Vet visits cost pet owners an average of $505 dollars last year, according to a new AP-Petside.com poll, with those whose pets faced serious illness spending more than $1,000 on average.
Eight in 10 pet owners took their animal companion to a veterinarian in the past 12 months. And cost was an obstacle for a third of those who did not visit the vet.
But most pet owners trust that vets are not suggesting unnecessary treatments, and the bulk of pet owners faced costs below the average. Sixty percent of those who did take a pet to the vet spent $300 or less on their animal's care, the average expenditure was boosted higher by the one in eight (13 percent) who spent $1,000 or more.
About one in six pet owners say their pet faced a serious illness during the year, and those pet owners spent an average of $1,092 on vet care. One percent say they took their pets to the vet and spent no money.
Thomas Klamm, 76, of Boone, Iowa, says he and his wife Beverly spent $3,000 on their two Chihuahuas, sisters Kati and Keli, and he would have spent more if necessary, even though his annual income is under $50,000.
The biggest bills resulted from a spinal condition Kati had, but Klamm says he has a lot of confidence in the vets and senior students at Iowa State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital in nearby Ames, where the little dogs have been going since they were pups.
According to the poll, most pet owners have faith in the treatment vets recommend. Overall, 52 percent say vets do not often recommend excessive treatment, 26 percent say that happens moderately often, 17 percent extremely or very often.
Those whose pets had been seriously ill in the past year were no more likely than others to say that vets suggest treatments that go beyond what is reasonable and necessary.
Among those who did not take their pets to the vet last year, 52 percent say they only take their pets to the vet "when they're really sick" and a third say they can't afford it at all.
Luis Calderon, 56, of El Monte, Calif., couldn't afford to take Buddy, his 3-year-old German shepherd, to the vet last year. Buddy was given to Calderon when the dog was 6 months old. "We have become best friends," he says.
Calderon, a self-employed handyman, has a wife and two kids and says work is scarce. If Buddy needed a vet, Calderon says he would have to go through public services or use credit. "We would have to get him help."
How much would be too much? It would depend on what was wrong and what the vet said, Calderon says. "At that point I would have to consider whether to keep him or let him go, put him to sleep," he says.
He hates the idea of putting limits on Buddy's health. "But we have to survive. At this point, my mortgage is No. 1. This month is really close to the edge," Calderon adds.
Fifty-eight percent of those who did not take their pets to a vet in the past year said they "have a type of pet that doesn't need much veterinary care." Among them, 52 percent have dogs, 52 percent cats, 10 percent fish, and 5 percent birds.
Not surprisingly, higher-income pet owners (household incomes over $50,000) were more apt to take their pets to the vet than those with incomes below $50,000 _ 90 percent versus 74 percent. Forty percent of those with household incomes below $50,000 who didn't take their pets to the vet say they can't really afford to do so.
Art Jones, 62, of Alameda, Calif., says two of his family's cats died in the last year. He estimates he spent $600 on vet bills _ half of that to euthanize one of the cats. The other cat died at home.
"But we are not so wealthy we can spend thousands on a house pet. That's unfortunate, but that's the truth," Jones says.
He says he has family friends whose dog is getting cancer treatment and the cost is nearing $10,000. "To me, that's insane," Jones says.
Over the past few years, Jim Salsman, 51, of Las Vegas, paid for several $500 trips to the vet for his neighbors' cat, Mau, after the declawed feline got in fights with other animals. Last year, the neighbors left and gave the cat to Salsman. He ended up paying another $400 in vet bills, but says he didn't mind because his neighbors were in foreclosure and struggling, and the cat became an important member of the family.
"He means everything to us," Salsman said.
According to the poll, dog owners were a bit more likely to take their pets to the vet than cat owners _ 85 percent of dog owners compared with 79 percent of cat owners. But dog owners spent a bit less _ an average of $537 _ than cat owners, who spent an average of $558.
The AP-Petside.com Poll was conducted Oct. 13-17, 2011, by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,118 pet owners. Results among pet owners have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
AP Global Director of Polling Trevor Tompson, Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.