One of the most significant costs of having a dog or a cat is veterinary care. In 2021, the average dog owner in the United States spent a total of $700 on routine and surgical vet visits, while cat owners spent an average of $379. And that doesn’t even include the cost of pet medications.
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 less you’ll need to spend on veterinary visits and medications. And in addition to saving you money, good pet care helps your pet live a longer and happier life.
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1. Healthy Diet
Keeping your pet healthy starts with knowing what to feed your dog or cat. 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 the ingredient list can’t tell you whether the food provides the nutrients your pet needs.
A better place to check 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 typically takes one of three forms:
- “Product X Is Formulated to Meet the Nutritional Levels Established by the AAFCO Species Y Nutrient Profiles for 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 means that this food will not meet all your pet’s nutritional needs. It can appear on packaged treats or veterinary medical foods, which a vet may prescribe to help treat a specific condition.
However, merely 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. Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary Medical Center provides a list of questions to ask, such as whether it owns the plants that make its food and whether an independent organization 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. Pets who get regular exercise are less likely to be obese and to suffer health problems like heat exhaustion, heart disease, breathing difficulties, and arthritis. Regular exercise also helps prevent behavior problems due to boredom.
A dog’s exercise needs depend on its age and breed. Growing puppies need several short bursts of activity throughout the day. Among adult dogs, breeds like Border Collies and Belgian Malinois need more activity, while Bulldogs and Basset Hounds need less. Talk to your vet about how much activity is appropriate for your dog.
The most obvious way to exercise your dog is to take walks together. It has the added benefit of being good for your health, and possibly your finances, too. If you can’t 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.
Cats also need exercise to ward off obesity and provide mental stimulation. Vets recommend exercising your cat a few times a day for about 10 minutes at a time. However, unlike dogs, most cats won’t willingly go for a walk on a leash. To encourage them to be active, 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 have fun 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 periodontal (gum) disease, which is not only painful but can spread to other organs and cause illness. According to PetMD, nearly 90% of dogs over two years old suffer from gum 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, the American Veterinary Medical Association says you should seek help sooner if your pet develops symptoms such as:
- Bad breath
- Bleeding gums
- Brown or yellow teeth
- Loose or broken teeth
- Extra teeth, or baby teeth that don’t fall out
- Mouth pain (which may be signaled by 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. Don’t use human toothpaste, which isn’t safe for them.
Toothbrushing doesn’t come naturally to pets. However, 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. They’re not as effective as toothbrushing, but much better than nothing.
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. For older pets and pets with ongoing health problems, consider checkups every six months.
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 as 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 chlamydia 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 get an injection every six months from the vet. Some heartworm prevention products also protect against other parasites, such as roundworms and hookworms.
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 pests 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 $10 to $30 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 spay or neuter it.. 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, over 6 to 8 million cats and dogs enter shelters, which euthanize nearly a quarter of them.
Both spaying and neutering require anesthesia, which always involves some risk. However, vets at VetStreet say the risks are low and the benefits for pets and their owners are considerable. 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 cats are less likely to mark their territory by spraying urine indoors as well as outdoors.
- Preventing Heat. 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, you can reduce the amount you pay at the vet by negotiating and shopping around, just like you would for any other product or service.
8. Negotiate With Your Vet
One 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.
- 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. Sometimes vets recommend extras that aren’t strictly necessary just as a precaution. 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 veterinary practices 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 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. For instance, vets in small towns sometimes charge lower fees than those in big cities. 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 spaying or neutering procedures. 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. 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, Chewy, 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 2021 article in Consumer Reports warns that nearly 95% of online pharmacies fail to meet either applicable laws or the standards of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP).
To be safe, look for online pharmacies that are NABP-approved. You can check by entering the pharmacy’s URL into the search box at Safe.pharmacy.
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.
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. These policies protect you from high health care expenses for pets, just like health insurance for humans.
Pet health insurance isn’t exactly cheap. According to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, in 2020 the average U.S. dog owner paid $599.03 per year for a policy that covers both illnesses and accidents. For cat owners, the average cost was $341.35 per year.
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.
Many 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 product you can use: a wellness plan.
