How to save your pet when veterinary care costs are extreme

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Pets aren't just animals—they’re family. So when  Margaret Merill’s baby named Brewster hurt his eye. She did what she had to do.

“We actually had to take out a loan from the bank because he lost an eye. We had to wait and have his eye removed from emergency surgery because we couldn't afford it,” Merill said.

The surgery set her back $1,700. That's not as bad as what happened to Ashely Trahan when her dogs mauled her cat Casper.  She had just lost her job and had to make the heartbreaking choice between paying rent or spending $2,000 on vet bills.

“I told him if you have to go, go. He made a little meow and he left me. It was rough,” Trahan said.

While their stories might sound extreme, many pet owners have experienced sticker shock when it comes to vet bills.

According to the American Kennel Club, in a puppy's first year it will need an annual exam, vaccinations, heartworm test, and prevention, flea and tick treatment, a fecal exam, dental cleaning and be spayed or neutered. The average cost is at $1,003.

So why is this so expensive?

“When you look at the cost of veterinary care, it's one of the best bargains in the medical profession,” said Heidi Hottinger with Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists.

She says all those fancy machines you see in a pet hospital are the same as you'd see in a regular hospital. A syringe is a syringe and an anesthesia machine is an anesthesia machine. Period.

“We are in the same market for them as the human hospitals, the MD’s, the dentists. We are all purchasing from the same sources,” said Hottinger.

But the difference is when you go to the ER chances are you have health insurance that covers most of the cost. Not so with Fido. The sticker shock can leave owners howling mad.

“Because it's their own savings. They don't pull out that Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Aetna, Cigna. They don't pull out that card they pull out personal finances,” said Hottinger.

Pet insurance can help, but often it’s owner pay. You prepay over time, then submit a claim and then wait to get reimbursed. You have to start paying early when the pet is young. Otherwise the premiums are hefty.

At the Houston Humane Society, half the pets here were surrendered by their owners. The number one reason is finances. That’s why they offer low cost treatments regardless of the owner's income. But the bottom line is before you get a pet, think about your family's bottom line.

“When that cure fluffy puppy is giving you the pleading eyes or that kitten is climbing up your pants leg you may think of those bigger expenses later on down the line,” Monica Schmidt said.

The humane society suggests pet owners try to negotiate with their vets. Sometimes you can work out a payment plan—exchange services like cleaning kennels.

“A lot of that will be left to that private veterinary clinic or office about what they can or cannot do,” Monica Schmidt said.

Some vets offices will offer discounts for rescue animals. You can also travel. Smaller towns will often have lower prices. And check out veterinary schools.  There are also breed specific organizations that can help with low cost care.

As Brewster's owner knows, that's not always possible when disaster strikes in the wee hours of the morning, but in her case it worked out.

“She's totally happy now. Yeah, she's great!” Merill said.

And she's still pretty darn cute.


If you need help getting medical care for your pet, check out these resources:

Humane Society

National and Local Resources