I knew something was wrong on Sunday morning, when Soča wouldn’t lick the kids’ cereal bowls. He left his own food untouched, too, and didn’t even bat an eye when Howard slunk over to eat it for him. By the afternoon, Soča was in so much pain that he wouldn’t lie down. He stood forlornly in his dog house, back arched against the pain.
“He has his sick ears again,” Dee Dee said sadly and ran off to make him a card.
Of course it was Sunday. It is a lesser known corollary of Murphy’s Law that pet emergencies almost always happen on the weekend, when the regular vet is closed. I silently counted the hours until Monday morning, knowing even as I did so that we wouldn’t— we couldn’t— wait, not with Soča suffering and the vet’s emphatic words— “Pancreatitis can get bad very quickly”— still ringing in my ears from Soča’s last bout of GI distress.
We coaxed Soča into the car, and off Don and Soča went to the emergency clinic, while I waited anxiously for an update. When the call finally came, Don told me that the vet had recommended hospitalization but had agreed to let Don bring Soča home with a subcutaneous fluid pack, an anti-nausea injection, and oral meds. This was familiar territory; the last time Soča had developed pancreatitis, we had opted for home-care, and Soča had recovered quickly. The difference in price was not negligible either; at over eight hundred dollars for a night in the hospital, any other alternative seemed worth a try.
As soon as Soča came home, however, I regretted our decision. Soča’s back legs seemed unsteady, and he didn’t seek out any of his usual spots but stood uncertainly at the top of the stairs, his eyes unfocused. When he finally lay down, one of this front legs splayed out at a strange angle, and his head slumped on the wood floor uncomfortably.
“The vet tech said the pain meds would make him sleepy,” Don said as we stood watching him.
But this was not sleepy! Soča was either doped or on the verge of death.
I anxiously called the clinic, seeking reassurance that Soča could make it until morning.
“You know, any of us could be dead before morning,” the vet tech on the phone replied cheerfully.
Strangely, I found this reassuring, since he he had effectively equated Soča’s chances of survival with my own. Still, I passed a wakeful night. When Soča staggered to his feet around two in the morning, I followed him out into the rainy night, worried that he might be looking for a private place to die. When he finally settled in his dog house, I went back to bed, but sleep did not come easily. What if we had opted to bring him home only to have him die during the night?
Soča did not appear during the usual morning chaos, and when Don and I went to find him, I steeled myself for the worst. We found him awake but lethargic, and uninterested in the treats in which I had hidden his meds. An hour later, Soča and I were back on our way to the vet.
Two days later, Soča was back to his happy, food-loving, eleven-years-young self. It was a relief to have him home again; the house had seemed empty without him. For the next few days, Soča milked his illness for all that it was worth. When I caught him on our bed, he didn’t even deign to look guilty. He just stared up at me with those sad eyes.
“I almost died, you know.”
At bedtime, I didn’t kick him out of our room like I normally do, but moved his bed from the living room so he’d be more comfortable. And when, predictably, he scratched to go out in the middle of the night, I didn’t even swear once, but meekly followed him to the front door. Later that day, scouring the house for food, Soča devoured Dee Dee’s witch’s brew science experiment that was growing mold on her bookshelf. I wrung my hands and watched him closely, worried that his newly-healed pancreas would not take kindly to a handful of potting soil mixed with 3-day old tomato soup.
During the days of Soča’s illness and the ones that followed, it was my love and concern for Soča that was foremost in my heart. Yet there was another feeling, too, one that was harder to make sense of and left me feeling strangely shameful.
On the one hand, I am keenly aware of our privilege. When I lived briefly in Ecuador, I saw horses with the ticks so thick and bloated in their ears they looked like corn cobs, the feces of skeletal dogs crawling with worms. Veterinary care is a luxury that a relative few can afford. And it seems to me that ‘few’ is shrinking.
“Don’t even get me started,” a coworker told me, when I winced over the cost of Soča’s emergency care. “It’s the fastest growing industry in America. It’s putting pet ownership outside the grasp of the middle class.”
Was that true, I wondered? A little googling and I found that Americans spend more than three times as much for their pets now as they did in 1994. But those figures, of course, include chew toys and doggie manicures, and do little more than confirm my suspicion that I am paying far more at the vet than my parents did for my own childhood pets. But why? Is it because I am one of a growing number of privileged, pet-loving Americans willing to shell out big bucks for animals who are not pets so much as members of the family? Or am I the victim of a booming industry in which an ever-greater quality of care means rising costs passed along in bills that make you want to cry? Am I a first-world pushover with a too-ready credit card, or a humble pet-owner bludgeoned by the rising price tag of an industry beyond my control?
Because this question looms over me, I feel judgement at every turn. Is my pet-free friend shaking her head at the vast sums I’ve just spent on our dog? Do my parents think I’m letting myself be manipulated by an overzealous vet? At the veterinary office, it is no better. When I opt out of another round of bloodwork, does the veterinarian think I’m far too tight-fisted to responsibly own a pet?
It seems to me that the same upward pressure on costs exists in veterinary medicine as in our own human health care system. Namely, that the doctors rarely, if ever, know the price of the type of care they choose to give. Tests are ordered, injections given, and drugs prescribed, with little, if any, thought to the expense. After all, it’s someone else’s job to print up the invoice in the end.
At the end of day two at the vet with Soča, I was sent home with nearly seventy dollars worth of pills, in addition to the two prescriptions he had gotten from the emergency clinic the night before. Soča, by this point, seemed completely recovered; was all this medication really necessary? The vet insisted that it was, and who was I to argue? She is the expert, and I am not. I took the meds home and dutifully administered them, but each time I wrapped a ten-dollar pill in a pill pocket and fed it to a perfectly healthy dog, I wondered if that vet even knew how much each of those pills cost.
In the end, Soča’s bout of pancreatitis cost us a long weekend at beachfront condo, a plane ticket to Italy, a.... No, that was exactly the kind of thinking that I had to make myself stop. Of course I would rather spend money on a fun vacation than at a vet’s office, but, ultimately, that is not the point. Don and I choose to have pets because there are millions of homeless animals that need loving homes, and because our animals enrich our lives in hundreds of intangible ways. When I stopped thinking about the vacation we could have had, and instead thought of all the joy and laughter that Soča has brought us over the eleven and a half years he has been our dog, the bills became a heck of a lot easier to stomach. Because, really, if I had to choose between a vacation and having Soča in our lives, there would be no contest. Soča would win, every time.