‘Pet Care’ Inflation: Health Care Costs Have Soared, and Not Only for Human Beings

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It’s no secret that health care costs have skyrocketed over the last ten years. Now, consider that pet owners say they refuse to cut back on spending on their dogs and cats even when the economy’s in rough shape. Combine these two ideas, and it should come as no surprise that in many ways, health care costs for pets have risen just as steeply as they have for humans.

According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), pet-related expenditures have kept soaring even as the economy tanked over the past few years. By the end of 2011, total pet expenditures in the U.S. is expected to top $50 billion, up from $48.35 billion in 2010, $45.5 billion in 2009—and just $28.5 billion in 2001.

Pet owners aren’t simply indulging their pooches and kitties with high-end treats and pet clothing. The escalating costs to keep pets healthy are responsible for much of the overall rise in expenditures. From 2010 to 2011, total pet expenditures are anticipated to have risen by about $2.5 billion, and $1.5 billion of that increase is due to pricier pet health care costs, or “pet care.” In 2010, pet owners collectively paid $13.01 billion for veterinarian services and another $10.94 billion for over-the-counter medications and supplies, totaling roughly $24 billion; by the end of 2011, those two spending categories are estimated to hit $25.5 billion. The vet costs alone rose by more from $1 billion, from $13.01 billion in 2010 to $14.11 billion this year.

(GALLERY: 12 Things We Buy in a Bad Economy: Pets)

A new Wall Street Journal story points out that the sharp rise in “pet care” costs mirrors that of humans: The average annual amount spent on doctor’s visits and surgeries for cats has shot up 73% over the past decade, while these same expenses for people rose 76.7% from 1999 to 2009. (These are costs for actual services, not health care insurance, which far outpaces actual costs, rising at least 131% over the last decade or so.)

Why have pet care costs risen so sharply? Largely for the same reasons that human care costs have risen so sharply. The explanations given include the use of more advanced (and more expensive) technology, increased preventive care (which is supposed to trim overall costs, but no matter), liability concerns among doctors (which results in more X-rays and tests that might not be necessary), and the need for doctors to earn more money due to tuition hikes and student loan debt.

There is also a cultural explanation—that, increasingly, owners are willing to pay whatever it takes to keep their pets alive and healthy. That’s a scenario that’ll ensure escalating costs.

(MORE: Dog’s Life: Owners Don’t Cut Pet Spending During Tough Times)

Even as pet care costs rise, there’s an argument to be made they’re worthy paying, if only to keep your own health care costs down. Down toward the bottom of the APPA link above, the organization points out the many health benefits of owning a pet: Studies show that pets help to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, prevent heart disease, and battle depression and loneliness.

Pet owners also “actually make fewer doctor visits, especially for non-serious medical conditions,” though maybe that’s because they’re too busy going to the vet and pet-supplies stores.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.