Meet the Northern Ireland animal lovers who are all prepared to spend a small fortune on their pets
Scans, special medications and ointments, even doggy day care... having a pet can add up to thousands of pounds every year. Karen Ireland meets three owners who are more than happy to lavish time and money on their furry friends.
Spending money on beloved animals is nothing new here, according to vet Craig Reilly, who says pets have always been part of the family and owners have done what they can to keep them alive and well.
But advances in modern medicine and technology mean we are spending more money than ever on our pets, and it is something that everyone should think about before getting one, warns Craig, who writes an advice column every Saturday in the Belfast Telegraph's Weekend magazine.
"Over 30 years ago, a local woman was all over the papers as she took her dog to Edinburgh for open heart surgery," he says.
"Back then it was big news, as the treatment wasn't widely available and she had to spend hundreds of pounds on the procedure and the travel."
Now, everyday treatments such as MRI scans, CTs and heart surgery mean that vet costs can mount to thousands of pounds. An MRI scan can set a pet owner back up to £1,200.
"In the past there was often nothing more that could be done, so the animal was put down, but now there are so many more options to be explored and things to try," explains the Bangor vet.
"People do treat their animals like children and they will go to any cost to protect them and keep them in the family for as long as possible and the costs can mount up - especially if you don't have insurance," he adds.
"So it is important if you are thinking about getting a pet to think about how you will pay for vet's bills if anything goes wrong, or if you want to take out pet insurance. Some policies only cover 12 months and if the pet has a chronic condition you will need ongoing insurance to avoid mounting costs."
Someone who knows all about the mounting costs of keeping pooches is former Miss United Kingdom, Gemma Garrett (34).
The former model, who now works as a make-up artist, lives in Belfast with her two bulldogs Buddy and Stella, both five.
"I love my dogs with all my heart and they are my life, but to be honest, if I'd known what I was getting into when I bought them I don't know if I would do it again, as it is such a financial burden and a real time commitment," says Gemma.
"Pets take over your life and for me, it is just like having children, they take up so much of my time and money.
"I am always running to the vet for advice and help, and with two it is double everything.
"Buddy recently had to have surgery to have a problem on his tail reversed. When he was under anaesthetic he took an allergic reaction and then took a heart attack and had to be brought round. It was a very scary and worrying time.
"In the end he didn't even have the actual operation, but I still had to pay for all the procedures - the anaesthetic and the medicines. It cost over £500 in total.
"At the same time, Stella was in being spayed and my total bill was nearly £700. I was pacing the floor when they were in surgery, as I was so anxious and worried about them. I know this is my fault as I have humanised the dogs and treat them like babies - they are spoilt rotten.
"Both my dogs have ongoing medical conditions, so all the treatments and visits to the vet adds up. Luckily, I've a brilliant vet on the Lisburn Road in Belfast, who specialises in bulldogs and he is fantastic with them. Buddy has epilepsy and Stella has alopecia, so they are constantly on pills and ointments, which cost me a fortune." Gemma admits that over the five years she has spent thousands of pounds at her local vets. "The dogs suffer from skin problems and ear infections, so I am constantly putting things on their skin and sterilising their ears. Honestly, at times it is like having a baby." She even sends them to "doggy day care" on days when she is working long shifts, so that they are not left home alone, as Stella often pulls her hair out due to separation anxiety.
"This costs £12.50 per day and then there are grooming costs every month and they are on a special diet and eat special food. It all mounts up."
Devoted Gemma says she wouldn't have it any other way, but she would always encourage others to think carefully before getting an animal, as it is a full time commitment.
"I would estimate that I spend over £3,450 per year on the dogs, but like I say they are my babies and they are worth it."
Single mum-of-three Olivia Danielli (28) also knows all too well the cost of having 'animal babies' in the household.
She lives in Holywood with her three children Rocco (5), Valentina (4) and Keanu (2) and, as if that wasn't a big enough family, in the mix she also has six Chihuahua dogs, a pot-bellied pig called Luigi, a parrot called Deano, a donkey called Dave, a miniature pony called Rocky and several tortoises.
The self-confessed animal fanatic says she would have more animals if she had the space.
"I just love animals and having them all around me," explains Olivia.
"People think I am mad, with so many animals and three children under five, but the way I see it, they are like an extension to the family."
With the larger animals, Olivia often has to call the vet out to her home - with a call-out fee of £80 before they even look at the animal.
"It is worth all the money and expense to know they are happy and healthy. It would break my heart if anything happened to any of them.
"The kids love the animals too and are never jealous of them. They join in and help look after them by feeding and cleaning them out. It is a lot of work and expenditure, but the rewards far outweigh the work and the expense.
"One of my biggest extravagances is getting the animals looked after when I go away for the weekend.
"I leave the Chihuahuas in a dog hotel near my home. They each have their own room with curtains and a sofa and a television in it.
"It is a home from home and they love it, but it costs me £200 for them to stay for a weekend.
"Then I need to get someone to call at the house to look after all the other animals." Olivia, who buys her dogs cashmere jumpers to match her own, admits her total bills for the animals per year would be in the thousands.
"It is expensive, but they are like an extension of the family so I don't think about the cost, I just want to care for them and look after them as best I can. Over a year I would spend £1,990 on the animals' vet bills and any medicines they need."
Debbie McCall (44) a hairdresser from Blackskull, agrees that when you are a pet lover you will do whatever it takes to protect them.
Married to Johnny (46) and with children Max (13) and Eva (11), theirs is a home full of love for a collection of animals including cats Enzo and Summer, a dog called Teddy, several fish and a hamster.
"We just love animals. The children love to have pets around and we have always had a dog and cats in the house."
It was a worrying time for the family a few years ago when Summer was found paralysed in the hedge near home.
"She couldn't walk or move and we were petrified she was going to die, as she was 14 at the time. We took her to the vet and thought they would have to put her down. They said she had broken her pelvis, but she had a fighting chance and might survive without surgery," says Debbie.
A few nights' costly stay in the vet's, X-rays, scans and treatments cost over £400, but Debbie says it was worth every penny to have the family pet back. "I went to visit her every day and she would drag herself over to the side of the cage and respond to me. The vet then said she would probably recover better at home, so we brought her home and kept her in a cage.
"It took several months of me nursing her back to health and looking after her every day, but eventually she started walking again and the family was over the moon. She had been with us so long she was just like one of the family and it would have broken our hearts had anything happened to her. Especially the children. We would have paid whatever it cost to have her fixed," adds Debbie.
The family "adopted" Japanese Spitz, Teddy earlier this year from Almost Home in Moira, which finds new homes for rescue pets.
"He has fitted in really well and is spoilt rotten. We do have to spend money on vet's bills as all the animals need check-ups and they get wormed every month. It all adds up to £995 a year, but the rewards far outweigh the cost," adds Debbie.