5 Ways to Cover Rising Veterinary Costs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

help with vet care costs

Story at-a-glance

  • As veterinary costs continue to rise, so do the number of pet parents concerned about being able to afford health care for animal companions
  • As a pet owner, it’s important to understand that all veterinary practices have unavoidable built-in costs, and when choosing a provider, cost is just one of many variables you should consider
  • When it comes to paying for veterinary care, there are several options available, including lines of credit and discount plans, pet health insurance, and charitable organizations for financially strapped pet parents
  • When you’re creating your household budget, it makes sense to include pet health care expenses and to be as proactive as possible when it comes to preventing lifestyle-related diseases

Many pet parents today worry about the rising cost of veterinary care and whether they’ll be able to afford the procedures or treatments their furry family members may one day require. I’ll offer some recommendations on ways to do this shortly.

It’s worth noting that there are many justifiable reasons for increases in veterinary fees, one of which is the skyrocketing cost of attending vet school. Upon graduation, new veterinarians must bring in enough income to pay off their student debt (which can be hundreds of thousands of dollars) and also put food on the table. Keep in mind the average starting veterinary salary is often less than half that of a human doctor fresh out of medical school.

Another factor in vet care costs is the evolution of pet owners' relationships with their animal companions. Not so long ago, dogs and cats lived outdoors and were viewed more as property than as sentient beings. Veterinary visits were few and far between. Sick or injured pets were as likely to be euthanized as treated, regardless of age.

These days, however, not only do most pets live indoors with their humans, they’re considered cherished family members who deserve high-quality health care just like the two-legged members of the household. And quality health care in both human and veterinary medicine often comes with a hefty price tag.

The cost for an MRI scan is relatively the same for all species (dog, cat or human) but in most cases, medical bills are covered by insurance, but veterinary bills must be paid out of pocket. Medical and surgical equipment is expensive, hospital building maintenance and staffing are expensive, drugs and medications are expensive.

The difference for most people is that insurance picks up a substantial part of most human medical bills. This isn’t the case with veterinary bills, yet the cost of the care provided is similar for both species.

This situation makes veterinarians seem money-hungry or uncaring, when nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it’s this point that is a common contributing factor to the skyrocketing rates of veterinary suicide (the highest among professionals).

We get very little economic compensation from insurance programs, so the cost of doing excellent medicine remains astronomical. Our clients beg us to reduce our fees, then we can’t pay our bills, then we’re told we’re terrible people while we’re drowning in debt. It’s a horrible situation.

A Deeper Look at Veterinary Expenses

The veterinarian who owns the clinic you take your pet to is responsible for all the operating expenses associated with his or her practice. This begins with the building the clinic is located in, which must be in compliance with a never-ending list of government rules and regulations and local ordinances.

The equipment and supplies in veterinary offices are often leased or purchased from the same companies that supply human hospitals, and the costs are also the same. As veterinary practice owner Dr. Patty Khuly explains:

“Whether the syringes, catheters, gauze sponges, endotracheal tubes and surgical equipment will be used on a Labrador Retriever, street cat, human adult or pediatric patient, the price is the same.

Which explains why my ‘new’ CO2 monitor is a refurbished item, why I have to include a daily fee for the use of infusion pumps, and why every surgical estimate has an extra ‘materials and supplies’ fee tacked on.”1

Another large expense that veterinary clinics absorb is their in-house pharmacy. Five years ago, Khuly writes that she was spending over $20,000 a month to drug manufacturers and distributors. As many of you are aware, prices for both human and veterinary drugs have increased tremendously in recent years.

The biggest expense for most practice owners is their veterinary staff, which includes the other veterinarians who work for the clinic, credentialed vet techs, receptionists, kennel attendants, and other employees. In order to attract and retain high quality veterinary staff, practice owners must offer competitive salaries, health insurance, and opportunities for continuing education.

As pets become increasingly important to their humans, the more and better care pet owners expect from their veterinary providers. To meet those expectations means vets need to do more and charge more, and pet parents can expect to pay more.

Price Shopping for Veterinary Care

Back in 2011, a consumer group published a report noting that pet care costs were rising at a much faster rate than the rate of inflation.2 That information is almost a decade old now, and veterinary costs have continued to increase.

The report recommended that pet owners comparison shop for veterinary care and prepare in advance by getting prices from three or four local veterinarians for routine exams and procedures as well as urgent and emergency care services.

From my perspective as both a veterinarian and pet parent, finding the right health care providers for your dog, cat, bird or other companion is rarely simply a matter of cost. Now, that's not to say price shouldn't be a consideration — just that it shouldn't be the only consideration.

Only you know how much money you can afford to spend toward the care of furry family members. If you're budget conscious, I think it's a great idea to plan for, say, two yearly wellness exams and a professional teeth cleaning for your dog or cat. Knowing the cost of these services ahead of time means you can include them in your budget planning.

