The emergency room Thanksgiving Eve looked similar to the dozens I have visited as a patient, as a father of four children and as a journalist.

Except that this ER featured a cacophony of barks, yelps, whines and occasional screeches from a roomful of mostly canine patients awaiting treatment.

It was a room brimming with human tragedy, the anguish caused from having a hurt or sick family pet, sufficiently ill enough to end up in a pet emergency room on a major holiday.

Adding to the anguish was worry about the potential price tag for treating a beloved animal.

Permit me say this here, as firmly as possible: If you have a pet, please consider getting some pet health insurance.


The decision should be a medical one, not a fiscal one.


You do not want to be sitting in a veterinary hospital emergency room weighing a treatment plan for your seriously injured pet and be forced to consider your checkbook balance and/or how much room you have on a credit card.

The 24-hour facility I visited is, by reputation, one of the best places in the north San Francisco Bay Area to bring an injured animal. And so it was that my wife carried in our 1-year-old, 8-pound Yorkshire Terrier who just an hour before had chased a flock of wild turkeys across an open hilltop field to a cliff.

The turkeys took flight at the edge of the precipice. Our dog Biscuit couldn’t, of course. But his pell-mell, running momentum carried him over and then down to the rocks at the bottom of a steep incline.

The result was a badly broken hind leg that required intense surgery that included using a metal plate and screws to repair the injury to his femur.

Think of it as nearly on the scale of a human hip replacement.

Today Biscuit is recovering just fine and — like me — looking forward to a spring return to the Finger Lakes and Rasta Ranch Vineyards in Hector. It was at Rasta Ranch where we met, and he became part of our family last July.

Financially speaking, that sojourn will be much better-funded because most of the $7,000 bill for Biscuit’s emergency room visit and care should be covered under the terms of a catastrophic pet health insurance policy we bought to cover him when we adopted him.

Yes, it cost $7,000 for the surgery, an overnight hospital stay, nursing care and a small satchel of painkillers, antibiotics and muscle-relaxant drugs.

That $7,000 was all payable up front, by the way — long before the first incision was made.

If that figure seems high, you probably haven’t visited a human hospital emergency room recently or had surgery. The final bill is usually beyond enormous, even if your out-of-pocket costs weren’t too bad, thanks to Medicare or your private health insurance.

What was helpful for us in this incident was having the pet hospital itemize the estimate, so we knew exactly what we would be paying for.

At the hospital where Biscuit was treated, I watched families weighing the cost of treatment while their ill pet was sitting at their feet or on their laps.

I overheard an ER triage nurse tell one despondent-looking family that a doctor’s examination and diagnostic tests for their dog’s serious stomach ailment would probably cost a minimum of $500. And they could expect a flurry of more costs, too, for drug treatments and perhaps even some kind of surgery.

It was heartbreaking to see the fearful looks of the teenagers — who obviously loved the sick pet — and the sad grimaces of their parents struggling with what to do and what they might have to tell their children.

For Biscuit, the story had a happy ending. He should heal just fine. And because we have excellent catastrophic health insurance, we’ll be okay, too. The easiest part of this experience was not having to make a financial decision in the midst of a crisis.

Unless your pockets are deeper than ours, think “pet health insurance.”


Fitzgerald has worked at six newspapers as a writer and editor as well as a correspondent for two news services. He splits his time between Valois, NY and Pt. Richmond, CA. You can email him at and visit his website at

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