Most pet parents pay out of pocket for their pets’ medical expenses. This is easier to do if you bring in enough income to put money aside for your pets’ healthcare. But most Americans struggle to save money at all.
More importantly, there’s no way to anticipate what will happen in the future — you can’t predict when or how your pets will get sick, or how much it will cost.
Our pets’ lives come with uncertainties.
No matter how careful or responsible we are, our puppies find and devour socks, our kittens climb and stumble off shelves, and we have a responsibility to mend them back to health. We love our pets, and pet insurance is one tool that enables us to care for them without financial burden.
Knowing that 1 in 3 pets will need emergency veterinary treatment within a given year, how do you prepare for the expense?
First, you need to understand the basic costs of pet care.
The Basic Costs of Pet Care
The ASPCA estimates dog parents spend approximately $355 to $650 annually on food, toys, treats, and other miscellaneous expenses depending on the size, breed, and location of their animals.
Infrequent purchases such as crates, carrier bags, and cages can cost an additional $470 to $560. In total, the first-year costs of owning dogs and cats are approximately $1,000 to $2,000 on average.
Meanwhile, the average cost for a routine veterinary checkup or wellness visit can cost anywhere from $50 to $250. Vaccines are pretty affordable. You’ll likely pay about $100 for a dog’s core vaccines, for example. For pet parents lucky enough to have naturally healthy pets, these costs may be all they need.
But regular veterinary care, wellness visits, and vaccines aren’t what you need to be concerned with when it comes to your pet’s healthcare costs.
If your pet comes down with an illness, or if your vet discovers something amiss at a regular checkup, you can expect your vet bills to go up substantially.
The biggest costs come from unexpected emergencies and surgeries.
Medical Emergencies for Pets
Unforeseen but common and expensive veterinary care is almost impossible to foresee. Dog bites, fractures, and object ingestion can cost thousands of dollars to treat. A ligament repair in dogs can cost $3,000 to $7,000, not including X-rays, anesthesia, and follow-up care (yes, physical therapy exists for pets!). For cats, a urinary obstruction (UO) often requires lab testing, antibiotics, and even surgery, which can cost up to $3,000.
(Source: Camino Veterinary Hospital)
At the very least, the average cost for unexpected veterinary care can range anywhere from $800 to $1,500 or more. That’s not including other possible expenses.
Considering most Americans don’t have $1,000 to spend in an emergency, it’s troubling to think what could happen to a family if they are suddenly overwhelmed with thousands of dollars in veterinary expenses.
In the worst cases, a pet medical emergency can lead to long-term expenses.
When this happens, not only do you need to cover the cost of your visit to the emergency vet, but you also have to factor in long-term costs to your yearly budget.
If your pet is seriously injured or develops a chronic illness, they may need regular treatment and medications to maintain their quality of life.
NOTE: What injuries and illnesses are considered emergencies can vary by insurance provider. There are some standards, like blunt trauma (hit by a car) or kidney failure. But others can be more grey like toxin exposure.
How much can a pet health emergency end up costing you?
Let’s take two common examples with some rough averages:
- A dog with an injured leg who was suddenly found limping: The cost at an ER facility would likely comprise of an exam fee ($100), radiographs ($180), injectable pain medications ($50), plus oral medications($60).
- An allergic reaction: Exam fee ($100) + injectable medications ($50) + oral meds if needed ($60) + Blood work if needed ($30).
Emergency costs vary based on too many factors to ever predict an accurate total. For example, the exam fee at an emergency hospital can be $170 at some hospitals or $75 at others. The estimate for parvo disease in puppies is $1000 at some hospitals versus $5,000 to $8,000 at others.
These price ranges are dependent on the geographical area, hospital size, level of care facility, and other factors.
How can pet emergencies lead to long-term expenses?
If an emergency is not completely addressed (often due to limited treatment funds of the pet owner), an issue may be overlooked or neglected which can lead to additional ongoing treatment costs.
For example, perhaps Fido suffers a hip dislocation that just won’t stay in (chronic subluxation).
If the pet parent does not have the funds to thoroughly investigate or address the issue, the ideal treatment may be put off to “see how it heals” - which can lead to chronic pain for the pet and recurring medication expenses for the pet parent.
Or, perhaps a pet has a urinary tract infection (UTI) and the pet owner didn’t want to pay to have a culture analyzed. Instead, they just start antibiotics… and create a UTI that is now resistant to antibiotic treatment.
