One of the most significant costs of having a dog or cat is veterinary care. According to the 2017 – 2018 National Pet Owners Survey by the American Pet Products Association, the average dog owner in the United States spent a total of $1,518 on vet visits and medicines in 2016. This figure includes the cost of routine checkups, vaccinations, sick visits, emergency visits, surgery, heartworm medications, and other drugs. Cat owners spent an average of $972 on the same types of care.
For families on a tight budget, these high numbers present a dilemma. Is a family pet simply a luxury they can’t afford? Worse still, do families that already own pets have to give up their furry friends if they’ve fallen on hard times and already need help with bills?
Not necessarily. Yes, veterinary bills can be expensive, but there are several ways to reduce the cost if you know how. And if you can’t bring the price of your pet’s care down to a number that fits your budget, there are various types of assistance programs that can help you with the bills.
The best way to lower your veterinary bills is to keep your dog or cat as healthy as possible. The less often your pet gets sick or injured, the fewer vet visits you have to make and the fewer medications you have to pay for. You still have to cover the cost of routine care like checkups, but those account for only a fraction of the average pet owner’s veterinary bills. And in addition to saving money, you’ll be helping your pet live a longer and happier life.
1. Healthy Diet
Keeping your pet healthy starts with knowing what to feed your dog or cat. According to the vets at Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, however, it’s not always easy to figure out which pet foods are healthy by looking at the label. Claims like “premium,” “natural,” or “artisanal” don’t have any legal meaning related to their ingredients or nutritional value. Even looking at the ingredient list, as most pet owners do, can’t tell you whether the food really provides the nutrients your pet needs.
A better place to check, according to the Tufts experts, is the food’s “Nutritional Adequacy statement” or “AAFCO statement.” It’s an analysis of how well a food matches the nutritional guidelines published by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). This statement isn’t always easy to find because it’s typically written in tiny letters on the back of the package or in the fold of the label. But it’s worth looking for because it provides the least ambiguous indication of whether the food can meet your pet’s needs.
The AAFCO statement takes one of three forms:
- “Product X Is Formulated to Meet AAFCO Nutrient Profiles for Y Species and Z Life Stage.” This phrase indicates the company crafted the product to meet the needs of either growing puppies or kittens or adult dogs or cats. A product labeled for “all life stages” is appropriate for both young and adult animals.
- “Animal Feeding Tests Using AAFCO Procedures Substantiate That Product X Provides Complete and Balanced Nutrition for Y Species and Z Life Stage.” This statement indicates that the manufacturer went a step beyond just basing its product on a set of written guidelines. It actually conducted tests to see if it’s suitable for pets in infancy (the “growth” stage), adulthood (“maintenance”), pregnancy or nursing (“gestation and lactation”), or all life stages.
- “This Product Is Intended for Intermittent and Supplemental Feeding Only.” This statement is bad news. It means that this food will not meet all your pet’s nutritional needs. Unless your vet has advised you to use this food in addition to your pet’s regular diet, put it back on the shelf.
However, the Tufts vets stress that seeing statement 1 or 2 on a pet food isn’t enough to guarantee it truly meets nutritional standards. Quality-control problems during manufacturing can make some batches of the product fall short. So in addition to checking the label, make sure the food comes from a reliable manufacturer.
The easiest way to find this out is to ask your vet if the brand is trustworthy. Alternatively, you can research the company on your own. The Tufts website provides a list of questions to call the manufacturer to ask, such as whether it owns the plants that make its food and whether an independent company like the Global Food Safety Initiative has certified it.
2. Regular Exercise
Along with proper feeding, exercise is essential for your pet’s overall health. Dr. Nate Clark, a veterinarian interviewed at Fetch by WebMD, says pets who get regular exercise are less likely to be obese, put less strain on their joints, and are less likely to develop arthritis.
According to the U.K. Kennel Club, growing puppies don’t need as much exercise as full-grown dogs. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your puppy gets five minutes of exercise up to twice a day for each month of its age until it’s fully grown. For instance, a 5-month-old puppy needs 25 minutes of exercise once or twice a day. Full-grown dogs need between 30 minutes and two hours of exercise daily, depending on their age, health, and breed, according to Dogster.
