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January 15, 2014

Once I got over the medical, emotional, and financial shock of Lilly’s vaccine-induced meningoencephalomyelitis, I created a spreadsheet to track every doggone dollar spent in the fight for Lilly’s life — from the day she received the vaccine until the day she died. I am curious if the actual number is higher or lower than you thought.

I’m sure I forgot to put a few things here and there into the spreadsheet, but the total cost of diagnosing and treating Lilly’s illness, side-effects, and secondary illnesses was staggering. I’m often embarrassed to say the number, but here it is:


money graphic, veterinary costsFor the record, I never once asked our large team of veterinarians to work for free or to give me a discount.

That grand total includes:

  • 2 separate week-long ICU hospitalizations (about $8,000 each)
  • 2 MRIs
  • 2 spinal taps
  • More than 20 cycles of chemo over 15 months
  • Numerous consultations with neurology, internal medicine, and emergency / critical care veterinary specialists
  • Countless medications and supplements required multiple times daily, including one seizure drug we used for a short time (thankfully) that is crazy expensive
  • Incontinence supplies (Lilly was totally incontinent both ways for the last 18 months of her life.)

It does not include things like time away from work, mileage to and from veterinary hospitals, or the two clothes washers, clothes dryer, and water well pressure tank ruined by doing so much incontinence laundry.

Exceptional or Not?

Last year, I tried to pitch a writer at a major women’s magazine a random act of kindness story about Lilly’s case. She turned me down. She assumed the costs of Lilly’s case meant I am wealthy. I am not. She assumed her readers would not relate to our story.

Let me be clear. I’m solidly middle class. We’re a frugal, two-income household. The only debt greater than Lilly’s veterinary costs is our house. Her veterinary costs even eclipsed my college student loans, which were close to $25,000. My wedding only cost $5,000. I’ve never paid this much for a car. I don’t care about jewelry or clothes. I’ve never in my life had a professional manicure or pedicure. We almost never eat out or go to the movies. We haven’t been on vacation since 2001.

So, how on earth did a girl like me afford these staggering veterinary bills?

Pet insurance. I’m still waiting on final reimbursements, but the total covered by our basic pet insurance policy (premium was about $35/month) is probably close to $8,000.

Personal savings. I’m lucky that I had a pretty good savings account early on that helped with the first week-long hospitalization. I was tapped out after that, but at least I had a nest egg at the beginning.

Credit. I rarely use my credit cards, so I had the ability to charge everything in the moment and deal with the ever-growing balances the best I could in my monthly budget.

Crowd funding. I’d been blogging about Lilly since 2007, long before she became ill, and our blog and social media fans came to our rescue with help totaling another $6,000 or so in year one. We did get one $1,000 check from someone who wants to remain anonymous, but the rest came in countless small amounts from people around the world. This help got us over the early shock and financial hump.

Taking on more work. Because I’m a self-employed writer, I can sometimes take on more work than usual to help pay the bills. I was very lucky and remain eternally grateful to my clients, who continued to give me as much work as I could take so that I could afford Lilly’s veterinary care, which sometimes quadrupled my normal monthly expenses.

Drastic budget cuts. It’s tough to cut an already-frugal budget, but we made even more sacrifices.  When that magazine turned down our story, I behaved like my Best Self and did NOT to ask, “Do you heat your home in winter? Because I don’t to save money for Lilly, and yet you think I’m wealthy.”

Higher or Lower?

I’m curious if that’s more or less than you assumed it cost. Leave a comment and let me know. Did you guess lower or higher?

About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. I was afraid you would hit an amount like that. Unbelievable, in hindsight, how you somehow was able to raise that kind of money. Such ashame the magazine didn’t recognize it, and just assumed you had to be rich, instead of resourceful.

    Although I know, Viva never would even come near an amount like that for all her health-care during the past 3 years, I couldn’t answer how much we actually spent, I never kept records of it. Ironically, some have also interpreted that for being rich.

  2. I’m not surprised that it was astronomical. For the week that Sebastian was in the hospital before he died, we accrued $5300 in vet bills. I had to open a Care Credit account to be able to cover what we didn’t have in savings. I have always said that I would live on bread and water if I had to in order to take care of my pets.

  3. Higher than I though, but I can see why. We have a border collie that we call our $10,000 dog, because she has had 2 hip replacement surgeries and a surgery for an intestinal blockage, along with her having chewed up cell phones, carpets, shoes, and a host of other things.
    To so many people, they are ‘just dogs’, replaceable items not to get too attached to, or spend too much money on, but to many of us, they are family, and you did what you had to do for your family.

  4. I saw your total and almost choked so no, it was much larger than I thought it would be. I don’t know if I had a solid figure in my mind, but I think I assumed (hoped?) it was less than $20,000 anyway. Nope.

    Interesting details about the pitch, though. There’s a conversation on the literary agent Janet Reid’s blog this week about how pitches are in fact not helpful to writers (mostly in the context of novels, I think, but still relevant to what you’ve mentioned here, at least in my brain).

    1. Thanks, Jen. As a writer myself, I get pitched all the time, and I agree that most often they are NOT very helpful. In this case, we know people in common, and the writer had ASKED for leads about random acts of kindness, so I told her about the $1,000 check we received toward the end of 2012.

