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How to Practice Ghetto Veterinary Medicine

During my veterinary career, I’ve never seen the recession affect veterinarians and pet owners as severely as I have now. While Obama says the recession’s end is right around the corner, my clients (and patients) don’t feel the same.



Instead of clients pursuing surgery for their pet, I see more euthanasias. Instead of vaccines and routine blood work for geriatric pets, I see more clients opting for the vaccines only (when really, I’d rather you chose the blood work).

When it comes down to it, I want you to be able to feed and provide for your two-legged family first. So how do you take care of your pets when money’s tight?

While I trained in pristine, yuppified Ithaca, NY (Cornell University), I quickly realized that the rest of the world wasn’t the same. After all, this Bronx-born veterinarian has worked in some pretty ghetto areas. Having completed my internship and residency in both Boston and Philadelphia, I quickly learned two things as a veterinarian: how to practice "street" medicine, and that cats really do have nine lives (but that’s a whole other blog!).

As most pet owners know, animals are amazingly resilient. As a veterinarian, I’ve seen animals survive things they shouldn’t have … and that’s typically to my embarrassment, as I've already told the pet owner otherwise: He’s not going to survive this, or He’ll only live for a few more days

Based on this, sometimes street medicine does work, and while not ideal, it may end up saving your pet’s life.

I’ve worked at some veterinary hospitals where they barely give me, the veterinarian, a discount. As a result, when it comes to my own dog and cats, I’m often conservative (i.e., cheap), and have chosen the less comprehensive (i.e., cheaper) blood work when my pets vomit or look ill. So what gives? Blood work can range in cost from as low as $15 to as high as $400. In certain situations (e.g., if your pet has an infection, anemia, or organ problems like kidney or liver failure), it’s medically necessary to splurge on the expensive blood work, as it’s more thorough. However, sometimes you can get by with basic, more limited blood work that is less expensive – especially if your pet is normally healthy and young. With clients who have more limited funds, I push for the latter, as it at least gives me a window into their pet’s overall health. If these preliminary tests are normal – great! – I treat their pets on an outpatient basis (meaning, you take Fido home right away).  If, however, these preliminary tests are abnormal, I push aggressively for the more thorough (i.e., more expensive) blood work, which is then medically necessary. This is what I’d do for my own pets, too. After all, do for another’s pet what you would have done for your own, right?

Another example of street medicine is hydrating your pet. The "Cadillac" plan is to hospitalize for intravenous (IV) fluids through a catheter in your pet’s leg; this means keeping your pet overnight, or for several hours at a time. The "Hyundai" plan is to treat on an outpatient basis with subcutaneous (SQ) fluids, which we do by placing a big bubble of fluids under the skin; this is slower and less effective, but does help hydrate your pet. Sometimes you can opt for the cheaper SQ route, but if your pet is really sick, IV is the only way to go. That said, it can be a cost difference of up to $500. While most vets would push for IV, sometimes you can get by with SQ fluids (provided your pet is relatively "stable" and healthy otherwise).

So, know that you have some options. The cheaper route might not work as effectively, and may be slower, but it may prevent you from having to euthanize your pet. Having seen pets survive with just SQ fluids or Band-aid medicine, sometime street medicine does help to save your pet’s life and your wallet. When in doubt, work with your vet on how best to treat your pet while working within your financial budget.

Below, a few tips on how to best keep your pet safe during hard times. I’ll expand on these individually over the next few months, but in the meantime: spare your wallet by following these hints:

  • Try putting away a dollar a day for each pet that you have. If you can’t do that, limit the number of pets you have (i.e., don’t adopt anymore!)
  • Switch to more affordable food. That’s right, I buy dog and cat food from a warehouse, and my pets do fine on it.
  • Practice preventative medicine. Keep your dog on a leash, so he doesn’t get hit by a car. Keep your cat indoors, so he doesn’t get attacked by the neighborhood kid or the loose dog or coyote outside. Crate your dog so he doesn’t get into poisons in the house. Consider pet insurance. Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.


What hints do you have for saving on pet expenses? 

Dr. Justine Lee

Pic of the day: Vintage McCoy Dog bank and planter combo by riptheskull

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