The cost of necessities — food, clothing, shelter, gasoline — is soaring, and for the nation's more than 80-million dog and cat owners, so is the tab for pet care.
Ask Jean LaGreca, 53, a server at Beverly's La Croisette on St. Pete Beach, who is reeling from an unexpected $473.96 veterinarian bill for her Jack Russell terrier.
LaGreca has no health insurance of her own and uses the emergency room when she's ill. She makes sacrifices for her dog and two cats.
"Who comes first, Mommy or the pet?'' she asks rhetorically.
That conundrum is reality for many people who depend on their pets for comfort and companionship. Pets are part of their family.
The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reports that the country's pet owners spent $10.1-billion on veterinary care in 2007, a sum that's expected to rise to $10.9-billion this year.
They spent another $16.2-billion on food and another $9.8-billion on supplies and over-the-counter medicine.
Veterinarians say medical advances including pet-specific chemotherapy, pacemakers, kidney transplants, laser eye surgery, massages, acupunctures and therapeutic treadmills are fueling the rise.
"More and more pet owners have been asking their veterinarians for high-tech veterinary care,'' said Sharon Granskog, spokeswoman for the American Veterinary Medical Association.
"In the past, an animal with cancer may not have been treated, but now treatments are not only available, they are easily performed, so pets can have chemotherapy. There are pacemakers that are put into animals, dogs that have been paralyzed now have the ability to have canine carts. These are things that are available to extend and improve the quality of pets' lives.
"And with anything, there's a cost for these procedures and the medicines,'' she said.
To help pay for such treatments, which can reach thousands of dollars, growing numbers of pet owners are turning to pet insurance and pet credit cards for help.
Dr. Albert Few, an owner of Skyway Animal Hospital in St. Petersburg, says the notion of pet owners setting their own needs aside in favor of their animal companions is nothing new.
"I've been hearing that story for 37 years,'' he said.
Yet, the economic downturn is affecting some pet owners' decisions.
Dr. Frank Mills II of Pasadena Veterinary Hospital said "some people are going as far as financing their pets' health care through CareCredit, a credit card program for pets available through most veterinarians.''
Some humans hold off on their animal's annual teeth cleaning, which can amount to $250 or more, Dr. Shawna Green said. More, though, are learning that pet insurance can make it easier to get through catastrophic situations.
"We're seeing more of it, but it's definitely the minority of clients,'' said Green, owner of Medicine River Animal Hospital in Pinellas Park.
"I think people unfortunately are going to run into expenses that they didn't budget for,'' said Mills, who advocates the insurance and displays brochures for four companies in his office.
The number of people with pet insurance is increasing, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. About 2-million people now have pet insurance, a number the organization expects to increase to 5 to 7 percent of all pet owners by 2010.
Few, of Skyway Animal Hospital, believes there's a reason veterinarians more willingly endorse pet insurance. Implanted microchips mean pets are now easily identified.
"In prior years, you didn't know who you had insurance on. They could bring in anything and say, 'This is the one I have insurance on,' '' he said.
Veterinarians point to rising expenses of their own. New technology costs money, said Dr. Mark Brown of Central Animal Hospital and Tampa Bay K-9 Rehabilitation Center in St. Petersburg.
Ultrasound machines, which can cost $30,000 and up, have a lifespan of just three to five years, he said. If he were treating a dog with heart disease, he might need to hold an online consultation with a veterinary cardiologist.
"It costs me to do that,'' he said.
Furthermore, said Brown — whose full-service rehabilition center includes an underwater treadmill — veterinarians have an unusually high overhead since they often provide services including dentistry, surgery, orthopedics, radiology and pharmacy. They also make less than other medical professionals, he said.
Still, health care for pets is a growing profession. Dr. Richard Flora, dean of veterinary technology at St. Petersburg College, notes that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the field among the most promising.
Pet owners like Anna Inglett ensure growth.
Her two cairn terriers get regular medical checkups and are groomed every three weeks. Jennifer Miler of Doggone Purrfect Pet Care walks Inglett's pets once each day.
Inglett doesn't mind that costs for the veterinarian, groomer and dog walker have gone up. "You just build that into your budget,'' she said.
"They're like your children and you just do what you can to make sure they are comfortable. That's worth $18 a day to me.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at (727) 892-2283 or email@example.com.