favour.
And so Nicki, with only a teacher’s salary to fund her, is taking desperate measures. As well as doing everything she can to save, she has also organised fundraising events and set up a crowdfunding web page called ‘Narla-in-need’.
If these ventures don’t raise sufficient funds, remortgaging is the next step.
Nicki Dyson, 32, from Hull, is considering paying the cost of £20,000 to treat her beloved dog Narla
Five-year-old Narla was diagnosed with a deformed elbow and leg joints and her condition means she has to be pushed in a pram and is on constant painkillers
‘Everything in my life is about Narla. To help her, I have no choice but to fundraise or remortgage,’ says Nicki.
‘I love her so much — with my family abroad, she is all I have and she got me through lockdown. I can’t look at her every day knowing there’s an alternative out there and I’m not trying to do it.’
According to the PDSA, an animal charity which last year treated nearly half a million animals belonging to owners on benefits who otherwise could not afford vet fees, the lifetime cost of looking after a dog can hit £30,000, and £24,000 for a cat.
A large slice of that is health care and insurance — and the latest surveys show vet fees are rising by as much as 20 per cent a year for some procedures. This, in turn, has led to soaring insurance premiums.
This year, the annual average price of dog insurance hit a record high of £378, 26 per cent more than a year earlier, according to GoCompare.
However, as the average claim has hit £700, insurers are also becoming more reluctant to pay out.
The numerous get-out clauses slapped on policies mean complaints to the financial ombudsman about pet insurance have gone up 113 per cent in five years.
One in three pet owners believes pet insurance is no longer worth the money — and I’m among them.
Last year, we rushed Honey, our cockapoo, to the vet late at night when her stomach became hugely swollen on one side.
Katie Waller, from Eastbourne, East Sussex, found her pet insurance would cover only £2,000 of the £5,000 needed to save her daschund Roly
We feared it was gastric dilation, which can kill dogs within hours without treatment, and didn’t dare risk waiting until the next morning.
Over the previous seven years, we’d paid out some £5,000 in premiums for Honey and our cat, Truffle.
So imagine our dismay when we discovered our insurer would not pay a penny towards the £300 cost of seeing the vet because Honey wasn’t ‘suffering from a life-threatening condition’.
(Even if they had accepted liability, they still would have paid only £90, less than a third of what it cost to get her seen. The small print in some policies can restrict treatment to £500, even though the average cost of any surgery is around £1,500, according to a Mail investigation last year.)
We felt pet insurance was simply pouring money down a black hole, and cancelled our policy. Then, this summer, about to embark on a camper-van trip, disaster struck.
Our eight-month-old kitten, Claude, found Honey’s plastic frisbee and began biting it.
He seemed fine, and we left a happy kitten in the care of my sister — only for Claude suddenly to start vomiting. By the end of the week, he was so ill he could barely walk.
I rushed home, convinced he was about to die. The veterinary hospital told me I needed to pay a £1,500 deposit, allowing them to go ahead with scans and surgery — procedures estimated to cost £7,000 — to remove a suspected slither of plastic lodged in his small intestine.
After buying Claude as a gift for our daughter Lily’s 18th birthday, we had no choice but to pay. But as a self-employed writer working without the safety net of furlough or Covid hand-outs, I was struck with cold terror about this vast projected price-tag.
I emptied my current account for the deposit and prepared for the three-hour wait to see if Claude would pull through.
The reality, of course, is that veterinary medicine is not easy. Kittens can’t tell you how they feel, and it wasn’t certain the frisbee was the cause of his malaise.
So would treating Claude swallow up every penny of savings we had — even eating into the money we’d set aside for our tax bill?
Yet, even as I sat waiting to discover Claude’s fate, I didn’t regret not having insurance. For it was very unlikely it would have paid out.
There are myriad reasons why the cost of vet care is rising.
Vets point out there is no free NHS for pets and the latest drugs and diagnostic gadgets, including MRI scanners, are costly, making their profit margins low. Plus, the Government levies 20 per cent VAT on top.
Then there is the issue of humans’ rising expectations. Thirty years ago, if your pet had a serious problem, you were more likely to be told there was nothing to be done and they would be put to sleep.
