What To Do, If You Can’t Afford A Vet

Perhaps you acquired your pets before your financial circumstances changed. Perhaps you’re self-employed and having a low month. We’ve been on our journey to get debt-free for two and a half years now, following the “baby steps” from Dave Ramsey.  The Ramsey program says you only carry $1,000 for emergencies.  Which is fine, until your cat gets sick.
That’s exactly what happened. My cat Andrew got sick a few months ago. Naturally, on a holiday.

The cat was obviously in danger, and had vomited on every surface in my house, was rapidly loosing weight and acting strangely. There was no two ways about it, he had to be seen. I took him to the emergency after-hours vet.  The cat needed $600 in X-rays, some fluids and two separate specialists to see him and say “that doesn’t look good.”  My final bill was $1,200 and the verdict was the recommendation of an emergency exploratory surgery: price tag $5,000 – in addition to the $1,200 I’d already paid. (Please note: the key word here is exploratory–they couldn’t tell the nature of the obstruction, so were just going to check and see what it was–if his diagnosis were more certain, I may have chosen a different route).

I explained our financial circumstances to the veterinarian, who was more understanding than I expected, and she explained that with the fluids that the cat had, it may be possible for him to pass the obstruction naturally. She gave me some pointers of what to watch for, how to know if he was getting worse, and what to do if it did. I agreed to stay home and watch, where I would decide if it resolved or if he needed to go in for surgery. It was a scary couple of days, but he got better without surgery.

But what if he needed surgery? I couldn’t swing the $5,000.  I did get a lower quote from another vet for $3,500, but still, not in my budget.  I’d charge it. I shouldn’t, but I would. (I really love my cat, even though he eats the kids’ Barbie shoes…)

It turns out there is help for people who need veterinary care for their pets but don’t have the funds.

  1. Call your vet and ask about payment plans, or even post-dated checks.
  2. Shop around for a lower rate, or a second opinion. (You may have to pay additional consultation fees, but the difference may be enough to make up for it–that would have been the case with my cat’s recommended surgery for sure!)
  3. Contact the local Humane Society. Some offer low-cost vet care, others can refer you to options in your community.
  4. Contact community animal control centers and local small-scale shelters. (South County Cats in my area offers spay-neuter coupons for free).
  5. Check your community vet-tech programs or Veterinary Medicine colleges. Many offer treatment in their training facilities for a reduced rate.
  6. Other nonprofit organization such as IMOM.Org offer fundraising and grant options for emergency medical care.
  7. Offer to swap labor such as kennel cleaning, grooming, laundry or janitorial services with a local veterinarian to work off your bill.


IMAGE CREDIT:Freedigitalphotos.net Maggie Smith.

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  • http://blog.impulsesave.com ImpulseSave

    Thanks for the tips! Vet bills can become a major expense, and as far as I know, there isn’t health insurance for pets (possible business venture to consider?).

  • http://www.thepennywisefamily.com Jessica

    @ImpulseSave, Yes, there is pet veterinary insurance, but all financial advice that I’ve found has advised against it. It’s pretty expensive. Best to just budget for pet care and have an emergency fund, but some of us have had times when we couldn’t swing even that.

  • Jaime

    I can’t imagine who would advise against pet insurance, especially nowadays. It most certainly is not expensive, particularly when you consider how expensive treatment can be in an emergency or even for just a serious illness. For instance, my first policy was only $24/month for my dog, and everything was covered but routine care, even dental cleanings, which are imperative if you want to keep your pet healthy. I did have 80/20% coverage for that amount, so when renewal time came this year, I upgraded to a policy with NO co-pay and $0 deductible. No matter the cost of the treatment, it’s covered at 100%. For this peace of mind, I pay $50 per month. I consider that cheap after having had to pay $1200 to diagnose my cat as being terminal a year ago, and then having to pay another $600 to euthanize and cremate him. My insurance on this dog even covers death/burial/cremation costs, advertising and a reward if she gets lost or stolen, $1000 to me if the dog gets sick or injured and I have to cancel vacation plans, and $25k liability coverage if I’m sued for property damage she might ever commit. This company even covers ACL surgery, which in case you aren’t familiar, is a common condition in medium to large dogs that is extremely expensive ($4000+) and not covered by any other company. Most people whose dogs gets that sort of injury can’t afford to pay for the surgery, so they opt to put them down. What if your dog gets our of the house/yard accidentally and gets hit by a car? There’s $1000 to start right there. There are numerous companies out there that insure pets now, and most vets will recommend you obtain insurance if you’re going to keep a pet. And for those who don’t want to insure, Petsmart’s Banfield hospitals have a plan that isn’t insurance, but which pays for routine care such as dental cleanings, vaccinations, office visits, etc., and it’s really inexpensive – less than $30/month. IMHO, it’s basically your responsibility to provide care for your pet if you’re going to have one at all. Budgeting for pet care should include health insurance.