Unfortunately, it's much more difficult to prepare in advance for expenses for a pet who becomes ill or injured, or has a life-threatening situation requiring treatment at an emergency clinic. That’s why I highly recommend you familiarize yourself ahead of time with the emergency facility you'll use in the event you need one.

Part of this planning should include finding out what forms of payment the clinic will accept — cash or check only, or do they take credit cards? Some pet owners set a credit card aside to use only for pet care emergencies, while others purchase pet health insurance coverage.

I also recommend you familiarize yourself with the difference between urgent care situations and true life-threatening emergencies. Some pet conditions actually look or sound or smell worse than they are. Conversely, some truly life-threatening situations might not initially appear very serious. 

Knowing when to incur expensive emergency services and when it's safe to wait for an appointment with your regular veterinarian can help control pet care costs.

Options to Help Pay for Veterinary Care

A situation every pet parent should strive to avoid is allowing vet costs to become a barrier to properly caring for an animal companion’s health.

For example, treating a dog’s or cat’s dental disease can be costly — especially when anesthesia is required (which is most of the time). Unfortunately, too many pet parents put off dental exams and cleanings due to the costs involved (as well as anesthesia fears, especially in older animals).

If your goal is to provide excellent veterinary care for your pet, but you know or fear you don’t/won’t have the necessary funds, one or more of the following options may work for you:3

Line of credit — CareCredit® is a health care financing credit card that can be used for both medical and veterinary expenses. The CareCredit card can be used to pay for out-of-pocket expenses not covered by medical insurance, and there are special financing options available. CareCredit is accepted for health and wellness care at over 225,000 enrolled providers across the U.S. The Wells Fargo Health Advantage® Card is another option.

Scratchpay — Scratchpay is an online payment plan for veterinary costs. Like CareCredit, it pays the veterinarian upfront and you reimburse Scratchpay. Since it’s neither a credit card nor a line of credit, it doesn’t rely on or affect your credit score. According to PetMD, “Scratchpay has a higher approval rating, no hidden fees and no deferred interest; however, the vet clinic must be registered with Scratchpay.

Veterinary discount plan — The PetAssure discount plan involves paying either a monthly or (significantly less expensive) yearly fee which entitles you to receive discounts on all in-house veterinary services and procedures.

Charitable organizations — There are several charitable organizations that exist to help pet parents who can’t afford veterinary care. The Pet Fund and the Brown Dog Foundation exist to help financially strapped pet owners pay for veterinary bills.

Both have an application process and aid is income based. Funds are not available for emergency care. GoFundMe provides a list of organizations designed to help cover veterinary bills for people in need.

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 with financial assistance or low-cost veterinary care for families in need.

Pet health insurance — If you’re thinking about purchasing health insurance coverage for your pet, it’s very important to compare policies with a critical eye. You can learn much more in my article, Is Pet Insurance Worth the Cost of Premiums?

Bottom line: As long as you know exactly what your plan does and does not cover, you can afford the monthly premium now and as it increases throughout your pet’s life, and you also have a way to pay your veterinarian upfront while you wait for reimbursement from your provider, a pet insurance plan may be the right choice for you.

If you’re in the market for a plan, you might want to check out Pet Insurance Review or The Best Pet Insurance at Reviews.com. 

Budgeting for Your Pet’s Health Care

Especially if you decide that pet health insurance doesn’t make sense in your situation, it’s crucially important to plan for emergency expenses. According to insurance provider Petplan, the average bill for unexpected care ranges from around $800 to $1,500, but the reality is that every 6 seconds a pet parent is handed a bill for over $3,000.4

When you’re creating your household budget, it’s a really good idea to include pet care expenses such as:

  • Regular wellness checkups, including 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

Financial planners advise setting aside a pet emergency fund that you regularly contribute to. One of the big benefits of this approach is any money in your fund that isn’t needed for your pet belongs to you, unlike the monthly premiums paid to a pet health insurer.

Top Proactive Strategies to Avoid Big Vet Bills

The very best approach to avoid unforeseen medical expenses is to become an empowered health advocate for your animals. This means making it your goal, as your animal’s guardian, to become a 2.0, highly knowledgeable pet parent about your animal’s body, her environment (including potential health risks that trigger disease) and nutritional status.

By doing your own at-home wellness assessments on a regular basis you’ll be able to spot and address many of the initial physical changes that lead to more notable symptoms and medical problems down the road.

You can avoid many of the most common reasons our companions end up at the vet for non-life threatening, pesky-and-expensive recurrent problems by addressing any symptoms at home, proactively, including weekly at-home exams:

Dental checks — if you see any plaque and tartar accumulating on your pet’s teeth start an at-home dental hygiene routine. Unaddressed oral issues are a common reason for super-expensive veterinary dental procedures so preventing them from occurring can save you thousands, over time.

Examine your pet’s eyes — remove accumulating debris as it forms with a damp cloth and keep hair trimmed short around the eyes to avoid matting and secondary moist pyodermas (skin infections).

