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Things the Pet Industry Won’t Tell You
When Beverly Dame brought home her cocker spaniel, Wesley, after 12 days at a kennel near her home in Vermont, he had a gaping wound on his rear leg and was unable to climb stairs. Treatments cost her $231 on top of the $169 kennel fee. While the kennel owner denies any wrongdoing, he admits that grooming, not boarding, is the kennel’s main business.
Kennels don’t have to pass accreditation standards, nor are they rigorously monitored in most states. Inspections are left to local officials and can be spotty. How can you know if your pet will be housed in cramped, unhealthy conditions or four-star luxury? Ideally, you should pick one of the few kennels that not only are members of the American Boarding Kennels Association but also have been accredited by the group. Such kennels must comply with 200 strict standards, including providing an area where dogs can be exercised at least three times per day. You can find such kennels at www.abka.com.
If there are no accredited kennels in your vicinity, tour the facility before booking your pet there. Ask what health concerns pet supervisors are trained to detect — runny noses or urinary problems, for example. Also ask about warranties: Many kennels now offer warranty contracts that, for $2 to $5 per boarding, will reimburse owners for vet costs up to a certain amount — commonly $500 — for injuries a pet sustains while in a kennel’s care.
Because all owners want a well-behaved pet — and some fear their dog may attack someone — many people fork over as much as $300 an hour for obedience lessons only to wind up with a dog that does little more than sit and stay.
Part of the problem is that anyone can call himself a trainer. “You’ll find trainers in pet stores, but sometimes you’ll discover they were a cashier last week and then they read a book on training,” says Babette Haggerty-Brennan, head trainer for Babette Haggerty’s School for Dogs in Palm Beach, Fla. Look for one who has graduated from a program such as the one conducted by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers; you can find such trainers at www.apdt.com. Also, ask how many years of experience a trainer has — training the family dog as a teenager doesn’t count — and how many dogs he’s trained. Then ask for client references.
Group classes through local pet stores and community centers can cost substantially less, and good programs let you observe a class for free before signing up. Check to see how many dogs are being trained — ideally, no more than five per trainer — and how sophisticated the commands are. Basic obedience commands, such as “sit,” “stay” and “down,” are fine for puppies, but older dogs should learn commands for leaving the kitchen, for example, or “drop it” to let go of items picked up on the street.
3. “I’m a breeder all right . . . of health problems for pets.”
All Ellen Szalinski wanted was a German shepherd puppy. What she got, after buying Bravo for $650 from a breeder, was a 4-pound, nine-week-old dog loaded with parasites and health problems. “As a consumer, I was an idiot,” says the publications manager at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital. The breeder had promised that the puppy would bulk up in a few weeks, but two years and about $5,000 later, Bravo had endured knee operations and been treated for cartilage abnormalities and ruptured ligaments. “For what I spent, I could have made a down payment on a condo,” Szalinski says, adding that Bravo is now healthy.
Poor nutrition and care during the first few weeks of life, while a puppy is still at the breeder’s, can cause sickness for months or even years. You can increase your odds of getting a healthy purebred by choosing breeders who use the services of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, an organization that tests everything from thyroids to kidneys to hips; you can learn about specific breeds’ health issues on OFA’s Web site, www.offa.org. Ask breeders for a trial period in which to assess the pup’s health and temperament. If you’re not satisfied, you can return the dog for a full refund. A breeder who says no likely doesn’t stand behind his animals.
4. “Ready for your annual cash-draining?”
Annual checkups should include a head-to-toe exam of a pet, along with vaccines, if necessary, and lab work for older pets. These exams can cost upwards of $150, and many vets tack on additional fees for such things as superfluous tests on a pet’s blood and urine. Also, veterinarians and researchers debate the necessity of giving vaccines such as parvo and distemper annually.
How can you avoid overcharges? When it’s time for an annual visit, ask the clinic to fax or e-mail an estimate and be prepared to discuss whether your pet needs the vaccines suggested, especially if it stays indoors. Ask about reduced rates on exams for additional pets; some vets offer discounts. Or go elsewhere: Organizations such as your local animal shelter, humane society or pet supplies store often provide services for a fraction of what a private-practice vet will charge.
Other services might be worth doing yourself — in particular, teeth cleaning. Toothbrushes designed in recent years that slip over a finger Finger Toothbrushes are much easier to run over a pet’s teeth than traditional pet toothbrushes.
5. “We can ‘insure’ that you’ll lose money.”
With the boom in pet care services and veterinary specialists, as well as advances in veterinary techniques in recent years, animals are undergoing more extensive and costly procedures to fix what ails them. That’s driving more owners to invest in pet insurance. A 2002 study of pet owners using AAHA hospitals found that one in 20 now carries pet health insurance, five times 1997’s figure.
Unfortunately, pet insurance woes can be similar to human insurance woes. Premiums can run as high as $6,000 over a pet’s lifetime, according to Consumer Reports, and preexisting conditions such as epilepsy or untreated hip dysplasia can disqualify your pet. If Sparky does qualify for a basic plan, reimbursements can be paltry, like a mere $10 per checkup.
If you shop well, however, insurance can sometimes be worthwhile. Emergency or surgery insurance plans cover large expenses for minimal premiums — often less than $10 a month, which isn’t bad when you consider that procedures for accidents or cancer treatment can easily run north of $3,000. Premier Pet Insurance (www.ppins.com) and Petshealth Care Plan (www.petshealthplan.com) offer low-cost programs that cover up to $8,000 a year in emergency care. Pet Assure (www.petassure.com) costs $99 a year per dog and $59 per cat and offers 25 percent off the cost of major surgeries and other pet services at thousands of vet offices nationwide. Even without insurance, though, you may have recourse for big-ticket expenses. Many vets, if you ask, will negotiate weekly or monthly payment plans.