The first time I moved out and had an apartment by myself—no roommate, no financial assistance from parents—I talked to my friends about adopting a cat. Suddenly my co-worker surprised me with a kitten as a gift. I was devastated and heartbroken, because I realized that I was barely making ends meet and could not afford vet bills on my salary.
I was lucky enough that a former roommate wanted the kitten and was financially in a better place to care for her, but this is not always the case. In many situations a person may keep a pet they can’t afford, hoping, against the odds, that the pet will not get sick enough to need health care. In other cases, loss of a job, physical disability, or decrease in family income forces many pet owners into a position in which they cannot afford veterinary care for their pet, and parting with their animal companion is not an option.
Whether this is because the animal is considered family, or because the owner’s emotional health would be affected by the loss of the pet, or because they cannot find a shelter or other suitable home for the pet, the need for veterinary care can leave a financially struggling pet owner in a moral bind.
So what should these families do? How can pet owners balance vet bills and daily bills to ensure all family members are healthy and cared for?
Avoiding High Vet Bills - Prevention, Prevention, Prevention
Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian who is often quoted in petMD articles, advises owners to “Invest your ounce in prevention, rather than your pounds in cure.”
Preventatives may have some upfront cost associated with use, but it is far cheaper than the diseases/conditions they are meant to prevent. Monthly flea and tick preventatives cost around $10.00 a month, whereas treatment for a flea infestation or tick related illnesses can cost well over a couple of hundred dollars, along with months of aggravation to treat.
One way to plan ahead is to consider a designated “pet” savings account. Putting away a few dollars a week can eventually add up and help with unexpected or annual/routine care.
If saving is not an option, consider Care Credit. This is a credit card specifically for medical use—for both humans and animals. There is no annual fee or cost to apply. The majority of veterinarians, as well as specialist and emergency care hospitals, accept this form of payment. Having this as a backup may be one form of having a medical savings plan or pet “insurance.”
Additional preventions all pet parents should take are spaying and neutering your pet, keeping them physically trim and the excess weight off, ensuring they have a well-fitting collar and use of a non “flexy” type leash (there is a reason veterinary professionals call these leads “hit by car” leashes), and keeping nails trimmed, fur brushed, teeth cleaned/brushed, and regular wellness visits with your vet. If a vet does catch a small or developing issue during a routine exam, having a savings or back-up credit plan may greatly reduce the cost of treatment and save some serious money down the road.
Emergencies Do Happen – Finding Low Cost Emergency Care
There are numerous local and national organizations that are able to help via specifically set up emergency funds and charities. The best place to find these funds is through your local SPCA, Humane Society, or Animal Shelter/Rescue Organization. Most of these organizations even offer low to no cost veterinary preventative care (vaccines, deworming, and even spay/neuter options) regardless if you adopted your pet from their organization or not. You may want to check well ahead of time for when they offer vet clinics, as many times they are not able to offer consistent hours due to their budget and staff limitations.
Finding affordable emergency vet care can be tricky. Most emergency vet clinics are more expensive than traditional, primary care veterinarians. In most cases, they are less willing to offer payment plans or discounted services. This is not because these veterinarians do not want to help you and your pet; it is, in most cases, because there has not been a relationship or financial history between you and the vet. Your primary vet, who you see at least once a year, is far more likely to work with you on a payment plan or discount services. But there are some options if you find yourself in an emergency vet hospital. Red Rover crisis care provides “financial assistance, resources … to pet guardians struggling with economic hardship when pets are in need of urgent and emergency veterinary care.”
These grants are only a few hundred dollars and can cover the initial exam and some medication, so what can pet owners do if they are facing a more extensive and expensive diagnosis and treatment? If immediate emergency care and treatment are required, please do not wait for one of these grants. The application process can take a few (business) days to go through.
First and foremost, be upfront with the treating veterinarian. Let them know you are in a tight financial bind, and even tell them how much money you have available to cover the costs of your pet’s care. Vets can get creative and can try to “skip” a few steps, treatments, and/or procedures. Although not ideal, veterinarians are NOT in this profession “just for the money” and would much rather treat pets and get them healthy than euthanize or send them home in pain for lack of finances.
In some cases, depending on your location, your vet can refer you to a veterinary school, but keep in mind that there are only 30 schools or colleges of veterinary medicine in the U.S., and the travel expenses may be more than the treatment.
Other Ways to Find Help with the Medical Bill
In this day of worldwide connection via social media, one option is to reach out to your “contacts” and start a GoFundMe (or similar) account. You never know, there may be a generous guardian angel out there that would be happy to help you and your pet.
The Humane Society of the United States has compiled national and local organizations that can provide financial assistance to owners and their pets, but be aware that you will need to make a good case for why your pet needs their money for medical care.
In a worst case scenario, where you just cannot afford veterinary care, consider reaching out to a local rescue organization (especially if you have a pure-breed dog) or animal shelter. They may have an onsite vet (often on select days of the week) who can care for your pup and get it the medical help it needs without resorting to euthanasia.
Do you know of any other ways to find affordable care? Share yours in the comments.