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Cash-Strapped Pets

A puppy looking for some financial help.

I think the most ethically challenging thing about being a veterinarian is having everything I need to save an animal but not the funds. The tough reality is that student loans, staff, the building, and supplies all require money and there's only one place that money comes from: you.

In a hurry? Jump to our options section.

Image of a veterinarian watching a sunrise with companion cats and dogs.

It's not that we don't care about you a your pet. We care a lot. To get an idea of how much we care, visit Not One More Vet. The practice owner and the IRS also get cranky if we start giving stuff away. Sadly, the crossroads of money and medicine leads to impossible decisions emotionally, ethically, and financially, for everyone involved.

But there are alternatives and options. And that's what we're learning about today!

Pet Insurance: Learn It, Live It, Get It

Pet health insurance (yes, you read that right) isn't a new thing. Trupanion started in 1998. You may have also seen commercials with your favorite quarterback or musician for Nationwide. The ASPCA even provides coverage (beware the person who didn't shed a tear for Sarah McLachlan's commercial). In fact, there are so many new companies getting into pet insurance that we now have pet insurance brokers like Pawlicy to shop and compare the best insurance for whatever your situation.

Pet insurance isn't like human insurance (yet). With most pet insurance, accidents and illnesses are covered but wellness exams and vaccines aren't. You usually pay a per-incident deductible (around $250-500) and then the insurance picks up 80 to 90% of the rest of the bill. This is usually done without much complaint, without the need for prior authorizations, and the doctor gets to guide the health care rather than the insurance company (so far). Many employers are also offering pet insurance as a perk these days so check with yours.

But there is a catch. Isn't there always a catch? Why do there have to be catches?

Most of the time, you have to pay up front and your pet insurance company reimburses you directly; however, there are more and more companies offering direct payment to the hospital without you needing an increase on your credit limit.

"Be Nice." James Dalton

A dog working as a cooler reminding you to be nice.

Being nice will get you far in life (I'm talking to you, Karen). And being upfront about financial limitations will let us change the conversation quickly to discuss alternative options beyond the textbook, standard of care. Emergency veterinarians may be an odd, bristly bunch of maladjusted human beings, but they're also darn creative! Can't find silverware at 3AM to eat the 7 layer cheese dip that's been sitting out all day? We have you covered.

On the other hand, spending three hours asking the Veterinarian to cover your options again and again knowing the money isn't there and then yelling at the staff is unlikely to get you much but invited to leave with instructions to be nicer at the next place. Oh, and you'll have to wait your turn again.

A dog worried about the time.

But seriously, if you haven't signed a consent to treat and paid the bill, no one is doing any diagnostics or care on your pet. Many pet owners ask what we have done in the last several hours with their pet while enjoying the minimalism of an exam room. They are often surprised that the answer is, "make sure they are stable while waiting for you to approve and pay for one of the treatment options provided."

The faster we can reach a decision together, the faster we can help you and your furry friend. There is no need to be embarrassed or ashamed. We're already proud of you for seeking care. And we understand why you're upset, you're stressed out! We don't take it personally... unless you threaten to go get your gun from the car. We do take that personally. It's also the reason the hospital is littered with panic buttons and limited access doors.

Professionals are expensive, amateurs are more expensive*

An amateur veterinarian

I've seen many animals who were the victims of at home care. An attempted kitchen table neuter gone wrong (we could have told you about some low cost spay/neuter clinics that cost less than our exam fee if you just called first). A dog poisoned by his Naturopathic "Doctor"'s magic elixir (which contained xylitol, a chemical that is highly toxic to dogs). An infected wound all the way down to the bone on a dog that is well coated in that blue spray you get at Tractor Supply or Chewy (we could have told you to go with some dilute Hibiclens, some white table sugar, and prescribed you $7 worth of antibiotics from Walmart had you just stoped by for an exam before the wound got so bad and required months of expensive care or surgical removal of the leg).

A dog exploring options for care.

So what are the options if you have no pet insurance, a credit score in the low 400s, or your pockets are as empty as our lobby during the Super Bowl?

  1. If your pet is stable enough to wait until tomorrow (or Monday if it's the weekend), a veterinary ER is quite possibly the best place to ask about low cost clinics in the area. We get to see all the cases from all the hospitals and know who's been naughty and who's been nice with both their skill as a veterinarian and their client's pocket book. Granted, the less expensive clinics are able to stay that way because they cut some corners and have higher complication rates, but they are able to help out many pets on a budget! Certainly better than trying to treat at home.

  2. If your pet seems like it needs help now, we can:

    1. Start doing our own creative medicine. The trade off for creativity is certainty about the outcome. If we are guessing on treatment based on the history you gave us, our examination, and limited or no diagnostics, we have to wait and see what the outcome is and if we guessed right. There isn't a prognosis. That's the trade off. But it is less expensive. The outcome just isn't as reliable nor predictable.

    2. Help you apply to one of the many buy-now-pay-later medical services :

      1. Care Credit: 0% payment plans accepted at most human and veterinary medical facilities. Terrible credit card like interest rates if not paid off in time. You need at least decent credit.

      2. Scratch Pay: 0% payment plans accepted at most veterinary medical facilities. They seem to be more flexible than Care Credit. Terrible credit card like interest rates if not paid off in time. You need at least decent credit.

      3. Veridi: This is a new group that guarantees to qualify you for help even if your credit is not so good. Unfortunately, this is hospital dependent.

    3. Phone friends or family. Asking us for money won't get you far. As my wife has told clients, "If your own family won't loan you money, we're not loaning you money, we just met."

    4. Contact a rescue for your pet's breed or species. You're going to have to google rescues in your area and start calling around (we don't have the resources to do it for you). We literally have a group called "Crazy Cats Animal Rescue" where I live. What a wonderful name!

    5. As a last resort, crowd source: Facebook, Twitter, Go Fund Me... but please, don't have them call the hospital as this tends to clog the phone lines and we can't treat anyone's pet if we're answering the phone every few minutes to process a $5 donation.

Even though it's tempting to try, begging, yelling, and threatening us aren't effective options. We've seen too much to have many feelings left. It's best to be nice and honest about what we have to work with. We'll do everything we can within those limits and we'll. be honest about what the chances likely are.

A veterinarian comforting an old dog. Watercolor.

And in the event that your animal is suffering, the above options aren't enough to reach a successful outcome/a successful option just isn't possible, or you have decided it's time to change the conversation from treatment options to quality and end of life options, that's ok. In some cases, regardless of financial abilities, the chances of a happy future aren't good and the decision is both deeply personal and yours alone to make. Ultimately, we're here to support you in whatever decision you make with compassion and with honesty and to help direct you to a professional should you need help working through your feelings.

But please get pet insurance before we meet at the veterinary ER (it won't do you much good after). We hope you never need it!


* "If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur." Red Adair

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