Last year, Mary Atwater-Kellman discovered her adopted pug Emoji had melanoma on his lip. He was 11, old for a dog, but Atwater-Kellman couldn’t bear to part with him. So she paid for chemotherapy treatment. Since then, more health issues have emerged, including a bout with pneumonia and a hospital visit for gallbladder and liver problems. Altogether, she estimates she’s spent more than $30,000 on his medical care.

For Atwater-Kellman, who works at a nonprofit in New York City, $30,000 is not a casual amount. While she was able to borrow the money from her parents instead of taking out a loan, she’ll never forget the sinking feeling when “you’re told the bill total is over $5,000,” a sum that covered just one procedure. She’s cut back on non-essential spending, which means fewer dinners with friends. These changes can sting — “it’s a whole concept of FOMO, of not being very social,” she says — but to her, Emoji’s life is worth it.

When it comes to opening the wallet, love is a powerful of motivator. To ask parents how much they would spend to save their children’s life is a cruel and impossible question. There isn’t a limit. For pets, that’s typically not the case. There’s even a term for it: stop treatment point, i.e. the amount people will spend on veterinary services before they decide it’s too expensive and make the decision to euthanize. Veterinarians track this number, which was $1,704 in 2012, up from $961 in 2003.

That the term exists at all creates a sharp separation between pets and children. For most people, anyway. For a small percentage of owners, that distinction is less discernable. Sometimes, it’s nonexistent. “I’ve had clients say they love their animal more than their children,” says Dr. Allyson Berent, the director of interventional endoscopy at the Animal Medical Center, a veterinary hospital in New York that offers physical therapy, radiation, chemotherapy neurology, dermatology, and cardiology services, among others.

Decades ago, medical facilities like the Animal Medical Center, which opened at its current location in 1962, were a rarity. Today, they’re sprinkled across the U.S. There’s the Chesapeake Veterinary Surgical Specialists in Annapolis, Maryland, the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, the VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital, to name a few. These high-tech, state-of-the-art centers offer a level of treatment comparable to human medicine. Which is fitting: As a nation, we’ve recast pets as family members, a classification that translates into an upswing in veterinary spending. This year, Americans are projected to spent a record $15.9 billion on veterinary care, according to the American Pet Product Association.

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For previous generations of owners, when a pet received a life-threatening diagnosis, the next, eventual step was painful, but preordained: Euthanasia. While devastating, the finality of the diagnosis provided closure. Today, when a pet is very sick, the decision-making starts.

At the Animal Medical Center, the outcome is often expensive. Recently, an owner showed up with her 19-year-old cat, who had stopped producing urine. The fix, a subcutaneous ureteral bypass, cost around $10,000. When told the figure, “she didn’t even blink an eye,” says Dr. Berent. The woman, who owns 15-plus cats, is a regular at the Center: “She would never say no for something for her cat unless they were suffering. She has three kids, but these are like her kids — she’ll do anything for them.”

For a small, lucky percentage of the population, dropping thousands of dollars on advanced, complex veterinary procedure isn’t a problem. But for the rest of us, this standard of care goes hand-in-hand with bankruptcy.

For humans, of course, there’s a solution, if an imperfect one: Health insurance, in which the bulk of medical expenses are passed on to insurers. As pet health care tracks human health care, some owners have decided the same equation makes financial sense.

After her experience with Emoji, Atwater-Kellman purchased an insurance plan for her 3-year-old pug, Inky. For $42 a month, her insurance covers 80% of medical costs after a $250 deductible (although the plan likely wouldn’t extend to experimental procedures such as the ones Dr. Berent performs). Because Inky is young and healthy, she struggles to reach the deductible, but after her experience with Emoji, the peace of mind is worth cost.

 

Rusty Sproat, the founder and CEO of Figo Pet Insurance, a cloudbased pet health care insurance aimed at millennials, started the company on the belief that this line of reasoning will grow more common. Figo’s plans, which cost between $25 and $30 a month, offer deductibles from $50 to $500 and reimbursements from 70% to 100%.

For many owners, these plans are still too large a financial hurdle. Premiums for comprehensive care, which includes accidents, illness and hereditary issues, often exceed $35 month. The cost adds up quickly, particularly when you factor in additional expenses, like co-pays. And unlike human health insurance, pet insurance plans reimburse owners after they’ve paid out of pocket.

But for owners like Atwater-Kellman who would pay thousands in the event of a serious health problem, an insurance plan makes financial sense; when you factor in expensive surgeries, pet insurance plans are more likely to pay back more than they cost. And that’s a relevant distinction, says Sproat. “People are taking out expensive loans, they’re borrowing $5,000 from Aunt Sally to save Fluffy.” Pets are now family members, which means it’s no longer unusual to pay for their chemo, radiation, or hip replacements. Veterinary medicine “literally mirrors human health care.”

New York's Animal Medical Center Provides Advanced Treatments For Pets
Veterinarian Allyson Berent operates on a dog at the Animal Medical Center. John Moore — Getty Images

 

Some people have come to demand the same level of care for their pets as their families, agrees Dr. Chick Weisse, a staff surgeon and head of interventional radiology at the Animal Medical Center (he also happens to be Dr. Berent’s husband). He regularly hears variations of, “My aunt had this procedure, why can’t my dog?” To meet this demand, veterinarians and human surgeons have started to collaborate on new procedures, teaching one another relevant techniques. Drs. Berent and Weisse are coached by an interventionist from NYU Langone, while the hospital’s department of neurology works with doctors from Weill Cornell Medicine.

The high level of care translates into higher medical costs: Americans spent $15.4 billion on vet services last year, up from $8.6 billion in 2005. And yet pet insurance remains a relatively rare phenomenon. Only 1-2% of the total U.S. pet population was insured last year, according to the North American Pet Insurance Association, a trade group. Some of the largest providers, including the Veterinary Pet Insurance Company (which is owned by Nationwide) and Trupanion, have gotten a bad rap for overly complicated, opaque and expensive policies. (A 2011 Consumer Reports analysis that examined four standard policies determined pet insurance was “rarely worth the price.”)

Still, the lack of growth “surprises me,” says Bob Vetere who, as president and CEO of the American Pet Product Association, has been tracking pet trends for years. Each time someone writes an enormous checks so Fluffy can live another day, the opportunity builds: “People are still getting used to the idea, but when a special need comes up, they’re all for it.”

Harold Herzog is a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University; he’s devoted his career to studying our relationship to animals. Recently, his colleague paid $12,000 out of pocket for cancer treatments for her golden retriever. The outcome was good, and the dog is healthy. She now has pet insurance.

For him, the anecdote raises interesting questions: How do we determine when the most compassionate response isn’t a complicated procedure, but to let the animal die a painless, unprolonged death? And more broadly, is it right to treat animals as if they were people?

Three years ago Shirley Hao created an account for Tibby, her Corgi, on which she posts and captions photos from her dog’s perspective. But even for Hao, who actively engages in anthropomorphism online, the societal shift to treat pets as if they were humans can be unsettling.“In the back of my mind, I’m always like ‘but she’s just a dog,” she says. “I love her, but she’s just a dog.’”

For many owners, this is no longer a relevant distinction. Which means for many owners, the stop treatment point does not exist.