      1. It’s a shame your story wasn’t accepted. I think a lot of people face sudden (and expensive) health struggles with their dogs and don’t know where to turn or how to cope.

  5. My emotional reaction would have been to guess more, but if I think about it logically, if you can do such a thing, I would’ve estimated in the neighborhood of what you stated. It has been incredibly generous of you to put yourself out like you have in allowing us to share and learn from your experiences with your sweet Lilly.

  6. I would have thought the amount was much higher. I applaud your honesty for sharing this information, and I sure wish that womens’ magazine had accepted your pitch. This is the kind of information pet guardians need to hear, because it gives hope to those who are faced with high veterinary bills that it IS possible to absorb these costs.

  7. I would have thought more, too, based on what my pets cost over the years. I’m glad you had some insurance, but still–a staggering, but oh-so-worth-it cost for your girl’s care. I’m really glad you gave her the life she deserved.

    And, I fully agree with Jane’s comments above about what your story was really about. The editor who turned down your query was totally off-base in her perception. I think more people than not would relate and want to read what you had to say.

  8. Actually, I would have guessed somewhat higher. Still thinking Jasmine, I guess …

    Actually, as it seems, the rich people are not half as willing to spend this much money on their dogs as us, the grunts, are. Which is quite interesting on its own, I think.

  9. I’m not too surprised based on my recent experiences. I’m glad you got some help, in many forms. I’ve been ever-so grateful that I have great pet health insurance in the last few years.

  10. What we do for the dogs we love…that love knows no bounds. I hope your heart and your wallet recover in time. Sending hugs.

  11. The total doesn’t surprise me. If anything, I thought it would be more. I had surgery done on my Chihuahua for luxating patella (only one leg) and that cost about $3500 (she’s 3.5 lbs). My Portie was in the hospital for 3 days for a bout of gastroenteritis…cost about $1200. And my kitty in renal failure was hospitalized for 3 days…cost about $2500. Granted, it was all done at a specialty hospital with 24 hour care so it was going to be more expensive than at a day clinic. Veterinary care can be quite expensive in my area.

  12. I was thinking it was going to be more. Still, a staggering amount to try and work into the regular flow of budget and finances.

    And here’s the thing. That editor who said people wouldn’t relate to the story. I think she’s so, so wrong. Because this isn’t just a story of a girl trying to save her beloved friend – though it’s that too. But it’s a story of how someone continues on when a horrific crisis occurs that eventually takes the life of her beloved friend. It’s a story of how people rally together to support each other. It’s a story of what to do when that crisis happens – because it happens to all of us at one time or another. Everyone on this planet will have to deal with something they think they just can’t deal with – and yet somehow they find the strength to deal with it.

    That’s what this story is about, and that editor missed out on a great story that would have touched a lot of people.

  13. I am not surprised by the number based on what you described over the treatment course. Just yesterday in the NYTimes I read about specialty vet care in the Well blog, coincidentally. It would not have surprised me if your cost had been higher either. I wonder if costs vary depending on location, too.

  14. I thought it would have been higher too. We just spent over $1500 for a weekend bout of pancreatitis – you’ve been at this for months. I would have spent it too though for my dogs.

  15. My estimate would have been higher only because we spent about $10,000.- on our beagle. He needed orthopedic surgeries throughout his short 8 years. With all the very expensive treatments you had to pay for I thought you’d be closer to $50,000.
    Thank you for sharing and answering so many of our questions.

  16. Wow, I can’t imagine. I’m glad you were able to do all possible for Lilly. So grateful to see someone do that instead of well, you know some would have never tried. I love mine so much and hope that when the time comes I can give my all.

  17. Staggering is definitely the descriptive word for that amount. In some ways not surprising at the cost of chemo or any type of test and adding in medications, supplies, etc., but will admit that although a monthly amount came up sometimes or a cost was mentioned, I never tried to estimate a total. I’m glad you had some help on it. I wondered the same thing Cathy did up above, as to the amount the pet insurance paid. Is that so far or do they have a cap? It’s not like Lilly had a congenital problem. It’s puts a whole new light on the almost $5,000 for our BC in just over a year. She was so lucky to have you guys for parents. When we love our “kids” we do our best to take care of them.

  18. I think it would have cost more in Canada, but the amount is still staggering. I would have had to give up a lot, too. Can I ask why your pet insurance didn’t cover more?

    1. Cathy, our pet insurance plan had $3,000 limits for each incident / illness / body system. So, once we hit the $3,000 limit for anything related to neurology, then they stopped paying on that … which included all the chemo treatments, for example. We nearly maxed out coverage (another $3,000) on bladder infections. BUT, as each “new” thing came up, they would start the financial clock again. So, for example, the blood clots … they paid on those. Had we decided to treat Lilly’s cancers, I can only assume they would have paid on those.

      Our plan required us to pay the first $100 of each injury or illness/diagnosis. Then, they covered 70% of that thing after that.

      Of all the claims I submitted, only one recent ER visit was denied because the company felt that it was neurological in nature. I asked our ER docs to help me appeal, but I suppose it doesn’t matter now. That claim was for about $750.

  19. It’s a staggering sum of money but in some ways, I’m surprised it wasn’t more. I live in Ireland where access to the kind of specialist care Lilly received is simply out of the question.

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