By Jennifer Derrick
If you have a pet or are thinking about getting one, you know that they can be expensive. Lovable, but expensive. In addition to food and supplies, the biggest expense of owning a pet is likely to be vet bills. When they’re little they need lots of vaccinations and spay/neuter surgery. When they get older they are likely to need special care. Not to mention the routine physicals, vaccinations, and medications required to keep your furry friend (and you) healthy and free from parasites. The good news is that, while veterinary care can be expensive, there are some ways to save money at the vet without sacrificing Fido’s health.
Wellness plans: Some vets offer what they call “wellness plans” to reduce your out of pocket cost for care. In most cases, you will pay a set fee per month and that fee includes most routine care and diagnostic procedures for the year. Anything not covered by the plan is likely to be discounted since you are a member of the plan. If you multiply that fee times twelve (to come up with a year’s cost) it is less, in most cases, than the cost would have been for those same procedures were you not on the plan. In other words, the vet is cutting you a price break because you’re paying him a little every month instead of all at once. These plans eliminate the shock of a huge vet bill because you’ve paid a little each month. However, you need to be certain that the plan does not include a bunch of procedures and examinations that you don’t need or want. Otherwise, you’re paying more than you need to and would be better off paying at the time of service.
Pet insurance: These policies function like human insurance in that you pay a premium each year and, when your pet has to go to the vet, you submit a claim to the insurance company and are reimbursed for all or a part of the treatment. These plans are a good idea if your pet is likely to have a lot of health problems (i.e., it is born with issues or is a breed that is likely to develop problems). However, you need to read the fine print carefully because some plans exclude certain genetic conditions altogether, or exclude your pet if it is not covered by a certain age. There may also be lifetime limits on payments.
Compare veterinarians: When we first got our dog, we took her to a large veterinary chain that was close by and offered a wellness plan. We thought we were getting a good deal. However, after some questionable care forced us to find another vet, I started looking around and asking friends who they used. It turns out there was a great vet right under my nose who charged a fraction of what I was paying at the large chain. He also adapts his care to the individual dog’s circumstances rather than giving them every treatment and procedure available just because it’s on the plan. This has resulted in big savings to me and a happier dog. It pays to look around and compare vets and their treatment philosophies.
Look for coupons and rebates: It sounds odd, but there are coupons available for vets. Each quarter we get a coupon mailer for our local area. My new vet always has a coupon in there for $10 off a yearly exam. I clip it and use it each year. I see coupons for other vets, as well, in places like the Yellow Pages, coupon mailers, Ad-Paks, and in the local paper. There is competition for your business and coupons are a way to get new customers. Rebates are also available for some medications. When we get our Heart Guard from the vet, he gives me a coupon for a $5 rebate each time I buy. You can only use the rebate if you buy directly from the vet. My vet sells these medications for less than the online sites, so I save even more. Ask if your vet has a rebate form for some of your medications.
Ask if there is a discount: Some vets give a price break to “established patients” that see that doctor repeatedly. My vet offers $10 off per visit because my dog has been to him more than once and is now an “established patient.” Ask if there is a discount for repeat clients. A vet may also offer discounts for referrals. It never hurts to ask.
Veterinary schools: If you live near a veterinary school, call and ask if they provide routine care. Many do and they allow the students to administer the physicals and vaccinations as practice. Their rates might be substantially less than a “regular” vet, but because the care is supervised by licensed vets, there is no lapse in quality.
Look into holistic care: A new trend in veterinary care is holistic medicine that relies less on drugs and traditional procedures and more on things like acupuncture, vitamin therapy, special diets, and other natural remedies. This may or may not be less expensive than traditional care (the absence of expensive drugs is what will save you money), but if you’re comfortable with this sort of care, it may pay to ask.
Try the mobile clinic: Many areas offer mobile clinics that provide basic care such as rabies shots, heart worm testing, and spay/neuter surgery for less than what a traditional vet charges. Many times these clinics’ costs are underwritten by the government or an animal protection organization, enabling them to charge substantially less than a regular vet. They are not the answer for everything your pet needs as most will not perform diagnostic procedures or surgeries, but they can be a less expensive choice for basic care and vaccinations.
Get a second opinion: As with a human, if your pet is diagnosed with something that is going to be expensive to treat or difficult to understand, get a second opinion. Another doctor may see something the first one missed or have a different treatment plan that will cost less. All doctors are different so if you feel like you’re being overcharged or want confirmation of a diagnosis, it never hurts to get that second opinion.
Know your pet and get informed about basic care: The biggest thing you can do to save money is to arm yourself with information. Become very familiar with your pet so that you know what’s normal and what isn’t. If your pet seems to be acting strangely, doesn’t seem to feel well, or you find a lump or bump that wasn’t there before, take it to the doctor as soon as you notice the problem. Just like with people, the sooner a problem is caught in a pet, the easier and less expensive it will be to treat. Also, know how to perform basic care (or have it done regularly) to keep your pet healthy. Know how to brush its teeth, clip its nails, groom it, administer any medications it needs, and give it proper food and exercise. Just like with humans, daily care and hygiene are essential to keeping pets healthy and out of the doctor’s office. And know your breed. Many dog and cat breeds have genetic problems that are more likely to surface in those breeds. If you know what to look out for, you’ll be more prepared should that genetic problem manifest itself in your pet.
It is possible to save money on veterinary expenses. You want to keep your furry friend healthy for a long time and quality veterinary care is part of the plan to accomplish that. However, quality care and expensive care are not necessarily the same thing so arm yourself with information and seek out a vet that can give you the care you want at the price you can afford. Owning a pet is never “cheap,” but you can make it less painful.