The most obvious way to exercise your dog is to take walks together. It has the added benefit of being good for your health too. If you’re not able to walk long distances, you can keep your pooch in shape with games of fetch or a visit to a dog park where it can run around with other dogs. Many dogs enjoy swimming as well. If you work long hours, look at highing a dog walker through Rover.com.
Cats need exercise too. Although they enjoy a naturally high metabolism that enables them to burn calories even while lounging around, they still need some activity to ward off obesity and the health problems associated with it. Vets at PetMD recommend exercising your cat a few times a day for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
However, unlike dogs, most cats won’t willingly go for a walk on a leash. The best way to encourage them to be active is to use toys and activities that appeal to their natural hunting instincts. Most cats will happily chase a motorized mouse, the dot of a laser pointer, a toy that you pull around on the end of a string, or just the string itself. However, never let a cat play with string when you’re not watching, as it can be very dangerous if swallowed.
Cats also enjoy batting at objects overhead. You can make a simple kitty piñata from an empty yogurt container with a small hole in the bottom. Put a couple of cat treats inside and dangle it from a string, and your cat will keep itself busy pawing at the container until the treats fall out. Other active toys include cat trees that encourage climbing, balls of crinkly paper for batting, and empty boxes or tunnels for kitties to explore.
3. Dental Care
Proper dental care is also vital for pet health. Plaque and tartar buildup in dogs and cats can lead to gum disease, which is not only painful but can spread to other organs and cause illness. According to VetStreet, more than 70% of dogs and cats over four years old suffer from periodontal disease.
Your veterinarian should check your pet’s teeth for signs of decay at least once a year as part of its annual checkup. However, VetStreet and the American Veterinary Medical Association say you should seek help sooner if your pet develops symptoms such as:
- Bad breath (especially musky-smelling breath in cats)
- Bleeding gums
- Brown or yellow teeth
- Loose, broken, or missing teeth
- Pawing at the mouth
- Swelling around the mouth
- Difficulty chewing (drooling or dropping food are symptoms of chewing problems)
- Reduced appetite or refusal to eat
Between vet visits, there are several ways to promote good dental health. The best way, if you can manage it, is to brush your pet’s teeth with a special toothpaste designed for pets. Dr. Craig Prior, another vet interviewed by WebMD, says regularly doing so can add two to four years to your pet’s life. But don’t use human toothpaste, which isn’t safe for them.
Toothbrushing doesn’t come naturally to pets. However, VetStreet says you can train them to get used to the process gradually. Start by letting them sniff the toothbrush and pet toothpaste and progressively work your way up to brushing for 30 seconds a day on each side of the mouth.
If your pet can’t get the hang of daily toothbrushing, you can get some of the same benefits from dental toys, treats, and food. Look for products that bear the seal of the Veterinary Oral Health Council, showing they meet the organization’s standards for plaque and tartar control. However, VetStreet says they’re not as effective as toothbrushing.
4. Annual Checkups
Just like humans, pets should see a doctor at least once per year, even if they seem healthy. This annual checkup gives your vet a chance to spot any potential problems and treat them before they become serious. Prior stresses that skipping this annual vet visit to save money is a bad idea, as it costs more to treat most pet illnesses than it does to prevent them. VetStreet also notes checkups every six months are a good idea for older pets and pets with ongoing health problems.
During your pet’s annual checkup, your vet does a complete nose-to-tail physical examination to look for any signs of illness. They weigh your pet, check its vital signs, listen to the heart and lungs, examine the eyes and ears, and feel all over for lumps or bumps. Many vets also do routine tests of blood, urine, or stool at this time to check for problems such as parasites. They also ask you questions about your pet’s health and behavior to learn about any potential warning signs of illness.
5. Routine Vaccinations
Another essential part of preventative care for both dogs and cats is vaccination. Besides protecting your pet from dangerous or even deadly diseases, they also protect you and other humans from diseases humans can catch from animals, such as rabies.
The American Animal Hospital Association names four core vaccines that are essential for all dogs in the United States: rabies, canine distemper, canine parvovirus, and canine adenovirus-2. Vets typically give the last three in the form of a single shot. Dogs can also receive optional vaccines for diseases such as bordetella (kennel cough), Lyme disease, leptospirosis, canine coronavirus, and parainfluenza. Vets recommend these based on the dog’s risk of exposure.
