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The biggest financial shocks for pet owners (and how to avoid them)

Are you prepared for the worst? Don't let a hefty vet bill destroy your budget.
by Jean Chatzky /
Image: A veterinarian holds a chihuahua after a dental operation
It's awful watching your pet suffer, and it can be incredibly distressing to know that the bills for their care have destroyed your budget for the month, or even the year.Jose Cabezas / Reuters file
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Every six seconds, a pet owner is faced with a vet bill of more than $1,000 — and if you’re a pet owner, chances are pretty good you’ve been hit with bills far more expensive than that. Treating stomach conditions (the most common serious illness for dogs and cats) can cost up to $6,500, according to a new study by HealthyPaws pet insurance.

Veterinary expenses can be doubly traumatic to a household, emotionally and financially. It’s awful watching your pet suffer, and it can be incredibly distressing to know that the bills for their care have destroyed your budget for the month, or even the year.

Every six seconds, a pet owner is faced with a vet bill of more than $1,000.

“Everyday I see people making important medical decisions about their pets based on their ability to afford care,” says Dr. Christie Long, Chief Veterinarian at PetCoach, a purveyor of vet-curated pet food, supplies and educational resources. “Those conversations are tough. Sometimes we aren’t able to take the best care of a pet due to a person’s ability to pay, and sometimes we even have to euthanize. It’s scary how money can prevent us from doing what’s in the pet’s best interest.”

Even if your pet avoids any serious accidents and injuries, the annual cost of pet ownership is still an important item to include in your budget— The average bill is $1,270 for a dog, and $1,070 for a cat, according to the ASPCA. And while there’s no way to completely eliminate the possibilities of a health catastrophe for your pet, there are ways to lessen the financial blow when disaster strikes, and prevent health problems from arising. We checked in with experts to find out what you need to do.

Get Pet Insurance — Early

Pet insurance has become big business — pet parents spent $1.03 billion in premiums in 2017 — but surprisingly few animals are insured. Out of 183 million dogs and cats in the U.S., only 1.83 million of them are currently insured, according to Pet Insurance Quotes, an independent review site and marketplace for pet insurance.

It’s scary how money can prevent us from doing what’s in the pet’s best interest.

Pet insurance policies generally range in price from $25 per month to $45 per month depending on your pet's breed, age and where you live. These standard accident and illness policies cover a wide range of treatment from hip replacements to nasal surgery to cancer. Some providers also offer wellness and routine care coverage for around $20 per month on average, according to Nick Braun, founder of Pet Insurance Quotes.

"Just like home or auto insurance, pet insurance companies rate differently, so we encourage pet parents to compare plans and prices from at least three providers in order to find the best value,” Braun says. While all pet insurance plans can be used at any licensed veterinary clinic or speciality hospital, with no restrictions, no pet insurance covers pre-existing conditions. “This is why we strongly encourage pet parents to enroll while their pet is young and healthy,” Braun says.

Set Aside Money For Emergencies

Savings accounts are a good idea for all pet parents — even those with insurance — because pre-existing conditions, dental care, and most check-ups won’t be covered, depending on the policy you choose. “Put money away, and if you don’t ever need to use it, then you can save it for your next animal. But for most pets, it’s not a matter of if they’ll get sick, it’s when,” says Rob Jackson, CEO and co-founder of Healthy Paws.

One cost that often comes as a shock to pet parents is for diagnostics, Jackson says. “Your four-legged friends can’t tell you what they ate or where it hurts, so the vet will have to do different diagnostic tests, and oftentimes you’re looking at $1,000 to $2,000 just to diagnose a problem, before you’ve even begun to treat it.”

“The worst thing you can do is to put everything off until it’s too late — and if you don’t have money saved and you don’t have insurance, you’ll wind up putting everything on a credit card,” Braun says. “Most people go through life hoping that nothing bad happens, but this is your pet’s life at stake, and these decisions really can’t be put off.”

Be A Responsible (And Vigilant) Pet Parent

Animal-proofing your house is a lot like child-proofing your house — make sure there is nothing dangerous for them to swallow, that they can’t electrocute themselves by chewing on wires, and that they can’t fall off of high surfaces, Long says. “I have two little dogs so I don’t have to worry about leaving things on the kitchen counter, but a big dog can put his paws up on the counter and get whatever’s up there,” she says.

Unfortunately, the great outdoors can be even more dangerous than your home — though it may seem like your pet is longing to roam alone outdoors, it’s not always the best idea. “As humans, we have to make the best decisions for our animals, and traumatic accidents, like getting hit by a car, or mauled by another animal, are common causes of serious injury in pets.” Never let your pet wander off leash, or ride in an open car or truck that they can jump out of.

Something like heartworm prevention costs around $6 per month, but can cost $1,000 to treat, depending on when it’s discovered.

Preventive care is also hugely important for dogs and cats, which includes vaccinations, but so much more, Long says. Something like heartworm prevention costs around $6 per month, but can cost $1,000 to treat, depending on when it’s discovered. Likewise, monthly prevention against fleas and ticks is around $10 per month, but treating a lyme infection can easily run $2,000, and often the prognosis is not good, Long says.

There’s no substitute for having your vet see and put hands on your animal every year, as they catch problems early, when they are easier and less expensive to treat, Long says. The vet may notice subtle changes in the sound of a pet’s heart that can only be picked up with a stethoscope, and feel for changes in the size and shape of internal organs that can indicate a problem. Pets under five years of age should be taken for a check-up at least once per year, and pets over five should go twice per year.

With Kathryn Tuggle

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