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Ask the Experts: Caring for Pets Without Breaking the Bank

Reducing The Cost Of Pet Care

In this edition of our “Ask the Experts” series, we identify the factors that drive the cost of pet care, examine saving tips, and identify the most efficient ways to help your favorite animal charities.

Some 72.9 million households in the United States own pets.  That represents roughly 62% of us, and we collectively spend more than $50 billion annually on our furry, scaled, and feathered friends.  The obvious question that stems from that is how do we bring down costs without sacrificing our pets’ wellbeing in any way, shape, or form?

You see, we need to identify savings opportunities across the breadth of our lives in order to reverse our dangerous debt habits and stave off future financial meltdowns.  U.S. consumers currently owe roughly $846 billion to credit card companies alone – more than $113 billion of which has been incurred since the Great Recession ended.  We’re also more than $1 trillion in the hole to student loan companies, and thousands of homes across the country are “underwater” – even in the driest of areas.

Trying to make all of the necessary spending cuts at one time could get impossibly overwhelming, so it makes sense to take a step-by-step approach.  This is the pet step, and we turned to the following experts in search of answers:

You can check out what each expert had to share by clicking their respective names above, or you can simply jump to the “Takeaways” section for an overall synopsis.

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Peter Maguire

Veterinarian and professor with Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical SciencesWe touched base with Dr. Maguire via e-mail and asked that he share his insights on a range of issues, from the value of pet insurance to trends in veterinary medicine. He started by saying that while most savings strategies are obvious, leaving your pets with friends when traveling and/or getting someone you know to walk your dog while you’re at work really can help your bottom line.

We then moved to more in-depth medical issues.

What types of financial assistance is available to pet owners?

A. There are groups who are in business to loan money to qualified pet owners (application is necessary) to help pay vet bills. Even local banks are sometimes able to offer pet specific loans. Ask any vet office and they will typically have information on what is available to pet owners.

B. Some vet offices will extend credit or offer payment plans, but that is less and less common. Vet BUSINESSES who have done that routinely find themselves carrying way too much debt. I know some vet practices who have found themselves carrying monthly debt of unpaid bills in excess of $50K. You can’t sustain a business that way. The cost of overhead in a vet practice trying to provide quality health care is extremely high.

C. More and more I think people will find foundations established in part to help subsidize vet health bills–some vet practices may have funds established from donations for this purpose. There also exist non-profit rescue groups who will help subsidize vet medical costs for animals that are homeless but adoptable if their health needs can be met.

Should people buy pet insurance?

I think the true value of pet insurance is debatable. I have heard opinions pro and con. As a vet specialist my experience has been that many people who have pet insurance have been disappointed when they find out that their claims have been denied…I have seen this time and again. I think it very important that people who are considering pet insurance become intimately familiar with the policies they are considering buying. … I personally think it would be a better idea for people to establish a kind of Health Savings Account for their pets. When you get a new pet, or in anticipation of getting a new pet, start putting away a bit of money each month in a specific account designated for unanticipated vet medical bills/costs.

Finally, Dr. Maguire offered some tips for pet owners living on a tight budget:

1. Realize the realistic costs associated with responsibly owning a pet before you pick up that new puppy.

2. Budget a part of your savings each month into a fund set aside for unexpected vet med costs.

3. Thoroughly research your pet insurance options before purchasing a policy….or you might be disappointed

4. Look to your community of pet owners to share walking and boarding costs….do it yourself community sharing

5. MOST IMPORTANT: EDUCATE yourself when faced with big medical decisions and big medical bills. Don’t just rely on what you are told….seek second opinions, seek alternative options, seek a more thorough understanding of the medical conditions facing your pet. The more you educate yourself as a pet owner, the better you will be prepared to deal with the important and costly medical decisions on behalf of the pet you love.
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Joseph Bartges

Veterinarian and professor of medicine & nutrition at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary MedicineWhat tips would you offer to well-intentioned pet owners living on a tight budget?

There are several things a pet owner can do when living on a tight budget. Probably the first question to ask is ‘can I afford a pet?’ I don’t mean for this to sound callous, and pets are an important part of our family and important companions; however, it is worse to have a pet and to not be able to provide adequate care than it is to not own a pet.

When searching for a pet, decide on what type of pet fits the circumstance – a cat, a dog, a bird, etc. The associated costs for care are different depending on the type of chosen pet. Also, choose wisely as to what breed of pet – especially with dogs. It costs a lot more to take care of a Great Dane than a Chihauhau – especially with feeding, living space, activity, etc. Pure breeds are more likely to have medical problems than mixed breeds. Acquire your pet from the local humane society rather than buying from a breeder.

