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Good dog, bad bill: Compare vet care financing options

Learn how to pay the tab when Fluffy or Fido need expensive care

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Why would anyone lick a credit card? With veterinary costs on the rise and sophisticated treatment options more readily available for pets, it's likely the average pet owner will one day face the prospect of a large veterinary bill. Before you and your furry -- or scaly -- companion find yourselves on the other side of the receptionist's counter looking at a jaw-dropping estimate, it might be a good idea to learn about veterinary care financing options. (See Financing options chart.)

The increased veterinary treatment choices and costs can put a strain on pet owners' finances and credit. Pet owners spent more than $13 billion on veterinary care in 2011, according to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, and they are projected to spend at least 1.3 percent more in 2012. 

An increasing number of veterinarians are now being trained as specialists who offer diagnostic tools such as MRIs and CAT scans and treatments such as canine dialysis, brain surgery and hip replacements.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the number of veterinary specialists in the U.S. has risen sharply in recent years. In 2011, there were 10,632 certified veterinary specialists -- over 2,000 more than there were just six years ago. Veterinary specialists include ER doctors, cardiologists, oncologists, neurologists, dermatologists and even ophthalmologists. (Yes, there are now eyeglasses for dogs.)

Unlike humans, only a very small percentage of pets in the United States are covered by insurance. "It's becoming more and more of an issue. Sometimes, it's 'Am I going to eat or pay for my dog's surgery?' " says veterinarian Shana Savikko, who is a veterinary adviser for the American Animal Hospital Association.

How to pay a big vet bill
Though large veterinary bills can sometimes cause sticker shock, there are financing options that can help. Planning ahead for a veterinary emergency or illness by saving some money each month might be the best strategy.

"Whenever I had a new puppy walk into the clinic, the first thing I'd recommend was starting a savings plan," says Savikko, who used to practice in Oregon. "You can make it real simple -- $10 a week. That's two coffees you don't grab at Starbucks, or a pizza you don't order." Or, Savikko recommends pet insurance that covers catastrophic illness or injury, which she says can be a better value than a plan that includes routine care.

Veterinary expenditures in the United States
Veterinary expenditures in the United States
Source: The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (2008)

Many pet owners, however, put off saving or getting pet insurance, thinking they can start later. Or they gamble on the chance that their pet might never have a major problem. Unfortunately, that gamble sometimes doesn't pay off.

For that reason, a few medical credit cards marketed for human health care needs also may be used to pay for pet health needs. CareCredit is endorsed by the American Animal Hospital Association and is widely accepted by veterinarians across the United States, and the Citi Health Card also may be used for veterinary care. Both cards offer zero or low fixed interest rates for periods of up to 24 months. Pet owners who expect to use one of these cards should check with veterinary emergency and specialty clinics to see which cards are accepted, then apply ahead of time to prevent the stress of having a pet's treatment hinge on approval.

Some pet owners choose to keep a standard credit card for emergencies, which might mean paying a higher interest rate. That's what Shirley Zarda, of Blue Springs, Mo., did after her 10-year-old black-and-white pit bull, Bella, woke her up in the middle of the night. "She could hardly walk, and she looked really bloated," Zarda remembers. At 3 a.m., Zarda rushed Bella to a 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic and learned that the dog had gastric torsion -- a dangerous condition in which the stomach twists, usually after a dog gobbles food too quickly -- and needed immediate surgery that would cost $3,000. "I had to put it on a credit card,  and I'm still paying for it," Zarda says.

Setting up a payment plan with the veterinarian is an alternative option, but one that is fast disappearing. Some veterinarians offer flexibility only to longtime clients whose checks have cleared in the past, while others do not offer payment plans at all. "Vets get stiffed a lot," says Allyson Regas, founder of Help-a-Pet, a nonprofit organization that helps disabled and low-income owners pay veterinary bills for dogs, cats, ferrets and even iguanas. Regas, who works with veterinarians every day through Help-a-Pet, says, "Many offered payment plans in the past, but just got burned too many times."

For pet owners who can't pay for a procedure without help -- usually those who fall into a certain income bracket or who are unemployed or cannot work because of a disability -- nonprofit organizations and other funds can be tapped. Usually, you have to apply for a grant online or by phone and provide proof of income and a written cost estimate from a veterinarian. "We also ask each pet owner to pay a portion of the bill," says Regas. "It helps spread our dollars further."

Yet, says Regas, "If someone were to give me a million dollars tomorrow, it wouldn't be enough. The demand is overwhelming. There's really not a structure out there to help people with emergency vet bills or surgeries."

