Preparing for Unexpected Vet Bills
by Katie McHenry & Kathleen MacKinnon
It’s every pet parent’s worst nightmare: facing an unexpected vet bill that is thousands of dollars. This often comes out of nowhere, such as an unexpected injury or, as was the case with SPCA NOVA cat Jax, a urinary blockage. If you can’t afford a sudden expense of thousands of dollars, you may be faced with going into debt, searching for a way to surrender your pet to someone else, or, sadly, considering euthanasia. What options do you have?
Jax was transferred to SPCA NOVA’s care in April after his guardian rushed him to the vet with what turned out to be a urinary blockage. This condition can be fatal if not treated immediately: toxins can back up into the kidneys and cause kidney failure within 24 hours. Blockages happen more easily in male cats than females. Thankfully, this condition is treatable, albeit expensive.
Jax’s guardian was unable to afford treatment or provide him with lifelong monitoring and care. Initial treatment can run up to $4,000: IV fluids; urinary catheter; medications for pain, to relax the bladder, and to treat a possible urinary infection; urinalyses to monitor the urine; blood work to monitor the kidneys and other vital organs; and at least 72 hours of hospitalization.
Here was Jax – an otherwise healthy and loving 3-year-old cat. The vets overseeing Jax’s care offered to try to find a rescue organization to take him into their care. This is when SPCA NOVA stepped in and took responsibility for Jax. As a nonprofit organization, SPCA NOVA was able to launch a fundraising campaign on Facebook. Thanks to our supporters, we raised just over $2,000 to help pay Jax’s vet bills. Sadly, SPCA NOVA gets requests like this all too often. We don’t have the resources to take in every cat or dog facing these situations. Jax was one of the lucky ones.
Thankfully, Jax is now doing great. After being released from the vet hospital, he received a few weeks of careful monitoring and prescription food to prevent future blockages. After a couple of months in our care, a wonderful couple has adopted Jax!
So what are the best ways to be prepared for situations like Jax’s?
Pet insurance has become more popular than ever, and according to Consumer Affairs, the ASPCA’s plan is ranked the most popular. (ASPCA stands for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but is not affiliated with SPCA NOVA.)
Like many pet insurance entities, ASPCA offers a variety of options, including basic coverage, comprehensive coverage and wellness plans, and accident-only coverage (the least expensive option). With the ASPCA plans, you can decide what kind of deductible you want ($100, $250, or $500); what the plan will cover (from $5,000 to unlimited); and how much reimbursement you want (70, 80, or 90 percent). However, these options affect the amount you pay, with the lowest rate coming in around $15 a month.
Numerous other organizations now offer pet insurance, so we recommend finding one that’s right for your animal and your budget. Consumer Affairs offers a comparison of more than a dozen pet insurance companies, as do other resources, such as Mashable, the Canine Journal, 365 Pet Insurance, and The Balance.
In addition to price, pay attention to annual deductibles, when and if rates increase as your pet gets older, and whether a wellness plan is included for what you’re paying. For instance, it might make sense to select a more expensive comprehensive plan than to pay a minimal amount for a basic plan that only offers scheduled benefits.
Another thing to ask about when researching plans is what kind of restrictions there are, especially where age and breed are concerned. According to PetMD, some policies will have a minimum and/or maximum age for enrollment. The restrictions may be different for cats and dogs and also some breeds. There may be exclusions based on specific breeds of cats and dogs that have known health risks (see “Breed-Specific Health Concerns” below for examples). Also, ask if they have restrictions on covering bilateral conditions (things that affect both sides of the body, such as hips or eyes). Some policies may restrict how much they cover for these conditions.
Because each situation is unique, only you can decide what company and plan is right for your pet – and for you. Whatever you decide, be sure to have a plan set in advance, well before it’s needed because no pet insurance company will cover pre-existing conditions, although you can still obtain insurance for future injuries and illnesses down the road. In other words, it’s a good idea to think about pet insurance before your pet has an emergency that results in expensive vet bills.
Low-Cost Vet Clinics
If you’re a resident of Washington, D.C., or the surrounding area (including Northern Virginia) and have an income of $55,000 or less, Humane Rescue Alliance (HRA) offers discounted full-service veterinary care via their medical center, which is open Monday through Friday. More details can be found on HRA’s website at www.humanerescuealliance.org/medicalcenter. However, this option wouldn’t help much if you have an emergency when the center isn’t open.
In Richmond, Va., Helping Hands offers low-cost surgery for dogs and cats, which they provide at a fraction of the cost because they only perform outpatient surgeries and dental work (no diagnostics or overnight stays). Clients seeking surgery at Helping Hands must bring diagnostics with them, such as blood work or x-rays, for the surgeons to review prior to surgery. Clients are also responsible for ensuring post-operation hospital stays with their own vet following the surgery, if needed.
The Animal Welfare League of Arlington has a Veterinary Assistance Program that offers small no-interest loans to pet guardians whose animals need an emergency procedure, but who cannot afford the cost up front. Other shelters may have similar programs.
Some nonprofits, such as RedRover Relief and the Pet Fund (which is focused on non-emergency care, such as heart disease), offer grants. Unfortunately, the grants are often small ($200 on average), and they receive more applications than they can cover, which means your application isn’t guaranteed to be approved.
CareCredit cards work similarly to a regular credit card, allowing you to pay your bill a little at a time over a period of months. There is typically a promotional introductory period with no APR (annual percentage rate) that usually lasts between 12 and 18 months. But keep in mind, if it takes you longer than the designated period to pay off your bill, you might end up having to pay an APR of up to 26.99 percent for new accounts, although you may be able to transfer the remaining balance to a different credit card with lower interest rates. Of course, what is most desirable is that you are able to pay off the CareCredit amount during the no-interest introductory period.
If you’re comfortable asking for help, another option to consider is launching a GoFundMe or Waggle.com campaign or running a Facebook fundraiser to solicit donations from family, friends, and others to help pay for expensive medical procedures for your cats and dogs.
It’s heart-wrenching to think about needing emergency care for your cat or dog, but it’s important to be prepared for when this could happen to you. Thus, investing in pet insurance might be the most reliable and affordable method to ensure that you’re prepared. As with all insurance, make sure you read all the terms and conditions in the fine print so you know exactly what is included and what is not.