‘Book H in for a colonoscopy at a private clinic,’ begins one entry in Sasha Swire’s enjoyable diaries about her husband (which she should have called What Hugo Did During Term-Time.) She accompanies him to his appointment — whether for juicy material or moral support, we are not told — and relates how the bored consultant bangs on in detail, not about her hubby’s bum, but about the time his pointer swallowed a budgie. ‘As for their fees, simply extortionate!’ the expensive consultant whines in conclusion of a ‘violent diatribe’ against our world-beating veterinarian profession. At this flagrant pot and kettling, Lady Swire flares up: ‘It’s a racket — not unlike your game.’ At last, a point upon which we can surely all agree (‘Slasher’ Swire, the bottom specialist, you and I).
Just before lockdown we got a two-month-old cockapoo, a turbo-charged Hamleys soft toy with floppy ears that dangled into her water bowl when her little pink tongue lapped. It was love at first sight. We called her Ziggy, like so many dogs these days. We didn’t insure her, even though she cost £1,250. My last dog, Coco, changed hands for a grubby £20 note at a farm gate on Exmoor. I didn’t bother with insurance and she never had a day’s illness or accident apart from the time her tail temporarily went crook after swimming in the icy Exe (a distressing condition called ‘broken wag’). I thought I would do pay-as-you-go for her replacement.
What a fool I was. In June I ran Ziggy over, or, as I sobbed to my wailing grown-up children: ‘She ran under the wheels of my car!’ A broken pelvis. No action required except four weeks of crate rest — but the X-rays, treatment, and overnight stay at the vet in Minehead came to more than £800. Then, at the end of last month, she threw up a peach stone and stopped eating. I was briefly in Greece and my daughter Milly was looking after her in London. She WhatsApped me a picture — ah, the marvels of modern technology — of the vomit.
Video calls between Mile End and Athens followed. Ziggy was draped like some canine expiring Chatterton on the sofa. She carried on being nil by mouth — refusing even water squeezed from a flannel into her clamped jaws — for two more days. ‘The news is not good,’ my daughter told us on day three as I sat at a rooftop restaurant gazing at my iPhone instead of the floodlit Parthenon. ‘I’ve taken her to the vet and they’ve sent me to an animal hospital in Wanstead. She’s had X-rays and another peach stone’s blocking her intestine. They have to operate — tonight.’ I couldn’t help remembering the time Milly’s hamster, the late Hammy, was poorly and was kept in overnight ‘for observation’ — not to mention the three-figure sum I had to pay to spring her/him. I grimly wired several thousand pounds to my daughter.
The operation took place at one in the morning and the itemised bill stretched to three pages. The biggest item was ‘enterotomy, dog’ but the general anaesthetic was £200, the catheterisation and whatnot mounted up, so in the end it cost £2,500 to remove one soft fruit hard pit from a small dog’s tummy. Of course, when I was back from Greece a few days later for the reunion, I didn’t care about the £9.88 charge for three — three! — 500mg paracetamol tablets as we panted and twirled in happy greeting (well I did).
Are we all being sold a pup when it comes to pet care? Half of us own one but there is no NHS for dogs, ownership of which has gone up by a million from 8.9 million in 2018 to 9.9 million last year, a count, mind you, carried out before the world and his wife got a lockdown puppy. You either pay as you go, or buy pet insurance. Going by my two quotes for lifetime cover for a seven-month-old it’s around £50 a month with a £120 excess. (There is a third option, of course, which is you fail to treat, which we will come to.)
There remain a very few charitable animal hospitals nationwide that will treat, for free or very little, pets whose owners are on benefits. But during the pandemic these closed to ‘new registrations’, and in August the RSPCA Putney Animal Hospital, which treated 7,000 animals last year, including badgers and foxes, shut after 100 years. Still, while the NHS became an almost Covid-only service during lockdown (last week we learnt up to a million women missed their breast cancer screenings) the private treatment of our pets and animals carried much on as normal — for those with cash to splash.
When I ran Ziggy over, the care she received from a rural Somerset surgery was immediate and excellent. But, as the economy goes off a cliff, I worry about the consequences for those who keep or own or farm animals. The numbers of animals being cared for by the RSPCA rose from 1,500 to 5,600 between March and June alone. Reports of abandoned pets are soaring; distress calls to the charity’s hotlines multiplying. Dermot Murphy, head of its animal rescue teams, said lockdown puppies and their like were ‘a source of comfort and support’ but warned that pets were not just for lockdown, but for life. ‘We are worried that as lockdown eases, people return to work, go on holidays or struggle financially,’ he said, ‘we will be facing a massive surge of animal abandonments.’
I hope he’s wrong, but I fear he’s not. There is no market mechanism, no mix of public or private, to keep any sort of lid on fees. Vets have you over a barrel (‘It’s a racket’, remember), not just because of this, but because they know we love our pets as much as, if not more than, human members of our families. It has become normal to give our ‘fur babies’ (awful phrase) Christian names rather than Rex or Fido. The most popular names for dogs this year were Bella and Max. We buy books about dogs such as Monty Don’s bestseller about Nigel, a golden retriever with his own Wikipedia entry. When Nigel died, Monty was even invited on Radio 4’s <Today> programme to tell a sniffling nation that Nigel ‘was a bear of slightly limited brain, what he had was this absolute sense of purity’. ‘He exuded a kind of unsullied innocence and we all love our dogs, everybody thinks their dog is special,’ he wibbled on. ‘I’ve had lots of dogs and there was something special about Nigel.’
Touching. But as soon as I tell anyone about Ziggy’s peach op, they trump me. Ask any pet owner, basically, and they are all battle-scarred veterans of vets’ fees. A friend on Exmoor had to remove a champagne cork from Buddy, his three-year-old cockapoo at the cost of several thousand pounds. ‘Please don’t use my name,’ he begged me. ‘It’s too embarrassing — like a laceration from opening a tin of foie gras.’ My hairdresser Kelly groaned as I told her about Ziggy during my blow dry. It had just cost her £300 to have a nail removed from her dog’s paw, she told me, and every three days, she has to have it dressed at a charge of £80 each time. ‘At the end of the day,’ she said over the roar of the hairdryer, ‘They know we’re going to pay.’
Pupdate! Ziggy has a six-inch pink raised scar on her tender belly, but is set to make a full recovery. I don’t begrudge the price of a family car she has cost me in the past few months alone. We have, however, started calling her ‘Pussy cat’ as she has already lost two of her nine lives. But if she carries on like this I will have to sell the house, not in order to be able to afford my own care, nor my husband’s — but the dog’s.