Wellness plans aren’t insurance. Instead, they’re a budgeting tool to help you plan ahead for routine vet care costs. You make manageable monthly payments into a pool, then use that money 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 what they call preventive care packages. These packages 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, they’re meant 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.
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 225,000 health care providers across the country accept CareCredit for payment.
CareCredit offers several options for financing veterinary care. On selected purchases over $200, you can pay no interest 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.
Alternatively, on some purchases, you can pay off your bill in a series of fixed monthly payments. For instance, you can pay off a bill of $1,000 or more over 24 months at 14.9% APR, 36 months at 15.9% APR, or 48 months at 16.9% APR. For bills over $2,500, you can pay over 60 months at 17.9% APR.
16. Contact Charities
If your situation is truly desperate, see if there’s an animal welfare charity that can help you out. There are many nonprofit organizations across the country offering financial assistance to pet owners who can’t afford veterinary care.
If you adopted your pet from an animal shelter, perhaps it can put you in touch with programs that can help a pet owner like you.
If your pet is a pure-bred dog, consider animal welfare charities that focus specifically on aiding certain breeds of dogs. These include CorgiAid for corgis, the Pyramedic Trust for Great Pyrenees, Special Needs Dobermans, and WestieMed for West Highland white terriers.
Other organizations to consider include:
- Brown Dog Foundation for sick dogs that have a good chance of recovery
- Dogs on Deployment for pets owned by members of the military
- Handicapped Pets Foundation, which donates wheelchairs and other equipment to help disabled pets get around
- Veterinary Care Partnership Program from the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners, which helps people paired with guide, hearing, and service dogs
- Magic Bullet Fund, which helps cat and dog owners meet the cost of cancer treatment
- The Pet Fund, which assists pet owners with the costs of nonbasic, non-urgent care, such as cancer and heart disease treatment
- RedRover, which helps low-income individuals and survivors of domestic violence cover the cost of care for their pets
- Rose’s Fund for Animals, which aids pets and found animals that will die without assistance and have a good chance of survival with it
- Shakespeare Animal Fund, which helps cover vet bills for the elderly, ,disabled people, and low-income families
This is by no means a complete list. If your pet can’t match with any of the organizations listed here, check out the much longer list compiled by the Humane Society. It includes both national and local organizations that can help owners in need with vet bills.
Each organization has its own rules about which pets and owners it helps. Consult the website to see if you qualify. If you want to make sure the organizations are legit, look for details on their “About Us” page, or enter their names on Charity Navigator.
17. Raise Funds Online
If you can’t find an animal-related charity to help you out, there’s still one more option: start your own fundraising drive. Online crowdfunding platforms make it easy to reach out to friends, family, and social media contacts and ask for their help. Asking 100 friends to chip in just $10 each is easier than borrowing from one friend or family member, which could strain your relationship.
One well-known fundraising platform is GoFundMe. Many people have used it to raise money for their own pets and animal shelters. Setting up a fundraiser is easy and costs nothing. However, donors to your fund drive must pay a transaction fee of 2.9% plus $0.30 per donation. This fee is added to the amount the donors pay, not taken out of the money you receive.
One benefit of GoFundMe is that there’s no risk. With some crowdfunding sites, your fundraiser must reach its goal within a specific time, or you don’t get the money. With GoFundMe, you can start withdrawing your donated funds as soon as you receive them.
Another option that’s specifically for pet-related crowdfunding is Waggle. To use this platform, you submit a profile that includes your pet’s photo, the cost of the treatment it needs, and contact info for your vet. The site’s writers use this information to create a fundraising page you can share with your friends and family, in person or through social media.
As funds come in, Waggle sends them directly to your veterinarian. That ensures 100% of the money raised goes toward your pet’s care.
Losing a beloved pet to illness or injury is always painful. But it’s even worse when you know you might have been able to save your pet if you’d only had the money. Fortunately, strategies like preventing illness, reducing your vet bills, and seeking help with payment can spare your family from ever having to face this situation.
Taking full advantage of these strategies allows your family to enjoy the benefits of having a dog or a cat without risking your financial future or being burdened by unmanageable vet bills. It also allows you to ensure your pets don’t suffer unnecessarily.
For more information about planning ahead for the care of your pets, check out our article on estate planning with cats and dogs.