February 20, 2008 / 12:11 AM / in 10 years

Dogged devotion: Britons dig deep for pets' health

LONDON (Reuters) - Forget worming pills and a flea collar -- a trip to the vet in Britain these days could be about heart surgery, joint replacement, chemotherapy or a host of other cutting-edge procedures.

<p>Orthopaedic surgeon Rob Rayward examines a St. Bernard dog at Davies Veterinary Specialists near Hitchin, north of London, in this undated handout photograph received on February 18, 2008. REUTERS/Ian Holloway/RCVS/Handout</p>

Britain is one of the few countries in Europe to offer many of these complex treatments: devoted British pet-owners have fuelled a fast-growing insurance market that helps fund care which would otherwise take a big bite out of a bank account.

Research firm Datamonitor has forecast the country’s pet insurance market will grow to almost 600 million pounds ($1.18 billion) in 2011 from nearly 380 million pounds in 2006.

“It wasn’t that big a market a few years ago but now it is growing,” said Kelly Ostler-Coyle, a spokeswoman for the Association of British Insurers. “It is a combination of how much people value their pets and (the fact) that there are more providers in the market.”

At Davies Veterinary Specialists, the largest private clinic of its kind in Europe, a lobby full of barking dogs is evidence of the lengths pet-owners are prepared to go for treatments for their pets, which can easily cost thousands of pounds.

The sprawling complex not far from London boasts five operating theatres and nearly 30 veterinarians -- with specialties ranging from orthopedics to oncology. Its facilities include a gleaming new MRI machine and CT scanners.

“People are very dedicated to their pets here and willing to spend time, effort and money to get them well,” said Lea Liehmann, a soft-tissue surgeon at the clinic.

The veterinarians have performed skin grafts for dogs hit by cars, joint replacements for crippled animals and chemotherapy for pets with cancer, Jerry Davies, the clinic’s founder, told Reuters.

While Americans like Paris Hilton may lead the field in pet-pampering, when it comes to insuring their animals Britons are among the top dogs.

About a quarter of Britain’s 16 million or so dogs and cats are insured, compared with less than 2 percent in the United States, said Chris Price, a spokesman for Directline, a Royal Bank of Scotland subsidiary which offers pet insurance.

“VERY EMOTIONAL PRODUCT”

Insurers in many European countries do not even offer plans but in England a number of providers cater to pet owners in a market led by Allianz subsidiary Petplan. AXA SA also offers pet insurance.

“The sort of scope of veterinary treatment available these days is partly driven by insurance,” Directline’s Price said by telephone.

The only country that insures a greater proportion of its pets is Sweden, where the first policy was written and almost half of all pets are insured. One provider, Agria Djurforsakring, last year bought PetPartners PLC in a bid to penetrate the growing British market.

Rising costs have also persuaded more owners to insure their animals, which in turn has funded medical advances and helped create a market for the more complex procedures, veterinarians and insurers say.

“We have a very emotional product,” Davies said in an interview at his clinic.

Lorraine Sheppard’s decision to buy insurance for her 7-year-old bull terrier Dylan has paid off. So far it has covered ultrasounds, electrocardiograms, chest X-rays and three types of medication for her dog’s heart condition.

When the insurance money dries up she said she will keep paying herself for treatment.

“As long as the quality of life is retained I don’t have a problem with going so far,” she said. “Even if he wasn’t insured I would still be doing this. I’ll do as much as it takes.”

PREPARED TO PAY

Other British pet owners are increasingly willing to pay themselves for an array of medical treatments, and Davies predicted even more complex procedures for animals will be available in the future.

This sometimes poses a dilemma for veterinarians when it comes to choosing between an animal’s health and what a client can reasonably afford.

“I can remember one client selling a car to fund an operation,” Davies said. “But there is no point in trying to drive an old lady bankrupt for a procedure that may be achievable but not realistic for her purposes. You don’t want to diagnose through the wallet.”

At the Royal Veterinary College in London about a third of the clients pay out of their own pocket for procedures that can run up to nearly 10,000 pounds, said Dan Brockman, a surgeon at the school.

He has seen owners skip holidays and take out extra mortgages, but unlike Davies, said that decision is one owners need to consider when buying a pet.

“I can’t tell people what value to place on their pet,” he said. “What people choose to do with their disposable income is up to them.”

For Shirley Trenholme, this meant paying for open-heart surgery to fix her 10-month-old flatcoat retriever Arnie’s poorly functioning heart valve.

Brockman performs about eight similar open-heart operations each year at the college, which is the only place in Europe to offer this kind of treatment.

“You have to do what you can afford but in my case I would have been prepared to raise the money somehow,” Trenholme said by telephone. “As it was a puppy I bred I couldn’t not let him have it.”

The nearly 10,000 pound operation was only available due to the largesse of a previous pet-owner who didn’t want to fly her animal to the United States for surgery.

Instead she donated 40,000 pounds worth of equipment so Brockman and his team could set up a surgery -- a gift that has saved the lives of dozens of other animals, Brockman said.

“The United Kingdom is a country of real pet lovers,” he said. “There is no doubt about it.”

Reporting by Michael Kahn, Editing by Sara Ledwith

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