Susie adopted her Shih-Tzu Neddy when he was just a year old and suffering from a stubborn digestive complaint. “I took him to the vet and was amazed by how streamlined everything was,” says Susie. “It’s been a number of years since I last had an animal, and I didn’t realize how much the veterinary field had expanded and grown, and how many great procedures are now available for pets.”
As Susie discovered, many vets now offer almost the same quality of treatment for pets as doctors do for people. Blood profiles, complicated surgeries, hospitalization with round-the-clock monitoring and care, and even specialized diagnostic tests such as CT scans, MRI scans, ultrasound examinations, and endoscopic biopsies are the norm at many contemporary clinics.
Yet all this care comes at a price, and vet bills can consequently run into the hundreds and thousands of dollars. The good news is that there are several ways you can decrease these costs without sacrificing the quality of health care your animal needs.
1. Practice preventive care
It usually costs more to fix something than to prevent the problem in the first place. Your car mechanic will tell you that spending just a little each year on tune-ups and oil changes will help avoid expensive repairs down the road. Your pet isn’t a car, but the same philosophy applies. Here are a few ways to prevent problems that might entail more costly procedures later.
Annual lab tests. Diagnosing problems such as diabetes and thyroid disease with a simple, inexpensive yearly blood test only adds about $50 to $60 to your bill, which translates to about 15 cents per day! It’s not much when you consider that to treat diabetes, it can cost hundreds of dollars just for the hospitalization to run glucose tests to regulate insulin levels during the first week of treatment! Lab tests should be done annually on younger pets, and at least twice yearly on pets seven years and older.
Nutritional supplementation. Healthy foods and quality supplements minimize oxidation and inflammation (two major causes of all chronic degenerative diseases) and boost the immune system. Quality supplements and food cost more than low-cost “generics,” but are healthier and more effective. Spending a little extra on better nutrition is less expensive than paying for procedures when your pet becomes ill.
Surgical sterilization. Spayed and neutered dogs and cats have a greatly reduced risk of developing breast cancer, and no chance at all of developing cancer of the testicles or uterus.
2. Buy health insurance for your animal
Insurance companies that pay for the medical care of dogs and cats include Veterinary Pet Insurance, PetCare Pet Insurance, and Petshealth Insurance. Premiums range in price depending on the age of the pet and any pre-existing conditions. Many clients find that carrying insurance allows them to go ahead with procedures that might otherwise have been cost prohibitive.
3. Open a pet savings account
An alternative to insurance is to open a savings account for your pet. By simply saving one dollar a day, beginning when your animal is young, you can accumulate several thousand dollars to help pay for any diseases that show up later in life. While this won’t actually save you money on vet bills, it does enable you to offer quality care for your pet when needed, rather than being forced to opt for euthanasia.
4. Avoid low-cost veterinary care
It may seem odd that I recommend avoiding what is less expensive to begin with. However, I have seen too many problems arise when corners are cut just to save a few dollars. As an example, I once saw a cocker spaniel whose owner wanted a second opinion for a chronic skin disease. A low-cost doctor had diagnosed allergies six months earlier and treated the dog with repeated steroid injections, although no diagnostic testing had been done (no surprise since diagnostic testing costs money). A simple skin scraping showed the cocker had demodectic mange that was actually made much worse by the steroids.
I think you get the picture. A little extra money well spent is a smart investment and can help keep your pet healthy while ultimately decreasing costs.
5. Take advantage of cost reductions
In our practice, we look for ways to offer quality care at reduced prices. The easiest way to do this is to save time. We can then offer “add-on” procedures at significantly reduced costs. If we can do a procedure in five minutes that would normally take 30 minutes, we can reduce the price of that procedure.
Two of our most popular health care “add-on” packages are screening for orthopedic problems (mainly hip dysplasia) and a health profile that screens for a number of serious diseases. Screening for orthopedic problems normally costs about $250 including sedation, monitoring, and X-rays. We can offer this same evaluation for $35 for pets already under anesthesia for another procedure (spaying, neutering, or dental cleaning). Our health profile, meanwhile, would normally cost about $300 for X-rays, urinalysis, and EKG, but if we can do it while the pet is anesthetized for something else, the cost is only $45. These packages not only save the client money, but also help us detect problems such as bladder stones or tumors while the animal still seems outwardly healthy.
6. Treat diseases early
It is very important to treat diseases when they are first detected. This doesn’t mean you should run to the vet every time your pet coughs or scratches, but if he exhibits abnormal signs that persist for more than a day or two, he should be checked out. Waiting until your pet is really sick is costly and also more harmful to the animal.
While examining one client’s cat during his annual visit, I detected a loud heart murmur. Heart murmurs are always abnormal in cats and always indicate heart disease. I told the client this and recom- mended diagnostic testing. He declined because his cat “acted fine” and “seemed healthy.” Unfortunately this was the wrong attitude, because without proper diagnosis and treatment it would only be a matter of time before his cat became sick or died of heart failure. The client didn’t want to spend the money at the time, but was almost guaranteeing himself a much more expensive visit down the road.
Treating diseases early includes checking any lumps and bumps that appear on your pet. Unfortunately, many owners and doctors ignore these obvious tumors, referring to them as “cysts” and “fatty tumors.” I have seen many of these turn out to be cancer because they were never investigated when they first appeared. Any time you see or feel something different on your pet it should be examined, aspirated if possible, and removed and biopsied if in doubt. Don’t just wait to see what happens…cancers grow and waiting is expensive and deadly!
7. Find a veterinarian you trust and stick with him/her
I’m not opposed to second opinions. I frequently refer cases to local specialists for help with diagnosis and treatment. However, jumping from doctor to doctor makes no sense. Developing a health care plan for your pet takes time and can only happen when you form a health care relationship with your veterinar- ian. Your animal’s needs are unique, and your doctor must spend time with both of you to maximize his skill in caring for your pet. By forming a long-lasting relationship, you can ensure yourself quality care at a price you can afford.
At my practice, we offer personalized pet care. This means we formulate health care plans after we get to know clients and their pets. We make our recommendations and fine tune them after establishing the relationship. We work with our clients and their budgets to find the plan best suited for them and their pets. This doesn’t happen overnight. To get the best care at the price you can afford, find a doctor you like, respect, and trust, so you can work together to help your companion.
Reducing health care costs is only a bad idea if corners are being cut that could place your animal’s health at risk. By keeping the above tips in mind, you’ll be able to save money on vet bills without decreasing the quality of care your beloved companion deserves.
DR. SHAWN MESSONIER IS THE AUTHOR OF The Arthritis Solution for Dogs, The Allergy Solution for Dogs, 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog, AND THE AWARD- WINNING The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats. HIS VETERINARY PRACTICE, PAWS & CLAWS ANIMAL HOSPITAL, IS LOCATED IN PLANO, TEXAS.