Thursday, May 21, 2015

How to save money on your veterinary bill and petcare... from a vet's perspective

As a veterinarian, probably my least favorite part of the job is talking about money.  I really wish I didn't have to, but let's face it, most of us don't have an unlimited supply.  In veterinary medicine we can do pretty much anything that can be done in human medicine; organ transplants, brain surgery, hip replacements, chemotherapy, cataract surgery, the list goes on and on.  But let's face it, most of us don't have thousands of extra dollars for pet expenses.  The following is a list of some things to think about prior to getting a pet.  The average cost of owning a dog for the first year can range from $700-$2,000 and more if grooming and advanced training are factored in.

Now I'm going to share with you some tips of how to keep your budget and pet healthy.

1) Avoid costly mistakes.  This is a big one that we see and it drives me nuts.

a. Giving a human medication or following advice on "Dr. Google" without talking to your vet

Please call your veterinarian if you are considering giving human over the counter medication or following advice online.  I had one patient several years ago who their owners got advice from a neighbor, a "human medical professional" for treatment for their dog who had burns on it's feet from hot asphalt.  The "medical professional" told them to bleach the dog's feet and give an Ibuprofen.  This added to the dog's initial problems chemical burns and kidney failure.  The initial problem was nothing compared to what the owner had done to the dog in an effort to help.  While it is illegal for us to give medical advice on the phone or over the internet to advise on patients we've never seen, if you have a good working relationship with your veterinarian (a once a year annual exam, which is just a good idea anyways to look for any looming problems), then we are happy to get on the phone.  While we may need to see your pet to give you specific instructions on care, we are VERY willing to steer you away from things that may hurt your dog.  If I have a good relationship and know a patient well, I may even recommend over the phone medications the patient can have that the owner already has.  My goal is not to see as many appointments as I can, it is to keep everyone healthy and pain free.  If you can avoid an exam visit and save up that money to do something I recommended such as a dental procedure, I see that as a win-win.  Avoiding unnecessary cost helps both of us.

b. Another costly mistake- waiting until your dog/cat gets REALLY sick.
I totally understand monitoring your dog/cat and waiting to see if it is just a bug and will get better.  As a matter of fact, I often recommend to clients that they monitor a problem and if it's not getting better, then we do bloodwork and advanced diagnostics.  There are a LOT of problems though that are just going to get worse. . . a lot worse.  If we intervene earlier, it will cost less and cause your pet less suffering.  A fishing line hanging out of your cat's rear end. . . .  Yes, please don't wait 5 days until it's a holiday weekend and your regular vet is not open and you have to go to the MUCH more expensive Emergency room.  A dog that's vomiting more than 4 x a day.  That needs to be seen now.  There are things we can do on our physical exam which can indicate to us whether your pet is stable enough to just withhold food and monitor, or whether your pet is on the verge of rupturing its intestine.  I have had far too many more patients than I care to remember who I have had to euthanize for what could have been a treatable disease if the owner had just come in sooner.   Just a simple physical exam can help us guide you to make an appropriate decision.

2) Preventative Care


Yes, there is a reason we recommend this.  Just like in human medicine, people aren't familiar with what the diseases we vaccinate for look like, because fortunately we don't see them a whole lot because our patient population has historically been vaccinated.  Unfortunately, as people are taking vaccines for granted, and more animals and people are traveling all over the world, these diseases are out there and becoming more common.

The only cases of canine rabies I have seen have been in India and Mexico.  However, I had exposure to a rabid, indoor-only cat here in the US.  The cat caught a bat inside the house and 6 months later was a comatose cat and everyone in the household and everyone in the clinic had to get rabies prophylaxis.  It's about $500 a shot, and you have to wait in the ER.  Not a fun experience.  Besides the whole fear factor of getting a disease that has historically been close to 100% fatal.

Canine Distemper and Parvovirus

I have seen many puppies die of these diseases.  Do I really need to say more?

Heart worm and Intestinal Parasite  and Flea and Tick Prevention

Heart worm disease is a very nasty disease.  It is transmitted by mosquitoes and takes up to 6 months to develop to clinical disease.  It can destroy the lungs and do permanent damage to the lungs and heart.  Treatment is costly and includes keeping your dog confined for up to 3 months.  Look at the following website for more information.  In cats, there is no treatment for the disease.

Flea and Tick prevention

Fleas, besides being disgusting, can also cause anemia and infectious diseases.  They can also transmit diseases to people and other pets, such as tapeworm and bartonella, an infectious disease that we are just learning more about.  There are some thoughts it can even be linked to schizophrenia in people.  Please provide adequate flea protection for your pet.  I have seen infestations even when there is snow outside...

Ticks- these can spread lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and so many more.  While these diseases are not directly transmitted to people from their pets, the ticks can crawl/jump off of the pet and on to you or your child.  They can also cause your pet to get life-threatening, expensive, and sometimes incurable illnesses.

Keeping your pet an appropriate weight

Not only do you save money on food because you are feeding a dog that needs less (more fat = more food to feed the fat), you are saving because of all the disease conditions you are avoiding that are linked to obesity.  Arthritis, diabetes, even cancer have been shown to occur at increased rates in overweight pets.  Keeping your pet a healthy weight can even add on up to 2 years to their life.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure...