Vaccine recommendations for cats come from the American Association of Feline Practitioners. There are two core vaccines on this list: rabies and a combination shot that protects against feline panleukopenia virus, feline herpesvirus-1, and feline calicivirus. In addition to these core shots, vets highly recommend a feline leukemia vaccine for all kittens and booster shots for cats at high risk of exposure. Vets only recommend other noncore vaccines, such as those for feline immunodeficiency virus and bordetella, for cats with a high risk of infection.
6. Parasite Prevention
One potentially deadly illness for pets is heartworm disease. Heartworms are tiny parasites transmitted through mosquito bites. These parasites can infest a pet’s blood vessels and heart, causing a variety of problems that affect the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Heartworm disease can be deadly, and even pets that recover can suffer permanent organ damage.
Treating heartworm can be a lengthy and expensive process, especially in the later stages of the disease. But preventing it is very easy. All you have to do is give your pet a monthly pill or topical treatment or choose an injection given every six months by the vet. Some heartworm prevention products also protect against other parasites, such as roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms.
Heartworm disease can affect cats, but it’s rare, according to the American Heartworm Society. However, if cats do become infected, the disease is hard to detect and impossible to cure. Thus, the society recommends regular, year-round heartworm prevention for both dogs and cats.
Along with heartworms, make sure you’re protecting your pets from fleas and ticks. These pets can carry diseases that could take months to treat and cost hundreds of dollars. By contrast, pills or topical treatments to block fleas and ticks only cost around $10 per month.
7. Spaying or Neutering
One of the best things you can do for your pet’s health — and animals in general — is to have it spayed or neutered. This routine surgery removes the pet’s reproductive organs so you don’t find yourself with a litter of unwanted puppies or kittens. Spaying and neutering are crucial for reducing the number of animals on the streets. According to the Humane Society of the United States, each year, 6 to 8 million cats and dogs enter shelters, which euthanize approximately 3 million — most of them healthy animals.
Both spaying and neutering require anesthesia, which always involves some risk. However, vets at VetStreet say the risks are low compared to the benefits these procedures can offer for pets and their owners. These include:
- Lower Disease Risk. Spaying or neutering reduces the risk of many serious health problems, such as breast, uterine, and testicular cancer. These diseases can be life-threatening and very expensive to treat.
- Less Risk of Escape. Pets that have been spayed or neutered are less likely to escape or roam far from home. Staying in their yards or homes reduces their chances of accidents, like being hit by a car or getting into fights with other animals.
- Better Behavior. Pets are sometimes less prone to aggression after spaying or neutering. Neutered male pets are less likely to mark their territory by spraying urine indoors as well as outdoors. Spaying female pets prevents them from coming into heat, a period of mate-seeking. Females in heat can be louder than usual, attract unwanted male animals to your property, and leave bloodstains on furniture and carpets.
Pay Lower Prices
No matter how carefully you take care of your pet, you can’t eliminate the risk of illness or injury. And even if you could, it wouldn’t eliminate your vet bills since you’d still need to pay for routine care like checkups and vaccinations. However, even if you can’t avoid vet bills, you can reduce the amount you pay by negotiating and shopping around, just like you would for any other product or service.
8. Negotiate With Your Vet
Clark, the veterinarian interviewed by Fetch, says the most important way to control the cost of your pet’s care is to communicate with your vet. Vets know what it’s like to have bills to pay, and they know that managing them can be difficult. They also want to make sure your pet gets the care it needs. Your vet would rather negotiate the cost of your pet’s treatment than put its health at risk.
If you’re looking for a break on your bill, try these tips:
- Be Honest About Your Finances. Let your vet know upfront if you’re on a tight budget. Often, there’s more than one way to diagnose or treat a condition, and some options cost less than others. If your vet knows your financial situation, they can work with you to find solutions that fit your budget.
- Know What’s Negotiable. Dr. Joel Ehrenzweig, a vet interviewed by MarketWatch, notes that prices for routine care, like office visits and vaccines, are usually fixed. However, prices for “big ticket items or involved procedures” are often more flexible.