Now, much more expensive medications will be required, and potentially even a hospital stay or worse (the CDC estimates 35,000 Americans dies per year to antibiotic-resistant infections).
Sometimes you really need to do that extra test or that extra treatment.
It’s difficult to know when, so it’s important to build a relationship with your veterinarian where you trust their judgement. Pet insurance grants finanacial peace of mind so that treatment conversations can be about what’s the right thing to do, instead of how much it will cost.
NOTE: Large expenses can also lead to debt, where interest charges will increase overall costs even further. You should avoid this if at all possible, and considering pet insurance is often the best first step.
Factoring in Breed-Specific Conditions
More complicated still, costs vary greatly by pet breed.
The choice of whether to adopt either a poodle or pug may seem trivial to most, but the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals reports that pugs have a nearly 7x higher likelihood of developing hip dysplasia than poodles, costing $1,700 to $5,000 to treat.
Other dog breeds are more likely to have specific complications, especially when it comes to purebred dogs.
For example, French bulldogs are more susceptible to hemivertebrae, a spinal deformity in which vertebrae develop wedge-shaped and cause an angle in the spine. Identifying this deformity will likely require imaging, and treating it may require surgery. Both can cost thousands of dollars.
Larger dog breeds are also more likely to develop health conditions that smaller dogs aren’t.
For example, arthritis and certain heart conditions may develop in larger dogs, and both may require ongoing treatment that could cost hundreds or thousands each year.
Naturally, you shouldn’t have to compromise on the breed you want just because you’re worried about them developing certain illnesses or chronic conditions. But it’s a factor you have to consider when budgeting for the costs of keeping your pet healthy.
Without insurance, you’d have to pay all of these costs out of pocket. While it isn’t guaranteed that your dog will develop any of these conditions, you can’t factor them out, either.
Preparing for Veterinary Care
Most pet owners do not adequately prepare for veterinary care when they adopt their pet. This is to be expected. Who wants to think about their budget when they’re about to welcome a new member of the family? Families who are too eager to introduce a pet into their lives are often tempted to adopt first and worry about expenses later.
Of course, this leads to challenges at the vet later on.
One fellow veterinarian we spoke to said he has 5 to 10 difficult discussions per day with pet owners who cannot afford the cost of their animals’ care.
Insurance executives and veterinarians frequently say the average amount a pet owner can afford at the veterinary office for a one-time expense is approximately $1,500.
The alternative to paying for necessary care is putting your animal up for adoption or even euthanizing him/her, which is obviously distressing for everyone involved.
These dilemmas can and should be avoided.
As a pet owner, you only have a few financial options for covering the cost of veterinary care if you are paying out of pocket.
How you can cover the costs of veterinary care
- You could set aside savings to pay out of pocket when the time comes
- You could borrow from friends and family
- You could launch a crowdfunding campaign
- You could acquire veterinary financing on credit, or
- You could invest in pet insurance.
If you look online, you’ll find blog after blog dictating the importance of financing your own pet care. News articles often highlight the value of setting aside money each month over a pet’s lifetime to pay for veterinary bills.
Consider this scenario: You put $50 a month into a savings account for your pet, totaling $600 per year. By the time your pet is ten years old, you have a nest egg of $6,000 to cover any age-related issues that could arise. However, this strategy is deeply flawed.
Don’t get me wrong, there is tremendous value in building a rainy-day fund for your vet care and a possible medical emergency. It means there is a higher likelihood that Fido’s health issues will be treated, and you won’t have to opt for expensive financing options to make sure your dogs and cats stay in good health.
The problem is that your pet will not wait for a time that is convenient for you to become sick or get into trouble.
Sure, saving $50 per month, you could pay $5,000 or more for a CCL surgery if it occurred in your dog’s 8th year of life or later. But issues can arise anytime, even in your pet’s first or second year of life.
Or what if there’s more than one emergency in the lifespan of your pet? If you’ve saved just enough to cover the $5,000 CCL surgery, what happens when your pup later develops an eye infection, a cancerous growth, or the other leg needs CCL surgery?
What if these expenses need to be addressed earlier in your pets lifespan, before you’ve saved enough to cover them?
The second strategy — borrowing from friends and family — is great in theory, but impractical for the majority of pet owners.
Few pet owners have a network that is able or willing to pay at a moment’s notice. Unless payment is discussed in advance, finding a friend or family member willing to pay for immediate care may be difficult.
The third option to fund your pet’s healthcare is crowdfunding.