Examine your pet’s ears — animal ear canals should be like yours, clean and dry. Remove accumulating debris or wax on a daily basis, or however often is needed to keep your pet’s ears in pristine condition. Ear infections start by an accumulation of debris that doesn’t get removed. Preventing infections from taking hold is so much easier and cheaper than multiple, expensive vet visits each year to treat recurrent ear infections.

Lumps and bumps inventory — run your hands over your pet’s body on a weekly basis and keep an at-home body and skin chart. Note the date, location and size of any new skin tags, warts, lumps or bumps. Update your pet’s body chart as thing change and if you see quick changes it’s time for well-justified vet exam.

Monitor your pet’s weight at home — Weigh yourself, then weigh yourself holding your animal. This gives you some idea if your pet is headed up or down the scale; certainly not exact, but you’ll get some idea about how you need to adjust the upcoming weeks’ calories.

If your dog is too big to pick up, most independent pet food retailers have scales you can weigh in on. Your vet will also be happy to weigh your animal without scheduling an appointment. Maintaining your pet’s weight reduces the potential for a multitude of diseases.

Monitor bowels daily — catching changes in your pet’s stools the minute they happen allows you to immediately address them with home remedies and dietary adjustments that often times prevents a trip to the vet.

Range of Motion Check in — your animal needs a lot of daily activity to maintain the resiliency of their muscle mass, ligaments, tendons and overall strength.

Chart daily activity in your Animal Wellness Log (I use the Notes app on my phone to keep track of all my animals’ details) and strive for at least 30 minutes of intense and interesting physical activity a day. If you find your animal is moving even slightly slower, is hesitant to climb stairs or join you on the couch, address this change immediately.

In addition to tracking weekly changes in your pet’s health, investigating and thoroughly understanding any current health issues is critical to your effective alignment with your loved ones’ prescribed protocols.

The days of leaving all medical management decisions to “the doctor” are done; your animals can’t advocate for themselves so it’s up to you know enough about every issue occurring in your pet’s body to make thoughtful and wise medical decisions that are in your animal’s best interest.

These important decisions are rooted in having enough knowledge to make good choices, and that only happens by educating yourself. As the owner, all “final calls” in veterinary medicine are ultimately your decision. But you must be well-equipped with the right information to be able to ask good questions to get the answers you need to make the best choices. It all starts with you knowing more than you ever wanted to know about every condition occurring in your animal.

After receiving a diagnosis, the goal is to co-create a viable treatment or quality of life plan you feel confident and comfortable executing at home. All of this revolves around you having an adequate knowledge base about what’s going on in your animal’s body. I tell my clients to keep learning until they won’t have any regrets, later on. A formidable assignment, indeed.

In addition to advocating for your animal’s health, the second way to profoundly reduce the likelihood your pet will become a medical statistic for a lifestyle-related disease (and require ongoing and expensive medical care) is to regularly assess lifestyle variables, including your pet’s immediate environment and nutritional status, including:

Assessing water and air quality — are the chemicals being filtered out of the tap or well water my pet drinks? How many chemically off-gassing fabrics, upholstery, furniture and carpet is my pet exposed to, and am I offering a means of detoxification?

Are there chemical endocrine disrupters routinely present in the home? (Food stored in plastic bags? Does my pet chew plastic toys? Room sprays, plug-ins or heavily scented candles often used?)

Does my animal have exposure to lawn chemicals or household extermination chemicals that can negatively affect their health?

Do I know where the ingredients in my pet’s food comes from and do I feel confident my animal is getting all the nutrition they need to thrive with what I’m currently feeding?

What percentage of my animal’s diet is ultra-processed verses unprocessed (real, fresh) food? How many times were the ingredients in the food my animal is eating heated? (Each time nutrients are heated AGEs form, which contribute to many chronic disease processes).

Flea and tick pesticides are expensive and have potential side effects; have I assessed my animal’s unique exposure risks for my location and created a customized plan that minimizes unnecessary chemicals?

Do I assess immunity (run a titer test) prior to giving unnecessary vaccines?

Am I checking vital organ function annually to assure myself my animal is as healthy on the inside as they appear to be on the outside? The only way to address disease is to identify it as soon as possible, proactive bloodwork is critical to the wellness process.

By creating at-home wellness plans that include an exercise schedule, owner-provided physical assessments, wellness logs, offering the most nutritious food you can afford to feed (with the inclusion of some living foods and as much variety as you can), a detox protocol for unavoidable chemical exposure and intentionally minimizing environmental toxins, it’s somewhat shocking how healthy our pets can become.

When animals are able to eat species-specific fresher foods, enjoy a physically and mentally fulfilling lower-stress lifestyle and avoid unnecessary exposure to harmful toxins, the body is able to perform better, last longer and require fewer “repairs” along the way. Over a lifetime, this ultimately translates into fewer vet visits and healthier animals that often live longer lives.



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