- Get the Details. If your vet recommends a test or procedure, don’t say yes automatically. Ask why it’s necessary and what it costs. Ehrenzweig explains that vets sometimes recommend extras that aren’t strictly necessary just to make sure they’ve covered every possibility. By asking questions, you can avoid both unnecessary treatments and unpleasant surprises when the bill comes.
- Get Multiple Quotes. If your pet needs a major procedure and isn’t in any immediate danger, call other vets to see what they charge. Get a quote for the entire cost, including surgery, follow-up care, and medication. Then take these quotes to your vet and ask if they can match the lowest price you found elsewhere. They’ll probably be more willing to work with you if they know you have other options.
- Ask About Discounts. Dr. Karen Halligan, another vet who spoke with Marketwatch, says some vets offer a “senior discount” for blood and urine analysis tests on pets age 7 or older. Vets also sometimes offer specials, such as discounts on dental cleaning. Check out your vet’s website or social media account for offers like these.
- Ask What You Can Do Yourself. Overnight stays can add hundreds of dollars to your bill. So before a major procedure, ask if you can do the follow-up care at home, such as giving shots or administering fluids. If possible, schedule the procedure in the morning so you can pick up your pet in the evening rather than leaving it with the vet overnight.
9. Consider Cheaper Providers
If your usual vet isn’t willing to work with you on pricing, maybe it’s time to look at some alternatives. One way to find a cheaper vet is to look outside your area. Small-town vets tend to charge lower fees than those in big cities, according to the Humane Society. If you live in a metro area, call around to vets in nearby suburbs to ask about their prices.
You can also look to animal welfare groups like the Humane Society, the ASPCA, and local animal shelters for lower-cost care. Many of these organizations offer low-cost veterinary clinics that provide preventive care, such as vaccines, deworming, and spay or neutering procedures. However, these clinics don’t always maintain consistent hours, so call ahead to see when services are available. Check out Petfinder to search for animal welfare groups in your area.
For more elaborate procedures, check out local veterinary colleges. If you take your pet to one of these schools for a procedure, a student will do the work under the supervision of a qualified veterinarian. The American Veterinary Medical Association maintains a list of accredited veterinary schools in each state.
10. Reduce Vaccination Costs
While regular vaccination boosters are necessary, these shots come in different formulations. Some are good for only one year, while others last for three years. The three-year vaccines are often cheaper, so ask your vet whether they’re the right choice for your pet.
But don’t try to save on vaccination costs by giving your pet’s booster shots at home. According to Prior, you have no way to know if these do-it-yourself vaccines have been stored at the proper temperature to keep them viable. In some cases, the vaccines have actually expired and are essentially useless.
11. Pay Less for Medications
Buying your pet’s medications from the vet isn’t always the best deal. Vets sometimes dole out expensive name-brand prescription drugs when there are cheaper versions available. Before accepting these drugs, ask your vet whether there’s a less expensive alternative, such as a generic or over-the-counter product.
Also, always ask your vet for a written prescription. That way, you can shop around for the lowest price on the drug. Pet meds are often cheaper at online pharmacies like PetCareRx, Petco, and 1-800-PetMeds. Big-box stores like Target sometimes offer pet medications at a discount.
If you choose to buy your pet’s medications from an online pharmacy, make sure it’s a reputable one. A 2017 article in Forbes warns against foreign online pharmacies, which often carry medications that are either counterfeit or not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Another way to save on your pet’s medication is to talk to your vet about skipping doses of year-round medicines for part of the year. For instance, if you live in an area with cold winters, your pet may not need heartworm prevention during the cold months. Mosquitoes can’t pass heartworm larvae on to pets unless the temperature stays at 57 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for about a month, according to Fetch. However, don’t skip doses of heartworm and other meds without asking your vet first.
One thing you should never do is try to save on your pet’s medication by giving them drugs meant for humans instead. Human medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, or your own prescription can all be deadly to dogs and cats. Clark says he has had patients kill their pets this way.
Get Help With Bills
Sometimes, even after you lower your vet bills by negotiating and shopping around, you still need a little help paying them. Several strategies can help with this problem. Some involve planning ahead so you have the means to pay a vet bill when it comes. Others are more useful when you have to deal with an unexpected bill in a hurry.
