One of the Most Neglected Aspects of Pet Ownership

pets insurance plans

Story at-a-glance -

  • It’s estimated that 1 in 3 pets will require emergency veterinary treatment each year, but only 39 percent of households have enough in savings to cover a $1,000 emergency expense
  • When you make your family’s budget, be sure to include your pet in your emergency fund so you’re prepared in the event of an emergency
  • Some veterinarians offer payment plans, deferred payments or financing options through their practice
  • You can also try contacting your state veterinary medical organization or a veterinary medical college, which may be able to provide you with a list of programs that help provide financial assistance or low-cost veterinary care for families in need
  • Many health conditions can be prevented or managed via a healthy lifestyle and preventive veterinary care, such that you can reduce your pet’s risk of succumbing to an expensive medical emergency

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

The love and companionship that pets add to our lives is priceless, but the costs associated with their care can add up too, especially when an unexpected illness or injury requires urgent veterinary care. In 2018, it's estimated that Americans will spend more than $72 billion on their pets, with more than $18 billion going to veterinary care.1 If your pet swallows something she shouldn't have, it could set you back an average of $1,755, according to veterinary health insurance provider Petplan.2

A joint injury, which is more common than you might think, can cost upwards of $3,500 while a chronic disease like cancer may require treatment costs in excess of $2,000. It's easy to assume that it won't happen to your pet, but it's estimated that 1 in 3 pets will require emergency veterinary treatment each year.3

Most Americans would not be able to easily absorb such an expense, as only 39 percent of households have enough in savings to cover a $1,000 emergency expense, according to Bankrate's 2018 financial security index survey.4

Add Your Pet to Your Household Budget

When figuring out a monthly budget, many families may include expected pet costs like food and treats, but it's important to account for emergency spending also. Petplan Veterinary Manager Elyse Cannon said in a press release:5

"Most pet parents will probably be surprised to learn that the average bill for unexpected care can range from nearly $800 to $1,500, but the reality is that every six seconds a pet parent is handed a bill for more than $3,000! Today's veterinary medicine is quite advanced, so there are almost as many treatments available to furry friends as there are in human healthcare."

When you make your family's budget, be sure to include your pet in your emergency fund so you're prepared in the event of an emergency as well as budgeting for the following:

  • Regular preventive health care and dental care
  • Costs for treatment of unexpected illness or injury
  • Costs for proper nutrition and daily care
  • Costs for breed-specific conditions that may arise, such as allergies, skin diseases, heart problems or orthopedic conditions

Eve Kaplan, a certified financial planner and investment advisor at Kaplan Financial Advisors in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, said that medical expenses are a primary cause of bankruptcy and this can include medical costs for pets. She recommends setting aside $5,000 to $10,000 for a pet emergency fund,6 and while most people may balk at that number (including myself), the premise is pet owners should start a pet emergency fund now and regularly contribute to it.

Should You Consider Pet Health Insurance?

Pet health insurance has become increasingly popular, and more than 2 million North American pets are currently insured, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association.7

"If there's ever a question about the benefit of pet insurance, all one needs to do is look at the data," says Natasha Ashton, co-founder and co-CEO of Petplan in a press release. "When you consider that the average Petplan policy costs $440 annually, and that pet parents in all 50 states spent much more than that on trips to the vet, the numbers truly speak for themselves."8

This is an opinion from a pet insurance CEO, so must be taken with a grain of salt, but there are times when pet health insurance makes sense. You must be sure to do your research, however, as some plans may not cover every illness or injury that may affect your pet.

You don't want to find out the hard way that, after paying a sizeable premium every month, your plan doesn't cover your dog's illness or injury. Before signing up, be sure to find out if the plan offers coverage for the following (and also inquire about the coverage limits and be aware that many plans exclude pre-existing conditions):

  • Chronic diseases such as heart disease, chronic kidney or liver disease, diabetes, and endocrine system disorders like Cushing's or Addison's disease
  • Ongoing testing and treatments for chronic diseases
  • Congenital and hereditary disease such as hip dysplasia, patellar luxation (floating kneecap), entropion (a disorder of the upper eyelid) and liver shunts
  • Breed-specific and species-specific disease
  • Cancer

Other Options to Help Pay for Veterinary Care

If you find yourself with an unexpected vet bill that you're having trouble paying, there are several other payment options that can help. Some veterinarians offer payment plans, deferred payments or financing options through their practice. Others can help you apply for Care Credit, a credit card for medical expenses. There are also low-cost veterinary clinics for low-income households, although these may not offer emergency treatment or treatment for complex conditions.

You can also try contacting your state veterinary medical organization or a veterinary medical college, which may be able to provide you with a list of programs that help provide financial assistance or low-cost veterinary care for families in need.9 If you must stick within a limited budget, let your veterinarian know ahead of time so she can develop the most effective treatment plan. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends:10

"Be honest and upfront with your veterinarian, and let them know when you have financial limitations. Knowing this in advance can help your veterinarian make recommendations that will provide the most efficient use of your financial resources.

For example, your veterinarian might reduce the number of diagnostic procedures they perform and focus on treatments aimed at treating what they believe to be the most likely problem. There are trade-offs to this approach, however, because a skipped diagnostic procedure might have provided an important piece of information."

Preventive Care Can Help You Save Money on Veterinary Care

Many health conditions can be prevented or managed via a healthy lifestyle and preventive veterinary care, such that you can reduce your pet's risk of succumbing to an expensive medical emergency. The top preventive strategies to help you save money on veterinary care include:

  • Feeding a fresh, balanced species-appropriate diet, which will support immune health and keep your pet's weight in check.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. In addition to eating right, ensure your dog gets daily aerobic exercise and active play. Excess weight in dogs and cats can shorten lifespan and lead to conditions such as arthritis, bladder and urinary tract disease, liver disease, diabetes and more, so this is one area that's very important for maintaining long-term health.
  • Minimizing stress, which includes removing stressors (including unnecessary exposure to vaccinations and medication) and providing outlets for mental stimulation.
  • Regular attention to hygiene, such as nail trims, ear cleaning and dental care.
  • Proper hydration, including providing fresh, filtered water for your pet daily.

It's important to bring your pet in for regular veterinary check-ups, as well, which can help you avoid preventable disease. While some injuries and illnesses can't be prevented, many can, but if you wait until your pet is already sick to seek veterinary care, it may be too late. Ideally, take your pet to a proactive, functional medicine vet at least once a year to identify weak links in your pet's wellness lifestyle plan or subtle changes in your pet's health that can be addressed and reversed through early intervention.