NEW YORK — That cuddly new puppy can be pretty intimidating if pet owners consider the veterinary bills it might produce.
A pet’s torn knee ligaments or a broken leg that needs surgery could cost a few thousand dollars. Even stitches to close a bite wound after a scrap with another dog can cost several hundred dollars.
Fortunately, pet insurance can defray some of these costs. But many U.S. pet owners don’t have it.
Here are some tips for handling a big, unexpected vet expense.
Veterinarians may be able to suggest cheaper treatment options.
Cats often do best if they have surgery to repair a broken bone, said Gary Block of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. But some fractures may also heal if the pet owner is willing to confine the animal to a small crate for several weeks.
A second opinion also may be helpful. Care from another veterinarian may cost less — especially if the vet is in a small town — or they might be able to suggest a less expensive option. But prepare to pay a consulting fee to find out.
Veterinarians are used to dealing with financial worries and ultimately want to avoid something called “economic euthanasia,” where a pet owner has an animal put down because they can’t afford the bill to fix it.
“There are people who truly can’t afford the care, and there are people who decide it’s not a priority,” Block said. “It is common enough and difficult enough that every veterinarian in the world is constantly looking for ways to address that issue.”
Seek financial help
Many veterinarians will set up a no-interest payment plan, especially for customers who have been with them for a while, Block said. He also noted that big animal hospitals may have their own financial assistance funds to help customers.
The Humane Society also offers links to several funds. Some help animals with heart problems, others deal with cancer or are breed specific.
These funds may only be able to offer a few hundred dollars in help, so they won’t put much of a dent in a particularly large bill.
The website Waggle lets pet owners raise money that gets sent directly to the veterinarian to pay bills.
“People are often willing to open their wallets to help,” Block noted.
Pet owners also may be able to find discounted care through local animal shelters or veterinary schools. Eligibility for that may be based on income.
Before getting a pet, prospective owners should research the animal they want, especially if they are considering purebreds. They are more likely to develop health problems. Golden retrievers are known for developing cancer as they age. Doberman pinscher can develop serious heart trouble.
“It bums me out when someone buys a French bulldog and then yells at me when their pet needs $2,000 of surgery because it’s congenitally malformed skull prevents it from breathing normally,” Block said.
After buying a pet, owners also should keep vaccinations updated. Block noted that a $20 vaccine could prevent a dog from coming down with an expensive illness.
Pet insurance also can protect against future bills, although it may come with a reimbursement cap and likely won’t cover conditions or injuries that developed before the policy started. It can cost around $30 a month or less, depending on the animal.
Pet owners who don’t opt for insurance should start a savings fund for future vet bills as soon as they get the animal, said James Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
“Keep it as a safety net in case you are faced with one of these massive bills,” he said. “Otherwise you’re going to be in trouble.”