Mel the catMy cat, Mel, whom I've had since 1996, has kidney disease. We're giving him a special diet and relatively inexpensive shots of fluids that are keeping his illness at bay by flushing out his kidneys, at least for now. More expensive treatments seem pointless and beyond my family's budget.

My situation, though, is hardly unique. According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans are expected to spend $12.79 billion this year on veterinarian care, up from $12.04 billion in 2009, an indication of the value that people place on their companion animals during hard economic times.

Meanwhile, many animal shelters are filled to capacity as record numbers of animals are surrendered because of high unemployment and rising foreclosures. Owners that can afford to keep their dogs, cats and other creatures are scrutinizing more closely the price that they need to pay to care for their animals.

Americans are cutting spending on everything from nonemergency procedures and diagnostic testing to parasite control products, according to a survey done last year by the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues. That's a change from the previous thinking that veterinarians were immune to economic pressures because people would spend what it took to care for their beloved pets.

"They did not see the downturn for a long time," says Joan Hendricks, Dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, whose small animal clinic has seen a reduction of about 7% in case load and revenue. "My understanding is that they have seen the rubber hits the road when the animal gets sick."

Seeking More Cost-Effective Care

Business is hurting at Penn's well-regarded animal hospital, which does kidney transplants among other things, because pet owners are more willing to see if their animals can be treated by lower-cost vets with less training, she says. Two years ago, graduates of the school's specialization programs had their pick of jobs, while this year they had trouble getting hired at all.

Unlike human medicine, cost has always been a consideration in caring for animals. It's considered humane to euthanize a pet to spare it from unnecessary suffering. Cash-strapped owners still want to take care of their pets. They want to do so in the most cost-effective manner possible for conditions such as broken legs. They also might order a six-month supply of heartworm medicine instead of a year. Some people are also shelling out for care using payment plans such as held checks. The finances of a veterinary clinic depend on where it's located.

''What you're talking about is discretionary spending," says Gregory Hammer, immediate past president of the American Veterinary Medicine Association, in an interview. "In veterinary medicine, rarely do you run into billionaires who own lots and lots of pets.... We're seeing that people want an estimate [for the costs of care] where they might have not required one before."

Revenue and patient visits to Hammer's Dover, Del., small animal and equine practice is down 5% to 7% this year, he says.

How Pet-Related Stocks Are Faring

Investors are already sensing the plight of cash-strapped animal lovers. Shares of PetMed Express (PETS), which provides mail-order pet medicine, are down 10% this year, while the top pet retailer PetsMart (PETM) has gained about 11%, indicating that the company may be taking business away from vets. The Phoenix-based chain said in May that it exceeded its internal goals for the first quarter and raised its earnings guidance for the rest of the year.

Second-quarter results at PetsMart, which has independently run Banfield pet hospitals in more than 60% of its stores, are due Aug. 18. PetSmart holds a 20.5% interest in Medical Management International, the operator of Banfield, The Pet Hospital.

.According to the 2009/2010 National Pet Owners Survey, 62% of U.S. households own a pet, which equates to 71.4 millions homes. Pet industry expenditures are expected to hit $41.7 billion this year, up from $45.5 billion last year, according to the APPA.

Not Getting Rich

For veterinarians, the economic downturn will only add to their financial pressures. Vet school graduates, whose degrees take four years to obtain, just like at medical school for humans, have debt loads of about $130,000. Their starting salaries in private practice are about $65,000.

"You can make a good living, but if your goal is to be Bill Gates, veterinary medicine is not for you," says Karen Felsted, CEO of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues. "I'm hopeful that 2010 is better that 2009 but I don't think it will be that much better."

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I agree with Melissa. There are some wonderful vets out there, mine being one of them. Last year, not more than about 6 weeks from being spayed, my dog developed a mammory tumor on the 4th gland. My fiance has been unemployed since last January, but our pets- 3 dogs until the unexpected loss of our almost 14-year-old girl in June- are always at the top of the money pecking order followed by the rest of the bills. Our vet knows our situation and has worked with us on monthly purchases of heart worm preventative and so on. When she examined Bonnie and confirmed the operation to remove and send out the tumor for biopsy needed to be done the next day, she agreed without hesitation to set up a payment plan for the almost $500 procedure. We have had health issues with our other two girls since the operation in October, with our youngest 4-year-old passing kidney stones after Bonnie's surgery in November and other issues with our oldest,, the last being liver issues- but we have been able to add that to the amount and now almost have the entire bill paid in full.