[You should also] shop around – but in particular find a veterinarian and practice that you like and that work with you. … Oftentimes, you ‘get what you pay for.’ For example, you may be able to buy a food that is cheaper than a name brand; however, if the cheaper food is less digestible and less nutritious, then the pet will need to eat more and you could not only spend more money on the cheaper food but it would be less beneficial for your pet.

[Finally], prevent the prevent-able. If you live in an area where heartworm disease is prevalent, then the cost of preventing heartworm infection is much less than treating an active infection. This is true with many other infectious diseases as well. Factor the pet into your budget and have a “pet fund” where you can put away small amounts of money to build up the account in case of an emergency.

Too often it seems that consumers have to choose between paying exorbitant veterinary costs and putting down their pets as a result of treatable ailments. What kinds of financial assistance are available to pet owners? Is it a good idea for folks to buy pet insurance? Are steps being taken in the veterinary world to make pet care more affordable?

I don’t think ‘exorbitant’ is the right word. For example, cancer therapy may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in human medicine but only cost hundreds to thousands of dollars in veterinary medicine. The perception that veterinary costs are exorbitant is probably based on the fact, at least in part, that insurance pays for human medical costs; therefore, people don’t really see (or don’t care to actually find out) the cost of their care. The ‘cost’ to them is their deductible. It’s only when we have ‘out of pocket’ expenses that the cost actually hits home. Veterinary medicine does not have this system, even with pet insurance. It appears to me that many pet insurance policies are still pretty limited [compared] to what is done in human medicine. Having a pet as part of the family carries a cost. Veterinarians want to do the best that we can for our patients; however, there is a cost of doing business that cannot be ignored. If veterinarians under-charged or did not charge, then they would be out of business. Some things that pet owners can do are to investigate pet insurance to see if it is worth the investment and to save money in a ‘pet account’ to help with unexpected larger veterinary bills. Many veterinary practices and university practices use Care Credit, which allows owners, if approved, to pay larger bills.
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Brian Collins

Veterinarian and lecturer at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary MedicineWhat can people do to reduce the cost of pet care?

I would say that probably one of the best things that people can do to help make pet care less expensive is to make sure that the pet gets preventative care, which is what veterinarians try to do as much as possible as far as having animals stay current on vaccinations [and] making sure they take whatever kind of preventative products are recommended for whatever geographic area they happen to live in – whether that’s fleas, ticks, heartworm, things like that. Trying to keep up with those types of things will reduce costs just because it’s cheaper to prevent than to treat patients. It may seem fairly basic, but trying to keep your pet at a healthy weight, feeding them nutritious food, exercising your pet – these might not be the kinds of things you’re looking for, but they’re what I try to focus on.

Does more expensive necessarily mean better when it comes to pet food?

You don’t necessarily have to buy the most expensive dog food on the market. In a lot of cases, veterinarians don’t sell those types of foods, so it’s more of a recommendation I’d made for when you go to the pet store or wherever you buy your pet supplies. There may be some other foods that you could buy that your pet would be just as healthy on but wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. … On the other hand, I do feel that since pet feed is the majority of what the pet’s going to be eating, you want to make sure it is good quality.


Ultimately, we can boil down all of these great expert insights into a few key takeaways (great for all you skimmers out there!):

  • More expensive isn’t necessarily better, but you also get what you pay for – Pet owners can certainly identify areas where they can cut costs, but you have to be really careful not to sacrifice the well-being of your pet in doing so.
  • Pet care isn’t really as outrageously expensive as you might think – Part of what makes veterinary procedures seem so expensive is the fact that people tend to pay out of pocket, whereas we have insurance to cover most of our own healthcare costs.
  • Pet insurance isn’t great – Not only does animal insurance tend to be pricey, but the policies are also often difficult to understand and ultimately leave many folks with minimal coverage.
  • You can set up a savings account for your pet – One interesting technique broached by multiple experts is to establish an emergency fund for your pet.  If you contribute, say, $50 or $100 per month, you’ll be less likely to get blindsided by an unexpected veterinary bill.  This also underscores the importance of living within your means in other areas of your life.  If you aren’t already overleveraged, pet care will seem more affordable.

Image: Vitaly Titov & Maria Sidelnikova/Shutterstock

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