Keeping pets happy and healthy

FRESNO, Calif.

"Your hands are tied. Once they become a member of the family, you're kind of stuck. You have to take care of them," said pet owner Mike Greer of Clovis.

At just two years old, Rita Cohen's dog, Vera, has already had two unrelated surgeries. "She's already had a growth on her paw and she had to have surgery to remove that.

That was several hundred dollars, then she ingested a sewing needle. That probably cost a thousand dollars with the visits and the surgery," said Cohen.

Veterinary costs add up quickly. Dr. Cheryl Waterhouse of Waterhouse Animal Clinic in Northeast Fresno has seen some of her clients pay as much as $30,000 for specialized care at U.C. Davis. "Practically all the things that are available in human medicine, they're available in veterinary medicine as well. It's just they can be very expensive," said Dr. Waterhouse.

That's why Waterhouse recommends pet health insurance to all of her clients. For a monthly premium, plans offer coverage for everything from major medical emergencies to routine care. "There have been cases where the only reason the pet is alive is because the pet had health insurance, because the care is just so costly," said Dr. Waterhouse.

Plans start around $15 a month for cats and about $20 a month for dogs. Waterhouse says pet owners need to compare companies to find the best policies. Deductibles vary and keep in mind, you'll be paying all of the veterinary bills up front.

That means you deal with the insurance companies for reimbursement, not the vet. And just like people policies, certain pre-existing conditions may be exempt, as well as genetic diseases related to specific breeds.

Here's something else to consider: While good veterinary care can save lives, so can you. Would you know what to do if your dog was choking?

"I cannot tell you I know what to do for sure. I would know what to do if a person was choking," said pet owner Mario Leon.

The American Red Cross offers a course in pet first aid, including how to do chest compressions in case of choking. The course also teaches pet CPR, using dog and cat mannequins for hands on training. Each course includes a booklet and DVD that can guide you through just about anything, from bleeding to broken bones.

Instructors also stress the importance of determining what's normal for your pet, so you know when it's time to seek professional help.

"Finding out what their temperature is, their breathing rate, their pulse rate, all of those are really important things to start with. And then once you've realized what normal is, then you can determine what to do next," said Red Cross instructor Jennifer Waite.

Instructors say the course is not a replacement for veterinary care. But the information is good to know in case of emergency. "We hope that it gives people the tools they need and the information they need to keep their animals around a little bit longer," said Waite.

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