3) Food

There are lots of different kinds of food out there, and frankly, picking your pet's food can be a deeply personal decision.  There are only a couple of foods that I really don't recommend people giving their pets.  There are several expensive foods that I think are no better and sometimes worse than the grocery store foods because of marketing.  I will put it this way- I don't recommend any food that is "colored" artificial coloring- if it's not good for our kids, why would it be good for our pets?  Raw food- the risk of E.Coli and Salmonella and other infections, also fractured teeth- too high for what I would recommend.  When people tell me they think raw is a good idea because that's what dogs/cats eat in the wild, I respond with, "well, I hope you want your pet to live longer than dogs and cats in the wild do."

Most of the mid-grade to expensive food, you need to feed a lot less than you would the major brand name food.  I see a lot of dogs and cats who are obese on these calorie-rich foods.  Often the amount on the bag that they recommend that you feed is MUCH higher than what you should.  The food companies would rather you feed a fat pet- they sell more food.  So when it comes to recommendations of how much to eat- talk to your veterinarian.  Some pets are athletes and working dogs- they do need more calories- but that's not your typical vet.

I feed what I consider to be a mid-grade food- it works for our budget, is limited ingredient and has been what my dog has done well on.  My cat gets a prescription food, because for her health that is what she does best on.

Don't feel that the most expensive food is the best.  Sometimes it's much better for your pet's health to get a mid-grade food and save some of that money to put towards preventative care or save for future issues.

4) Insurance or Savings Account or payment plans

I wouldn't really recommend "regular insurance" because insurance companies are in business to make money and the regular, low deductible plans don't really seem to pay off for most people.  I have a high deductible insurance policy for my dog, that frankly, I've never had to make a claim on.  But I do know when he gets a disease that is costly, or has an emergency, or needs to see a specialist, my family won't have to make the tough decision of whether or not we can afford to do what is recommended and that peace of mind is worth it to me.  It may make more sense for you to just start a savings account for your pet so that you are prepared for emergencies.  There is also something called "Care Credit" that most clinics will accept.  This is a zero-interest for 6-12 months line of credit.  It works in an emergency and helps some pets get necessary care/procedures, but it is like getting a credit card and could mean serious debt if not paid off in the future.

5) Talk to your vet

When your pet has a disease, have a conversation with your vet regarding money issues.  We don't know what your wallet looks like, and we can't make judgements.  There have been some people who I thought would not have the money to do things for their pets and they do, they come up with it somewhere.  I know I had one client who put off getting her prescription medication in order to take care of her dog.  We worked with her and did everything we could to limit her bill.  Unfortunately, due to living in an era of malpractice lawsuits, we have to make recommendations keeping in mind that we could be sued in the future.  This makes us likely to recommend very thorough testing.  Not everyone can do this.  I have to document that I recommended everything that my professors taught me when I was in school.  However, after being a vet for 8 years, I can pretty much tell you things that are more or less probable.  Most cases I can get a "gut" feeling even without doing diagnostics.  I've worked in third world countries, places like India, Mongolia, Mexico and even rural Ireland, where the idea of doing advanced diagnostics is sometimes not even possible.  I can work with less.  It's just not "great" medicine.  But I can do "good" medicine with limited resources.  As long as I talk with clients about having accurate expectations of what minimal diagnostics and treatment can accomplish, I can still do something to try to help the patient.  Trust me, vets want to help.  We don't go to veterinary school to earn money (despite what some popular press articles might want to say).  We genuinely want to help our patients and we often do not get paid very much when you consider our school debt and how many hours we work (it is typical to work 11 hour days, lots of holidays and lots of weekend days).  We do this because we love it and we want to help, but we do need to get a paycheck and we understand when people are having a hard time making ends meet.  Talk to us, let us know what we can do to our best for your pet, while understanding pocketbooks have limitations.

6) Get Creative!

Clinical Studies

Clinical studies are sometimes happening at universities and specialty centers that offer low-cost or no cost treatment options.  Talk to your veterinarian, research online.  These are particularly available in the areas of cancer research, diabetes and kidney disease, but many other studies are occurring all the time.


Crowdfunding- I have seen a couple people use this to fund surgeries and get medical devices.  Post a picture, write a story, this seems to work especially well for rescue dogs/cats.

Rescue groups

Rescue groups typically don't have a lot of extra money, but they may be able to direct you to resources that can help, it's worth it to contact them and see if they have suggestions, especially breed-specific groups.

Not for profit clinics

In my area, we have a not for profit clinic that is located about 3 hours away.  It is a long drive, but for people who can't afford surgery otherwise, I do sometimes send people there.  Some low-cost clinics, you have to ask, "you get what you pay for" and I've seen the downside of these, but not for profits typically look at peoples ability to pay and work within those means.  It may be a drive, but if it's a difference between being able to do a life-saving procedure or not, it can make a difference.

I hope the above, though lengthy, gives some ideas of how to keep your pet healthy and try to minimize the impact on your wallet.  Let me know what you think!

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