But I also understand comments like those from the lawman, too. Living in Charlotte, NC there are SO MANY vets here that operate much as his vet. I have often felt frustrated at vets for not doing more to help people with their pet's medical costs. I understand they have to make a living, too, but their education costs weren't that much more than my own. If you don't truly love animals, why are you a vet? People who aren't prepared to pay the vet bills and basic maintenance i.e. food, etc.- ours last year were between $1,500 and $2,000- don't need to adopt the pet as they need care just like you do, too.

August 16 2010 at 11:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Pet industry expenditures are expected to hit $41.7 billion this year, up from $45.5 billion last year, according to the APPA.

How is 41.7 up from 45.5????? Just wondering.

August 16 2010 at 11:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I dont seem to have much emphathy with Ms. Felsted. The vets around here drive expensive sports cars and live in above average houses. My Dalmatian sufferred from a deteriorating spinal cord. I was told to feed him this expensive dog food and to give him two very, very expensive medicines. None of it helped he finally had to be put down when he could no longer walk.

August 16 2010 at 11:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

every time I took my pet to the vet they died

August 16 2010 at 10:55 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

There are some great Vets out there. My Vet is a very good Dr.& compassionate man when Jr. had to have eye surgery a month ago he took a partial down payment and is letting me make monthly payments till the bill is paid. I too thought I wouldnt be able to have him get the surgery because I am on disability and cannot find a part time job to help make my own bills. When he found out I couldnt have it done he scooped my dog up in his arms and said what can u give me today. I will let u make payments, your dog is like a child to you and will help you! So there are Vets out there like Dr. Andy in WinterPark, Fl. He is the best!!!!

August 15 2010 at 8:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have 2 cats, both were rescued. Skipper is now 3. I got him when he was dropped off by a car where I worked. He wasn't old enough to be away from his mother. The newest one, Peigi (pronounced pee-eye-gee) was walking around the church parking lot in 98 degree heat where someone had left him. Also not old enough to be away from his mother. I know times are tough but there are no kill shelters for these types of beings. Luckily, these 2 have a nice home, lots of love and food. I use an ANIMAL CLINIC rather than a Vet Hospital. Great care, great prices.

August 15 2010 at 7:54 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The prices vets charge come from greed like every other business nowadays. They all want to get rich off the individual instead of slowly over time. Back in 1992 my Boston Terrier needed his teeth cleaned and they charged me $400.00. I brought home $280 a week at that time and was shocked when they gave me the bill. They told me it was because of the gas they had to use to put him to sleep so they could pull 3 teeth. My dentist charged me $95.00 when I had to be put to sleep to have all my wisdom teeth pulled plus I had to have a shot of penicillin because I have a heart murmur so what's the difference in my teeth and his? It took a lot more gas to put me to sleep than his little 17 pound body too. I have two little dogs now and never get out of the vets office for under $350 just for their reg. visits for their shots and heartworm medication.

August 15 2010 at 7:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Does anyone remember Obama's comment during the primary, even the animals are suffering? So true, and the two I have right now come from homes where they could not get the basic shots. It's a good thing they didn't need too much over basic care, else I would have not been able to take them. Sign of the times: lower income, lost jobs, lost savings all put animals at risk when they need more than basic care.

August 15 2010 at 7:11 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I had a tea cup yorkie I had to put her down she was 13. I had a file on her just for health no grooming no boarding just Vet bills it came to 10,750.00 If you buy a pet be ready to pay I tell my grandkids dont be doctor be a vet you dont have to pay malpractice insurence

August 15 2010 at 5:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The unfortunate aspect with pets is they are members of the family and when they get seriously sick, it is easy to euthanize them. Tough choice, but it has to be done for the good of the pet and the family (emotionally and financially). Cold as it may sound, it is the humane thing to do. While I am not saying to make sick animals .22 bait, there are humane ways of euthanizing them.

As far as the Vets are concerned, they are no different from the rest of the working world. They made the choice to go to school and have to deal with the economics and how to pay their bills.

Now is the time for pet care insurance.

August 15 2010 at 4:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply