Editorial Policy

How to Take the Bite Out of Big Vet Bills

Allie Johnson

January 25, 2013

It's a situation no pet owner wants to face: a veterinarian telling you your beloved dog — or cat or bird or gerbil — needs care that will cost more than next month's rent. But it's important for financially savvy consumers to be prepared for that possibility.

“If you go to the vet with a sick dog that's 12 years old, they're going to offer all sorts of options that are available with the miracle of modern medicine,” says Jacob Irwin, a blogger at MyPersonalFinanceJourney,  who set up a pet emergency fund for his dogs. “The key thing when thinking about vet bills is to determine your own comfort zone for how far you're willing to go to save your pet's life.”

No emergency fund? There are several options for paying that vet bill with plastic. One of the most common is CareCredit, a card from GE Capital designed to pay for health care costs, including veterinary bills. If you pay off your balance within the card's promotional period, you won't be charged interest. You can apply online or through any veterinarian who accepts the card. Or, some veterinarians may accept the similar Citi Health Card.

“CareCredit works great,” says Laurie Hess, a veterinarian at The Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics, in Bedford Hills, N.Y., who writes about pet care at Avianexoticsvet.com. She says her clients have used the card to pay for everything from blood tests for a bird to surgery on a ferret.

“It really allows people to do things for their pets that they wouldn't have otherwise been able to do,” she says.

Another option is to apply for a regular credit card with an extended 0 percent intro period. Several cards are offering interest-free promotional periods anywhere from 12 to 18 months. If you can budget your payments to cover the bill within the promo period, you shouldn't incur any interest charges. But there are still advantages to going with a medical card like CareCredit: you can apply at the vet's office, and you find out within minutes whether you can get credit and how much. Also, you can get a new no-interest promotional deal for each purchase, depending on what your vet offers.

However, if you're concerned about accumulating more debt than you can handle, you might want to consider these alternatives before you pull out your plastic:

  • A payment plan – Some veterinarians don't offer payment plans, but others might, says Kate Spencer, associate public relations manager for the American Animal Hospital Association. “It's always a good idea to ask your vet and see what you can work out with them,” she says.
  • A charitable organization – There are several nonprofits that help cash-strapped pet owners pay for veterinary care. The ASPCA offers a list of organizations that help pets in need.
  • A teaching hospital – Some large universities that offer degrees in veterinary medicine have teaching hospitals that might offer low-cost services, according to the ASPCA.

If you do decide to put vet charges on credit, here are some tips to help you use it wisely:

1. Get an estimate from your vet. When your furry, feathered or scaly friend is sick, it's tempting to quickly agree to any recommended treatment. But Consumer Reports advises asking your vet to put the diagnosis, treatment recommendation and cost estimate in writing.

“Get them to nail down what's promised, and make sure they're not giving you any unnecessary services,” says Tobie Stanger, a senior editor with Consumer Reports.

2. Shop around. While it might not be possible in an emergency to get price quotes from several vets, in other situations it can save you a bundle. For example, according to Consumer Reports, the cost to repair a leg fracture in a medium-sized dog can range from $726 to $1,207, according to a survey of veterinarians by the American Animal Hospital Association. When calling around to price a service, have your own vet's written estimate handy, Stanger recommends.

“Try to make sure you're comparing apples to apples,” she says.

3. Take advantage of an offer. CareCredit has various offers that allow a cardholder to pay no interest if the bill is paid in full within 6, 12, 18 or 24 months, according to Cristy Williams, a spokeswoman for CareCredit. It also offers extended payment plans, with interest, of 24, 36 or 48 months on bills of $1,000 or more, or 60 months on bills of $2,500 or higher, she says, noting that those plans feature fixed monthly payments designed to allow the cardholder to pay off the bill in that time period. However, veterinarians who offer CareCredit through their offices get to decide which options they offer to clients, says Hess, noting that the vets pay a small percentage of the cost for the financing. So, ask your vet about the best deal you can get.

4. Read the fine print. When you're standing in your vet's office waiting for credit approval so Buddy can go in for treatment, you might not think about reading the details of the financing agreement — but you should, experts say. For example, the CareCredit cardholder agreement states that if the purchase is not paid off within the 0 percent promotional period, an APR of 26.99 will be imposed retroactively, from the date of purchase.

“So, it's not necessarily going to save you money in the long run,” Stanger says. On the flip side, a regular credit card with an interest-free period typically does not charge interest retroactively.

5. Create a plan to pay off your bill. To make sure you don't get hit with a high retroactive interest rate, make sure you make each payment several days early and create a plan to pay off your balance within the allotted timeframe – or earlier, if possible.

“Like any other 0 percent offer, it may seem attractive – but if not handled properly, it can come back to bite you,” Sanger says.

6. Start a pet emergency fund. Once your bill is paid, start squirreling away money in a dedicated pet emergency fund.

“Having a rainy day fund is a good, safe choice,” Spencer says.

Personal finance blogger Irwin agrees and recommends setting up automatic deposits from your paycheck into your pet savings account. He and his girlfriend each set up a $1,000 emergency account just for the vet bills for their two dogs. The money came in handy when their then-8-year-old Greyhound, Charlie, started throwing up one night last year. He needed several vet visits, subcutaneous fluids, an ultrasound and anti-nausea medications for a total cost of about $1,100. Irwin says the emergency fund not only saved him from paying credit card interest, but gave him peace of mind.

7. Consider pet insurance. A recent survey by Embrace Pet Insurance found that less than 1 percent of pets in the United States are covered by pet insurance, Spencer says.

“That's a pretty low figure when you think about it,” she says. “It's a good idea to look into pet insurance because there's a huge opportunity to offset a lot of those veterinary costs.”

However, Consumer Reports generally does not recommend pet insurance.

“There are all sorts of copayments and exclusions and limits, so you're probably going to pay more in premiums than you get out,” Stanger says, “unless your pet develops a long-term chronic condition or an expensive illness such as cancer.

“Unless you know you would spare no expense to keep your pet alive, it's probably better to budget for wellness care and emergencies,” she says.

And, finally, experts say it's important to take your pet to the vet for regular annual check-ups. Research by Banfield Pet Hospital shows veterinary visits have declined in the past few years, while preventable diseases are on the rise, Spencer says. But skipping vet visits to save money can backfire.

“Someone might cut out Fluffy's yearly vet exam and not catch a health issue,” Spencer says, noting that, for example, a pet with obesity can develop diabetes, joint issues and heart problems. “A year later, it turns into a bigger problem that's even more expensive.”