  • Veronika

    Jamie, would you please share name of the insurance company you are talking about? I have 3 pets and could certainly use one. Thanks.

  • http://www.thepennywisefamily.com Jessica

    Thanks for the info Jamie, That is very different from what I read about pet insurance a few years ago–it basically looked like a whole life policy.

    It sounds to me like this is a fine way to budget for pet care expenses if you can’t self-insure your pet. At least costs are fixed this way. Thanks for sharing the info!

  • Remy

    I found out about CareCredit a little while ago. I haven’t had a chance to use it yet, but I wish I’d known about it a couple years back when my cat had an abscess and racked up bills that took out my meager savings.


    Essentially, it’s a credit card specifically for medical (including veterinary) bills. Unlike insurance, you don’t have to sign up for it in advance or pay premiums — you can apply when your pet gets sick, and pay for the bills with the new card. Or you could apply now and just not use the card until you need to,. And better than a credit card: if you pay off the balance within a certain amount of time (up to 24 months, depending on the total amount), there’s no interest.

  • http://www.harprefinance.net Andy

    I have used care credit and as stated above, you don’t have to sign up in advance. I found it in a complete panic when my dog was hit by a car and needed some emergency work done to mend him. The vet actually suggested it. Also, I was shocked to find the difference in prices from one vet office to the next so shop around if you have the time to do so.

  • http://vanwinkleinsurancegroup.com/ John @ Van Winkle Insurance Group

    I think Petco in certain states even has a pet insurance program that is fairly inexpensive. Just a heads up.

  • http://www.Agatha-K.com Agatha Kulesza

    I once took my doggie to an emergency vet because his entire snout was swollen like a baseball. While I waited for the veterinarian, the vet tech weighed my dog and said he probably had an allergic reaction to something. He said I could give my doggie half a Benadryl tab and see if it went away. If not, I could come back. Well, the Benadryl did the trick and by next day the swelling was completely down. That vet tech helped me save at least $350 for the fee I would have paid to see the E-vet. You couldn’t do that in all vet situations, but I always try to get a recommendation from the vet tech if I can before doing anything else.

  • http://www.oneminutefinance.com OneMinuteFinance

    I wish they would just offer pet insurance as they would offer insurance for humans. I mean pets are like kids to some people.

  • http://www.cindybrick.blogspot.com Cindy Brick

    Gee…am I the only person to wonder what eventually happened to your cat?!? (I’m not a regular reader — hopefully you updated in a more recent post.)

  • http://christianpf.com John

    Good tips for saving a bit of money on your pets. I just want to remind everyone out there that Dave Ramsey’s first two baby steps require a high level of intensity. Hopefully the vast majority of people out there don’t experience such high bills while they are paying off debt.

  • Marie

    Really grateful to you for sharing such useful tips…. I am aware of veterinary insurance for pets as My elder sister’s in laws do have one. But whatever I heard from her, indeed proves that insurance for pets is not at all something easily affordable. After all at the end of the day your pocket should permit the expense. Hence your tips are surely going to be useful for me as I will let my sister know about it. Just a request, can you please mention some of the insurance companies that can provide best offers for the seekers? It will be must of a help for me. Thanks a lot for sharing the content.