In January 2010, Bett McLean’s 9-year-old Westie, Ollie, started having what McLean thought were seizures. The vet agreed they were seizures and started treating the dog with medication.

But after an emergency-room incident in which McLean nearly lost Ollie, she consulted the neurology department at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. During Ollie’s EKG, doctors discovered that he had sic sinus syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder, and recommended a pacemaker.

Ollie Westie dogMcLean and her husband agreed to the procedure, but this past January, Ollie needed a new pacemaker, which would require a more invasive surgery. The 12-year-old dog went under the knife again, and McLean says he’s healthier than ever.

But multiple vet visits and surgeries didn’t come cheap. “One of the biggest concerns was the financial consideration of two surgeries,” McLean said.

She applied for CareCredit, a health care credit card that allows her to pay for Ollie’s procedures with no interest for six months.

Stories like McLean’s aren’t unusual these days. In fact, it’s estimated that Americans will spend almost $56 billion on their pets in 2013, and vet care is expected to amount to more than $14 billion of that number, according to the American Pet Products Association.

In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that Americans spend more on their furry family members each year than they do on alcohol or men’s clothing, and despite the recession, pet spending has held steady.

Why are we shelling out more than ever for pet health care?

Part of the family

A 2011 Harris Interactive poll found that 91 of percent of U.S. pet owners consider their pets to be family members, and 81 percent say pets are equal members of the family. Plus, 58 percent of pet owners think of their animals as their children and refer to themselves as their pets’ “mommy” or “daddy.”

But pets aren’t just filling a family role — they’re also acting as friends. The average American’s number of close friends has shrunk dramatically in the past few decades, according to a Duke University study, and pets can fill that void.

Nearly a third of cat owners say they’d rather chat with their cat after a bad day than anyone else, and a 2003 Swiss study of 212 couples found that cats were more capable than spouses at alleviating negative moods.

And dogs can help increase human interaction through neighborhood walks and outdoor gatherings. An Austrian study “found that pet ownership led to an increase in social contact, more socialization within neighborhoods, and even a greater perception to observers that the neighborhood seems 'friendly.’”

With pets holding such a high status within our families and providing emotional and social support, it’s only natural that we’d open our wallets to ensure our four-legged family members are just as healthy as the rest of us.

And pets are watching out for our health too.

Returning the favor

Pet owners often report that their cats, dogs and other critters improve their lives, and science backs that up. Studies show that sharing your home with an animal decreases stress, anxiety, depression and chronic pain, and pets can even lower blood pressure, improve immunity and decrease your risk of stroke and heart attack.

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Photo of Ollie courtesy of Bett McLean