The American Veterinary Medical Association says pet ownership has plummeted in this country, with two million fewer dogs and almost 8 million fewer pet cats than just six years ago. I've heard all sorts of reasons for the growing absence of the family pet.
An obvious one is the lingering recession. When I see shoppers buy canned pet food these days, I no longer assume it's for the family dog. It could be for them! Another reason is downsizing. Fewer people live in homes which can accommodate furry friends; many people no longer live in homes.
Then there is the all-to-common divorce or separation of a family. Children used to dream about a puppy or kitten. Now the distress of living in single-parent homes caused by the on-going war, the economy or the inability to sell a home when a job is offered in another place creates a big burden on the parent left behind. He or she doesn't need a dog to walk or a litter box to clean, on top of everything else.
Worth her weight in gold
But I heard another reason when my son came home from the vet's. A couple of shots, a check of the teeth and some vitamins set him back $300.
His 13-year-old Jack Russell terrier is now, literally, worth her weight in gold. In her younger years she liked to chase cars and, unfortunately got caught by one. The resulting accident left her with a gimpy leg and him with a much lighter wallet. And if it had happened today the cost of her care would be even more.
So why not buy pet insurance you ask? A lot of carriers are offering it. Well, for one, it's not cheap. "Pet coverage can cost $2,000 to $6,000 over the life of an average pet, and the chances are slim you'll ever have to shell out that much for treatment," says MSN Money.
Sound steep? Not by much. According to the Insurance Information Institute, comprehensive coverage runs about $250 a year for a three-year-old mixed-breed, which is cheaper than a pure-bred, and even this policy has a $100 deductible. So not only would my son have lost money on this recent vet visit, but he would have shelled out more than $3,200 over the life of his dog.
Aging, ailing and unwanted
The Bible of hard-nosed economics, The Wall Street Journal, puts it very simply: Pet insurance is "insurance you don't need."
Well, maybe not. But then again you don't need car insurance until you get into an accident, or health insurance until you get sick, or life insurance until...well, let's not go there.
Clearly pet owners are buying it as they contemplate the cost of having a pet. Of the $45 million Americans spend on their pets, more than $12 billion is for veterinary care. Treatment has gotten much more sophisticated, especially cancer treatment. It kept my cat alive for an extra year at a cost of about $4,000, which I happily paid.
Here's more on the basics of pet insurance.
Obamacare isn't for animals
So why didn't I have pet insurance? Because I would have had to purchase it years before my cat got sick. Obamacare for animals is not on any legislative to-do list, which means that a pet's pre-existing conditions, like having been hit by a car or diagnosed with cancer, aren't covered. My cat was 13 when the cancer was diagnosed..
Pooch in the pound
Is there a lesson for health insurance here? Conservative think tanks like The Heartland Institute say there is. They say that health insurance should be more like pet insurance, subject to market forces rather than government regulation. And judging from the Medicare reform of Romney and Ryan, they and other Republicans agree.
But the harsh economic reality is that as the price of an item goes up, fewer people can afford it. According to one vet's study, when the cost of treatment reaches $600, euthanasia is usually the option, while those with pet insurance can afford to take care of their pets until the cost goes above $2,000.
If the cost of pet insurance continues to rise, even the most caring pet owners will be forced to leave their pooches at the pound.