Some Spend Thousands To Save Pets

In her recent Boston Globe article, "How Far Should We Go to Save Our Pets?" Vicki Constantine Croke has explored what goes into the decisions people make when their pets are sick or injured in an age of cutting-edge, but expensive animal medical care.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Our next story is about a man and his goose. It's really a story about the $20 billion a year that Americans spend on health care for their pets. But in this particular case, the pet is a goose named Boswell, 2 years old - that's young for a goose, we've learned, they can live well past 20. Boswell has had cancer twice, and he's had surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, treatment that costs thousands of dollars.

Writer Vicki Constantine Croke wrote about Boswell the goose and the many medical options now open to pet owners in a recent article for the Boston Globe Magazine. And she joins us now. Have you been able to calculate what the medical bill for Boswell totals?

Ms. VICKI CONSTANTINE CROKE (Writer): Even though his owner is squeamish about it, he has spent $20,000.

SIEGEL: Twenty thousand dollars. Tell us about the owner and the goose, for that manner.

Ms. CROKE: They are a team. You almost can't talk about one without the other. Mark Podlaseck is an IBM scientist. And his friend was getting a chicken, so he thought he would get geese at the same feed store. He spent $8 on Boswell, never imagining the bill that would come down the line for him.

SIEGEL: Now, the questions raised by a story like that of Boswell the goose and some of the other pets that you read about in the Boston Globe Magazine article. We love our pets - dogs, cats, birds, turtles, geese, whatever - but typically, the vet has been there for rabies shots or extracting some foreign object that the animal has ingested. But chemo, radiation, organ transplants?

Ms. CROKE: You know, the level of care has become so much more sophisticated today than it's ever been before. I met plenty of people who can afford these kinds of treatments. But not everybody can, and that's the really sad part of the story, is knowing that this animal, that you truly consider part of your family, can be saved, but you might not have enough money to do that.

SIEGEL: Apart from the ability to pay or not, did you come across people that just, as a point of principle, said, I could afford this, but this makes no sense to me. She's a cat, you know, this is not a member of my family?

Ms. CROKE: I heard people joke about it and say, you know, I could have three Irish Setters for the price of that cancer care. But no, Paul Gambardella, who used to be the head of Angell Animal Hospital here in Boston, said to me that people often get a cat or dog and they think, when I'm faced with an enormous bill for some horrible illness, I will just put the animal to sleep. But very often, 10 or 15 years of relationship has elapsed, and people feel very dedicated to saving their pets.

SIEGEL: Now, after reading your article in the Boston Globe Magazine, I saw that yesterday, the New York Times Sunday magazine has a big cover story on animal pharm, spelled P-H-A-R-M. In the various vignettes of the pet and the medical care, very often, we're talking about families that have a pet but don't have children, I found. Did you find a difference there between families with kids and without?

Ms. CROKE: As far as I know, there have not been any real surveys to try to delineate that. One study that I do know of was done at the Animal Medical Center in New York. And it found that the overwhelming majority of women in responding to the survey said that they were significantly closer to the pet in their life than any other human being. It is a really important point to make because one thing that we believed in our society, in our culture, is that our relationship with an animal is a substitute for something a human relationship that's missing in your life.

And the data seems to be indicating something different. One terrific study about this showed that in a stressful situation, your blood pressure obviously goes up. No one in your family can help you drop your blood pressure in that situation, not a spouse, not a child. But if your dog comes in the room, your blood pressure goes down. So, increasingly, we are beginning to think about the dynamic in a different way, that maybe a pet is not a replacement for a human, but is, in fact, its own thing, even though we don't have a name for it.

SIEGEL: But there's no human who'll ever be that happy to see you every day when you come back in the door from work.

Ms. CROKE: That's right. One of my favorite survey shows that something like three-quarters of married respondents say that they greet the pet in coming through the front door first before their spouse.

SIEGEL: Well, what's the update on Boswell the goose?

Ms. CROKE: Boswell is doing great. He's had a couple of chemo sessions. He's feeling better than ever. He's feeling so well, in fact, Robert, that he started his own blog called The Daily Honk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: The Daily Honk. Well, Vicki Constantine Croke, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Ms. CROKE: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Vicki Constantine Croke's story about the billion-dollar industry of pet health care was published recently in the Boston Globe Magazine.

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