Cut veterinary costs
In some cases -- Zarda's for example, since Bella needed surgery within the hour, or she'd die -- doing anything but immediately whipping out your credit card or checkbook isn't an option. "I tell people that when there's an emergency, it's not the time to be shopping around," Savikko says.

In other cases -- such as when an animal needs to see a specialist, but is not in immediate danger -- it is possible to cut costs. Here are some options:

  • Shop around. If there is more than one specialty clinic in your area, call around to get an estimate on the procedure your pet needs. Consider meeting with the specialists, too. "If you don't have a good rapport with the specialist, you're not going to feel like you're getting your money's worth," Savikko says.
  • Consider a teaching hospital. Universities with veterinary schools often offer services at teaching hospitals, which can be an option for pet owners on a budget. But don't expect the services to be cheap. "Teaching hospitals are usually less expensive, but not vastly less expensive," Savikko says. "And sometimes they will redo procedures, such as blood work, that have already been done at the primary veterinarian to give the students a chance to practice."
  • Use the best veterinarian for the job. Some pet owners have their regular veterinarian perform a procedure, only to end up having to take their pet to a specialist anyway. Savikko recommends asking your veterinarian about the complexity of a procedure, the veterinarian's comfort level with performing it -- and whether seeing a specialist might be best. "By the time people get to a specialist, sometimes the specialist has to do a more difficult procedure," Savikko says. And, of course, more difficult means more expensive.

The pros and cons of financing your pet's medical care
TypePrior planning?ProsCons
CareCredit Veterinary Financing No Quick approval. Can apply and get approved before your pet needs a procedure. Card cannot be used for new clothes, an iPod or anything other than health care. No-interest options for six, 12 or 18 months and extended payment plans for 24, 36, 48 or 60 months at a promotional 14.9 percent interest rate, for treatment fees of $1,000 to $25,000. Monthly payments as low as $56 on a $1,000 bill.  May be used at participating veterinarians only. Credit limit depends on your credit history and might not cover full cost of procedure. All plans not available at all providers. Standard interest rates are as high as 26.99 percent. Late payment can result in a fee of up to $35.
TypePrior planning?ProsCons
Citi Health Card No Like CareCredit, can be used only for veterinary or health care. No sign-up or annual fee. Account can be used immediately after approval. No-interest payment plans for six months for treatments of $250 or more; for 12 months for treatments of $500 or more; for 18 months for treatments of $750 or more. Offers a promotional 15.90 percent interest rate for select purchases eligible for the 24, 36 or 48-month budget payment plans. Credit limit varies, so it might not cover the full amount. Plans available depend on providers. Regular revolving interest rate of 28.99 percent. Late payment can result in a fee as high as $35.
TypePrior planning?ProsCons
Traditional credit card Maybe Peace of mind. Convenient. You might already have one that could be used. Possible high interest rate might cause you to pay hundreds of dollars more for the procedure. Temptation to use card for other purchases. Need high enough credit limit to pay for emergencies that could cost $1,000 to $5,000 or more.
TypePrior planning?ProsCons
Catastrophic pet insurance Yes Peace of mind. Less expensive than a comprehensive pet insurance plan that covers routine care such as vaccinations and teeth cleaning. You might never get your money's worth if your pet never gets sick or has an accident. You usually have to pay the veterinarian and then wait for reimbursement, so you still need a credit card, savings account or loan.
TypePrior planning?ProsCons
Creating an emergency pet savings account Yes You can earn interest instead of paying interest. You don't pay premiums you might never get back. No worry about whether a procedure will be covered. If your pet never has an emergency, you benefit financially. Requires discipline. Temptation to take money out for other expenses. Chance that an emergency could happen while your pet is still young, before you've saved enough to cover it.
TypePrior planning?ProsCons
Payment plan with veterinarian Maybe You can negotiate terms in person; a veterinarian who usually does not offer payment plans might make an exception for a regular client. Possibly more flexibility and lower interest rate than a credit card. Many veterinarians do not offer payment plans, and it's becoming even less common. Specialists and emergency clinics are even less likely than family veterinarians to offer payment options.
TypePrior planning?ProsCons
Grant from a nonprofit No Money does not need to be repaid. Possible option for owners for whom other options are not feasible. Some veterinarians have "Good Samaritan Funds" available to clients in need; the Humane Society offers a comprehensive list of organizations that help with veterinary bills. Usually have income ceilings and require proof of need. Rarely covers entire cost of treatment. Usually have an application process and waiting period. Most nonprofits have waiting lists and must turn some qualified pet owners away. Some nonprofits, such as The Pet Fund, serve all 50 states and all types of pets while others are breed-specific or location-specific.

 

Updated: December 13, 2012



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