This is often the last resort for pet parents, as most people don’t like the idea of asking strangers for money. But more importantly, there’s no guarantee your crowdfunding campaign will be successful, and most people don’t start crowdfunding until after the bills come in.
Lastly, there’s veterinary credit solutions.
Veterinary credit solutions can be very helpful for urgent pet care. However, an important note to consider, they frequently involve a qualification process, relatively high variable interest rates, and/or difficult repayment process. If you already have a substantial amount of debt due to student loans, credit cards, or a mortgage, adding more debt on top of it isn’t always a good idea.
Tips to help you save money on veterinary care
- You could decline certain care options - but that will always come with risks, and the more diagnostics you decline the more the veterinarian will need to lean on educated guesses rather than data-driven confidence.
- Avoid costly emergencies by keeping your pet healthy with exercise, a healthy diet, and routine wellness checkups and preventative care.
- Avoid ER facilities when possible. They are there for a reason, but almost always more expensive.
- Utilize over-the-counter medications.
- Opt for the generic version instead of the name brand.
- Do your due diligence on research. Come to the hospital with good questions to make the most of your time with the veterinarian as this might avoid second or third visits.
- Consider getting a second opinion on when to treat or spend on diagnostics. Sometimes treating without good reason can make a problem worse.
- You could find the right pet insurance to hedge your risk and have the bulk of these costs covered by your provider.
NOTE: Most vet offices are fairly open about their costs and will tell you about them if asked. Pet insurance companies can be another resource for these costs as they need a lot of data on the costs of veterinary care to better approximate coverage needs. My advice: call the vet office.
How Pet Insurance Can Help You with Veterinary Care
Pet insurance works similarly to human health insurance. You purchase insurance coverage from an insurance provider, and your plan covers certain expenses related to your pet’s healthcare. Your pet insurance will require you to pay a monthly premium, and you may need to meet a deductible before your coverage kicks in. But, after that, you can expect your insurance provider to pay for your pet’s covered expenses up to your limit.
Nonetheless, there are a few differences between human and pet health insurance.
While human insurance plans typically reimburse doctors and hospitals for the costs of care, a pet insurance plan will reimburse you directly.
Furthermore, there are no minimum coverage requirements for pet insurance, regardless of where you live. Be aware that pet insurance never covers pre-existing conditions (but curabale conditions may become eligible for coverage after a certain waiting period without symptom recurrence).
That said, pet insurance is almost always a good investment, especially if your family has multiple pets.
The benefits of pet insurance, in brief
With pet insurance, paying a small bill upfront makes it possible to afford treatment for your pet at any age.
For an average premium of $44 a month, you can buy the peace of mind that you’re financially covered in case of an emergency or breed-specific issue. You’ll typically be reimbursed 80–90% of the cost of care after reaching a small deductible depending on the plan.
If you choose to add wellness coverage, it will cover the costs of procedures such as spaying and neutering, dental care, and yearly vaccinations and booster shots to protect against diseases.
Most importantly, your pet insurance will help you cover the costs of emergency treatment. With the right plan, you can provide your pet with diagnostics, treatments, and medications without serious financial risk.
As a veterinarian, I will also say that over the last few years the most significant benefit of pet insurance I’ve seen is peace of mind.
Of course, cost coverage is massively helpful and there are additional benefits such as promptness and ease of care. But all of these culminate to a sense of security and peace of mind, and that is huge.
Find the Right Pet Insurance Plan with Pawlicy Advisor
Pawlicy Advisor is built to educate pet owners about the coverage they need and what they should pay for pet insurance.
As pet parents, they know how overwhelming it can be to face challenging and urgent pet health issues. As pet insurance customers, they also know how valuable insurance policies are to other pet parents and how simple the pet insurance enrollment process should be for everyone. They offer a free service that will compare top pet insurance brands and your pet’s breed-specific health risks to find insurance policies that save you money and headache.
In the past, not many pet parents knew about pet insurance, and very few people were aware of how many plans were available on the market. Most pet owners who had insurance only became aware of it through their vet. If you wanted to compare plans, you had to visit each provider individually to receive a quote.
Today, you can get multiple quotes across pet insurance providers instantly through Pawlicy Advisor.
I want your pet to be as happy and healthy as possible. I believe removing financial barriers from important pet care decisions is a key step toward this goal.
William Hodges, DVM, has focused on Emergency Medicine since 2014 and now runs his own locum business for veterinary hospitals, helping specialty hospital ER services across the U.S. Providing compassionate and collaborative care for animals, he guides pet owners to a more actionable understanding of their roles as pet parents.