Now, thanks to TV shows such as Supervet, which show animals being saved by sophisticated surgeries once reserved for humans, we feel that anything that can be done, should be done. This even extends to specialist stem cell treatment, orthopaedics and physio.
But this ignores one very large elephant in the room: since it became legal in 1999 for non-vets to run practices, big business has seized a golden opportunity.
Private equity firms moved in on independent vets — with the aim of maximising financial return.
More than half of UK practices are now in the hands of big corporates, who, knowing that owners increasingly view pets as family members, have been able to raise fees.
While a local vet may look the same, these charges — not always clear from their websites — are set centrally and designed with profits in mind. (Experts advise you should look carefully at a vet’s website to find out who owns it, or ring and ask at reception.)
Some larger veterinary groups have been floated on the stock market for hundreds of millions of pounds, and aim to give shareholders a good return on their investment.
At the same time, vets who work for such corporations report being pushed to meet revenue targets.
Nigel Taylor, columnist for the Vet Record and formerly consultant vet to Exeter University, has asked whether this all means vets are pricing themselves beyond the average owner’s affordability — with the result that pets suffer.
He says: ‘Gone are the days when vets were part of the community, knew their clients and had more discretion about how much to charge pet owners based on personal circumstances.
‘The profession I joined 40 years ago is changing rapidly. With corporatisation, you get management tiers, profit incentives, and fee structures.
‘There’s a lot less wriggle room for owners who may genuinely be struggling to pay veterinary fees.’
Inevitably, owners are resorting to extreme measures to pay bills.
Ami Swarbrick, 25, from Cheshire, is trying to raise the £15,000 cost of treatment for Mini, her five-year-old autistic son’s therapy dog, on fundraising website Go Fund Me.
Eight-month-old Mini fractured her skull after she ran into a field and was kicked by a horse.
Believing Mini deserves ‘the same chance as any human’, Ami says she’s struggling to pay for ongoing drug treatment and medication — hence her using Go Fund Me. Other owners have been forced to give their beloved pets away.
Katie and Tom Waller, from Eastbourne, East Sussex, found their pet insurance would cover only £2,000 of the £5,000 needed to save their daschund, Roly, who had spinal problems caused, they believe, when a friend’s brother threw him off the sofa to sit down.
The next day, Roly was dragging his back legs and unable to walk. The couple were told he would have to be treated by specialist vets to fix a slipped disc that was now resting on his spinal cord.
But, even after Tom’s father stepped in to help pay the bill, they could not afford the subsequent physio treatment. The couple contacted an animal charity for advice and were persuaded to allow Roly to be rehomed in the interests of his welfare.
‘It was heart-rending to see him go. I was in tears because saying goodbye was so hard,’ says Katie, 36. ‘I never felt that you need to be privileged to own a dog.’
An owner driven to make the ultimate sacrifice was City worker Veronika Solovjova.
She says she will never get over the decision to have her one-year-old cat Robin put to sleep because she couldn’t afford the £5,000 operation to remove a blood clot that had cut off supply to his hind legs.
The 26-year-old has since retrained from her previous job as a bartender to work in finance so she can afford the bills to screen and pay for any similar illnesses in Robin’s sister, Nora.
Veronika, from Greenwich, South-East London, says: ‘When I was at the vet I could hear Robin crying in pain. I was told that even if I paid for the operation, there was no guarantee he’d live for much longer.
‘I had to make a quick decision because it was an emergency. Maybe if I’d had more time I would have tried to find the money.’
These days, pet owners want the best of all worlds from veterinary care: the compassion of the old James Herriot-style vets, and 21st century medical sophistication once reserved only for humans.
But if we want vet and insurance bills we can afford, we may also have to rethink our expectations.
To reduce the strain on the insurance industry, we may have to stop buying designer dogs, that are more likely to have in-bred abnormalities, and avoid puppies from back-street breeders who sell them sick and unvaccinated.
And maybe we should also question the vet business model which puts profits before pets.
Today, our lovely Claude has fully recovered, after treatment which cost a sizeable £4,000 (a fee reduced after vets found the blockage more quickly than expected).
Regardless, every month, I tuck away £100 for any future vet costs — and pray I’ll never again have to choose between my animal’s life and financial security.