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3 Lessons I Learned from Our Pets’ Vet Bills

Allie Johnson

January 24, 2013

When our dog, Maddie, got sick more than three years ago, it really put a strain on us — both emotionally and financially. But we did learn several important lessons about vet bills and finances.

Maddie (pictured below) was a sweet, fluffy black Spaniel mix I adopted from an animal shelter in Texas when I was working there in my first job as a newspaper reporter. A doggie socialite, she would walk up to everyone, human and canine, with a wagging tail.

When she was almost 10 years old, I noticed a little red bump on her elbow. She had just been to the groomer to get her fur cut for summer, so I assumed the spot was a nick that got infected.

I took her to the vet, thinking we’d get a prescription for antibiotics and be on our way. So, when the vet told me he suspected mast cell cancer, a very common type of skin cancer in dogs, I was shocked.

When a biopsy confirmed that’s what it was, our vet said Maddie needed surgery as quickly as possible and that he could do it. Maddie had the surgery, and we got our first vet bill from the ordeal: about $750.

Then we got some bad news. Lab results showed our family vet had not gotten all of the tumor out, and our dog needed a second surgery. This time, I made an appointment with a board-certified veterinary surgeon at a veterinary specialty hospital. Maddie had a second surgery, and the bill was more than $2,500. Luckily, we had enough money in our household emergency fund to pay for it.

And that’s how I learned Lesson No. 1: With veterinary care, sometimes the route that seems cheaper can end up costing more in the long run.

After doing some research, I learned that it can be a good idea to go to a board-certified veterinary surgeon in some cases, especially if cancer is suspected. By going with what seemed the cheaper route, I had wasted $750 and put Maddie through an extra surgery. Plus, the surgeon from the specialty hospital told me that the second surgery ended up being more expensive because Maddie had already had one surgery, making the second more complicated.

Maddie recovered well, and seemed healthy and happy. A year later, though, we found a lump on her side. Her cancer had come back. We had had time to build up our emergency fund again, and Maddie needed another surgery. We also tried chemo.

At the same time, our other dog, Gobo, tore a ligament in his knee and also needed surgery. We were almost tapped out from Maddie’s care, so I started doing research. I called about 10 vets, some family vets and some specialists in our area, and got quotes ranging from $2,200 to more than $4,000, with some family vets charging more than board-certified surgeons. Finally, I found an experienced board-certified surgeon about an hour and a half drive away from us who was doing a newer, less invasive procedure that would cost $1,200. It was worth that drive to save at least $1,000 and get the best care.

And thus, I learned Lesson No. 2: Shop around. Vet prices do vary a lot, and not necessarily based on skill or experience.

Gobo’s knee has been great ever since, but Maddie was not so lucky. She was feeling good most of the time, but she still had cancer. By the time she’d been sick almost three years, our finances had really suffered.

When we moved to a new state, we started taking her to a teaching hospital at a university, where she got specialist care and the prices were reasonable. Her vets tried a new drug that seemed to help. But, toward the end of her life, she got really sick and had to be hospitalized. We had already been hit with several vet bills that week and were broke. The vet hospital offered us CareCredit, a credit card designed to pay for health care that can be used for veterinary care. My husband and I both applied, to get the maximum amount possible, and we got approved in minutes. It was a huge relief to know we could give her the treatment she needed. We got a no-interest-for-six-months deal, the only promotion offered by that hospital.

In the end, we paid off the $800 CareCredit bill in just under six months. I signed up for online payments and set up alerts so I wouldn’t forget to pay the minimum and get hit with a $35 late fee. We made sure to have the balance paid off a little early, so we wouldn’t get hit with a high retroactive interest rate.

And so, I learned Lesson No. 3: Credit can be a good option if you need it and are vigilant about the interest rate, terms and payments.

Since we’ve paid off our CareCredit bill, I keep getting emails from the company encouraging me to use my card. I wouldn’t use it to buy, say, a new pair of glasses, but it is nice to know it’s there as one more option in case of a vet emergency.

I’ve never tallied the exact amount we spent on Maddie’s care, but I know it was a lot. Modern veterinary medicine, though pricy, gave us three extra years with Maddie before she passed away. That was a lot of walks by the river at our favorite park, a lot of play sessions with her best friend Gobo and a lot of  watching Maddie bring joy to everyone she met. For us, it was worth every penny.