It’s 10 pm on a Sunday night. Shadow, the 16-week-old puppy you adopted from Craigslist three days ago, has vomited multiple times and had two episodes of watery, bloody diarrhea. You’re very concerned and rush him to the emergency veterinarian. The emergency exam fee alone is almost $200, and the parvo rapid detection test is $98. He tests positive, and the veterinarian tells you all about this frequently fatal disease and gives you two treatment options: inpatient hospitalization for an estimated $2,500 to $4,000 for the first 24 to 48 hours, or outpatient at-home treatment for an estimated $400 to $700. You’re absolutely shocked at the cost of urgent/emergency veterinary care and are completely unprepared for such bills. You think to yourself, how can it possibly cost this much?
The truth is that the cost of veterinary care—along with the cost of groceries, gas, diesel, and utility bills, among other things—has risen steeply in the last decade. The overhead costs for staffing and running a veterinary clinic are considerable. The cost of supplies, especially drugs, has dramatically increased. Pet owners continue to be deeply committed to providing the best for their beloved pets, including excellent veterinary care. But many struggle to afford veterinary care in this economy, especially large, unexpected urgent care bills.
Veterinarians truly do love their work, helping animals and their people live long, healthy lives together. When clients can’t afford the recommended veterinary care, the heartbreak is felt on both sides of the exam table. After 20 years of working as an emergency and urgent care veterinarian, here are my tips to help make vet care as affordable as possible.
By far the single most important thing you can do to keep your veterinary costs down is to be deeply committed to preventative care. When you get a puppy, make sure that puppy receives his series of puppy vaccines, deworming, and fecal parasite tests, and feed him a good quality age- and breed-appropriate diet. This helps prevent diseases, such as parvo and canine distemper. “Puppy proof” your house to limit his access to chewable items that could potentially become intestinal blockages (I’m looking at you, corn cob from last night’s BBQ tossed into an open trash can!). As your dog grows, yearly wellness physical exams can catch many diseases early, which leads to a better—and less expensive—outcome. Starting at around 6 or 7 years old, blood work and urinalysis at your dog’s yearly exam help your vet head off some of the most expensive problems at the pass. Senior dogs will benefit from checkups every 6 months and blood work and urinalysis as needed, depending on the issues a dog may be facing. An ounce of prevention is absolutely guaranteed to be less expensive than a pound of cure.
Another good example of preventative care that is guaranteed to save you money is spaying and neutering your pets. (This advice is not addressed to the responsible show and purpose-bred dog breeders among us.) Admittedly, spaying and neutering costs have risen, too, but lower-cost options are available in the Coachella Valley and in the surrounding area. Your veterinarian can usually provide information on these options. Keep in mind that the most expensive spay surgery in the world is still cheaper than an emergency ovariohysterectomy (OHE) surgery to treat pyometra (in Latin, literally, a uterus full of pus, commonly occurs a week or two after heat cycle or birth of puppies) and 5 days of ICU hospitalization with a life-threatening systemic infection. Statistically, intact male dogs are more likely to escape their houses or yards in search of love and get hit by a car, suffer heatstroke, fight with other dogs, etc. Both intact males and females are also predisposed to cancers of the reproductive organs.
In my experience, many cats are brought in for their series of kitten vaccines, deworming, and their spay/neuter surgery, but then remain “healthy” so the owners do not perceive a need for yearly veterinary care. Cats, unlike dogs, can hide illness for a fair amount of time. By the time cats are brought to the urgent care or emergency vet after “hiding in the closet” for a week, they are frequently extremely ill and require extensive tests and treatments to pull through. Once again, yearly blood work and urinalysis will reveal early stages of diabetes, kidney failure, liver failure, and more.
But let’s say that despite preventative care, your dog or cat ends up at Urgent Care or in the ER needing blood work and X-rays to figure out exactly what’s going on. What are your options for an unexpected large veterinary bill? One good option is choosing to invest in pet insurance when your pet is a puppy or kitten. A large variety of insurance plans is available in all price ranges. Insurance companies offer comprehensive insurance that even covers wellness care in addition to emergency care. Insurance plans specifically geared toward covering only unexpected emergency care are also popular. Some pet insurance companies will pay the vet directly, while others require you to pay the bill at the time services are rendered and then reimburse you. Either way, this is an excellent system of budgeting a small amount monthly in exchange for peace of mind—knowing if you experience an emergency, you’re prepared and your pet will receive the top level of veterinary care.
Other tools for managing unexpected bills include CareCredit and Scratchpay. These companies offer third-party financing for medical care, and most veterinary offices accept these types of payment. You go online to apply—similar to applying for a credit card or a loan—and within minutes receive notice of approval and the amount you’re approved for. Veterinary staff are trained to help clients navigate this process, although most find it fairly straightforward.
Also, some clinics do have special funds available to help out when possible. For example, at Animal Samaritans, we have some funding set aside for seniors on fixed incomes to help them afford veterinary care. Requesting this funding includes an application process as well as income requirements.
Lastly, I have seen clients get creative in their approach to affording necessary vet care. Do not underestimate the power of a GoFundMe/Facebook plea to the animal-loving people on your Friends list. People have raised considerable amounts of money this way. Once again, in 20 years, I’ve seen some pretty inventive fund raising including:
- Client put “For Sale” sign on his car in the clinic parking lot and sold car for cash within 2 hours from someone driving by.
- Client went to Augustine Casino and won $2850 at the slots.
- Client went home, made some homemade food, and sold it out of the trunk of her car in the Home Depot parking lot.
- Client convinced 16 of her family members to each give her $50 as an early Christmas present (lots of aunts and uncles).
- Client tried to pay with a really, really freakishly large lemon from a tree growing in her backyard (we did not actually accept that as payment, BUT it was an impressive lemon).
In short, spend your money wisely on preventative care but also plan ahead and be prepared for potential emergencies. A final note in closing. The urgent care/emergency veterinarian and staff know that you love your pet. We understand your frustration with the costs of care and your fear that if you can’t provide that care, your pet will suffer or not survive. But please remember that we all have the same goal and that kindness and grace under stress will go a long way in fostering a good relationship with the veterinary team that is trying to help you and your pet.