12. Carry Pet Insurance
Pet emergencies can be incredibly expensive to treat. According to Preventive Vet, when you take your pet to an emergency vet clinic, your bill just for the initial consultation could be anywhere from $475 to $1,080. Surgery and other treatments can add thousands of dollars on top of that. If you can’t afford these treatments, you face the heartbreaking choice between bankrupting yourself and losing your beloved pet.
One way to avoid this problem is to carry pet health insurance through a company like Embrace Pet Insurance. These policies protect you from high health care expenses for pets, just like health insurance for humans. Dr. Darren Taul, a vet interviewed by Dogster, says this insurance “should be a staple for pet owners.”
Pet health insurance isn’t exactly cheap. According to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, the average U.S. pet owner paid $516 per pet in 2017 for a policy that covers both illnesses and accidents. However, that’s still far less than you could end up paying for a single life-threatening illness or accident. Also, most policies spread out the cost of their premiums into monthly payments that are easy to handle.
Most pet insurance policies don’t provide coverage for preexisting conditions. Because of this, the best time to buy insurance for your pets is when they’re young and healthy. You might spend a few years paying for a policy you never need to use, but that’s better than being unable to get insurance when you need it.
13. Consider Wellness Plans
Although pet insurance policies cover your pet’s emergency care needs, most of them don’t cover the cost of routine care. For this expense, there’s another type of policy you can use: a wellness plan. With these plans, you make manageable monthly payments into a pool you can use to cover all your pet’s routine care needs, such as checkups, vaccinations, dental cleanings, and blood or urine tests.
Many pet health insurance policies offer wellness plans as an add-on for an extra fee. Additionally, some vets offer wellness plans, also known as preventive care packages, directly to their clients. They bundle together all preventive services and offer them at a discounted price. You can spread the payments out over the year or, in some cases, save even more by paying the whole amount upfront.
14. Start a Special Savings Account
One thing to understand about pet health insurance is that these policies don’t always pay for themselves. Just like human health insurance, the insurer designed them to protect you from unmanageable expenses, not to minimize your costs. It’s quite likely the amount you collect in claims on your pet insurance will be nowhere close to the amount you pay in premiums over the years.
For many pet owners, a more cost-effective alternative is to start a special emergency fund just for their pet. Take the money you’d spend on pet insurance and set it aside each month in a special savings account. After several years of this, you’ll have a tidy sum to cover the costs of any emergency care your pet needs.
The downside of this approach is that it takes a while to build up your savings. Setting aside $500 a year for your pet’s care won’t help you if it needs a $2,000 emergency treatment after just one year. Thus, both pet emergency funds and pet health insurance carry some amount of risk. The question is which risk you’d rather face: spending money each year on a policy you might not need or running out of money in an account you need right away.
15. Finance the Cost
Buying insurance or starting a pet emergency fund can help you deal with vet bills in the future. However, they’re not much help if you have a steep bill right now and no way to pay it. In this situation, it’s a better option to try to finance the bill, either through your vet or a third party.
Many vets offer payment plans for their trusted customers. Instead of demanding full payment for a bill upfront, they allow you to pay it off in installments over time. Some vets charge no fees for these plans, while others require either interest or a small processing fee.
If you can’t work out a payment plan with your vet, look into third-party companies like ScratchPay. This company covers the cost of the bill upfront, and then you pay it back in multiple installments with interest. The interest rate you pay depends on your personal and financial profile, including your credit score.
Another way to finance your veterinary costs is with a health care credit card from CareCredit. It’s a credit card specifically for medical expenses, for both humans and animals. It has no annual fee and no cost to apply. More than 200,000 health care providers across the country accept CareCredit for payment.
CareCredit charges a standard annual percentage rate of 26.99%. However, it also allows you to defer your interest payments during a promotional period of six, 12, 18, or 24 months. If you pay off your bill in full during this period, you pay no interest. If you don’t, though, all the interest you’ve accumulated during the promotional period comes due.
Another downside of CareCredit, according to Taul, is that it’s hard to get the card if you don’t already have good credit. However, if you do, you probably don’t need it. Anyone with a high credit score already has sources of credit they aren’t using and can charge an emergency veterinary bill on those.