The Vet Bill Is $5,000: Now You Have Decisions to Make
As a pet owner, some of the most agonizing decisions you're faced with involve medical procedures for your beloved companion.
Vet bills are expensive – and getting more so. In 2022, government data shows their prices have increased by 10%, the biggest spike in two decades. When costs are extreme it’s natural to weigh your options, especially when your budget is tight.
So, how can you make the right choice when you have a sick animal who's part of the family? Veterinarians and pet owners who have been through the worst give their best advice.
Allow Yourself Time to Think and Plan
Whatever scenario led you to the vet, you'll be presented with a treatment plan and an estimated bill. Your impulse may be to give the go-ahead for everything. This is a very stressful time, though, so consider how you'll pay for it.
Morgan Harris, a Chicago publicist, was faced with tough decisions when his cat was diagnosed with lymphoma and an abdominal tumor.
“Jacques was only three years old, so I had to think about his life span and quality of life,” Harris says. “He needed surgery and six months’ worth of chemotherapy. The total cost was $16,000.”
To make sure he could afford the treatment, Harris reviewed his financial picture and made some immediate changes. He reworked the family budget, cut back on unnecessary spending and opted out of vacations. Friends pitched in, too, organizing a crowdfunding campaign.
Weigh Your Options With Your Vet
Never be embarrassed to talk to your veterinarian about your financial parameters. And no one in the office should make you feel guilty about your economic constraints. This goes for unexpected high bills for emergency procedures as well as routine appointments and treatments.
Open dialogue is expected and essential, Dr. Marisa Brunetti, VMD and chief veterinary officer at IndeVets in Philadelphia, says.
“What’s excellent about vet medicine now is we can offer a spectrum of care,” Brunetti says.
“Most vets will offer a few options: gold, silver and bronze. Each will have a different cost and success level. We are trained in the real world and know not everyone can afford the gold standard. Finances are important,” she adds.
Michael Chavez Booth, a Thousand Oaks, California-based marketing professional, has Melvin, a 14-year-old dachshund terrier mix. Booth recently spent $2,000 for a combination of procedures, including an ear infection, a loose tooth, mole removals and antibiotics.
The price would have been higher had he accepted the plan that included electives.
“Melvin has been through a lot and we do a lot for him,” Booth says. “I’ve learned to listen carefully to all the options the service provider gives, and I usually choose something in the middle.”
Understand the 'Now' Essentials
When you're evaluating costs and realize you can't afford the bills, ask the veterinarian, “What do I absolutely need to do now?”
That question is valid and the veterinarian will not negatively judge you for it, Dr. Zach Mills, DVM and animal health industry expert from Atlanta, says. Mills always offers the gold standard of care, but says it's not up to him – or any veterinarian – to guess what you can afford or tell you what you should spend.
“We will explain what is necessary as a minimum,” Mills says. “Tell us that you need some time. Maybe you need to call your parents for help. That’s a fine conversation. The key is always clear communication. I would never move forward with a treatment plan if you can’t afford it.”
Decide How You'll Manage the Bill
According to Mills, many people will request gold standard care for their pets, then ask for a discount. Most veterinarians are compassionate and will try to accommodate them.
For example, when Olivia Almagro, associate professor of business at Florida’s Miami Dade College, discovered that her terrier mix Angel was suffering from tick infestation, she immediately took her to the vet.
“She was in a lot of pain; the ticks were all around her neck,” Almagro says. “I remember crying, and them telling me she needed all kinds of tests and heartworm medication. It was going to cost $500 and I was laid off at the time.”
So, she spoke with her veterinarian, who gave her a break. Angel received the best care and the office reduced the bill to $300, which Almagro paid off in installments.
Other methods to manage a big veterinarian bill include:
Ask friends and family for a donation or loan.
Take out a personal loan.
Start a crowdfunding campaign.
Use CareCredit or another no- or low-interest financing arrangement.
Sell unnecessary possessions and apply the proceeds to the bill.
Charge the cost to an existing credit card.
Open a 0% APR credit card.
Ask your vet if it partners with foundations that can cover some or all of the cost.
Research charities that help financially strapped people pay for vet bills.
For future costs, consider purchasing pet insurance. Depending on the plan, the premiums can cover regular as well as emergency visits and a variety of out-of-pocket costs. If you decide against insurance, Mills strongly recommends funding a savings account for your pet’s needs.
Preventative Measures to Keep Vet Costs Down
Brunetti specializes in preventative care and says there are many actions pet owners can take to keep their animals healthy, which can mean a much lower bill down the line. Her top suggestions are:
Schedule regular visits. If your pet is younger than 8, a yearly checkup is a great idea, and if they're older than that, make it twice yearly. This way, your vet can identify problems before they spiral. “Pets hide their illnesses very well,” Brunetti says. “There are illnesses we can detect with bloodwork and fecal analysis, which could cost a lot of money to treat later.”
Have your pet vaccinated. Heartworm disease is important, Brunetti says. It's common because mosquitoes spread it. If your pet isn't vaccinated and does get the disease, you can expect to pay somewhere between $2,500 and $3,000 to treat it, which doesn't include the required crating and time you may have to take off work.
Brush your pet’s teeth. “By age 3, more than 70% of dogs and cats have some form of dental disease,” Brunetti says. “By brushing their teeth with an animal-specific toothpaste you can cut down on plaque and avoid abscesses that are extremely painful.” You can also save the $1,500 or so it typically costs to have their teeth professionally cleaned under anesthesia.
Maintain their proper weight. Practice portion control so your pets don’t become overweight. Brunetti warns that obese cats can get arthritis, constipation, urinary issues and diabetes, all of which can be dangerous and expensive. Obese dogs frequently get joint disease, then tear ligaments in their knees, which requires a surgery that costs at least $4,000.
Have multiple litter boxes in the right areas. “Cats are very particular about litter boxes,” Brunetti says. “If they don't feel comfortable they won’t go, which can lead to urinary problems that can cost more than $3,000.” A simple and inexpensive solution: Have multiple litter boxes, particularly if you have more than one cat, and make sure they are in quiet spaces. Also, make sure you clean them frequently.