A veterinarian’s tips on keeping medical costs down, insurance or not

Even when they’re healthy, pets are expensive. The cost of food, training, collars, and flea preventatives, not to mention extras like toys and clothing, adds up fast. And in a tough economy, it’s even more important to spend your money wisely. We asked Dr. Nancy Kay, author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, to share her tips on keeping vet bills down, but quality of medical care high.

When on a limited budget I recommend consideration of the following:

  1. Look into obtaining pet health insurance. Premiums typically cost $300-$400 per year, but they typically cover approximately 80 percent of out-of-pocket expenses, depending on the policy. Given that the cost of any major surgery these days can run in the thousands of dollars, having a pet health insurance policy in place can represent a huge savings.
  2. When talking with your veterinarian, lay your financial cards on the table. As difficult as it is to discuss your personal finances with your vet, such candor is apt to save you some money without jeopardizing your pet’s health. Rarely is there only one way to diagnose and/or treat a medical issue. For example, perhaps a $20 antibiotic can be prescribed instead of a $120 antibiotic.
  3. Do you have a product or can you provide a service that might be worthy of bartering for veterinary services? Perhaps you paint or wash windows. Perhaps you create artwork that your veterinarian might want for her home or office. It never hurts to offer forth the possibility of bartering in exchange for payment for veterinary services.
  4. Request a written cost estimate for veterinary services before they are provided. How else can you possibly know if your bill will be $200 or $2000? With an estimate in hand, you will avoid the element of surprise and won’t end up paying for things you deem to be unnecessary. In no way does requesting an estimate reflect how much you love your pet; you are simply being fiscally responsible.
  5. Avoid over-vaccinating your dog. We used to think that distemper and parvovirus vaccines had to be given annually. We now know that these vaccinations provide a minimum of three year’s worth of protection (once the puppy series has been completed). Kick the once a year vaccine habit. If your vaccine reminder card suggests otherwise, have a heart-to-heart conversation with your veterinarian.
  6. Be a savvy consumer of supplements for your dog. Some supplement suppliers would like you to believe that your dog’s good health, from puppyhood on, is dependent on their products. Avoid being seduced by such ads. Talk with your veterinarian about which supplements are worthy expenditures for your dog. Then utilize only the ones that are recommended, rather than paying for three or four others that might be found in combined supplement products.
  7. Price shop for your dog’s prescriptions. If the medication prescribed is a human drug, compare the human pharmacy price to what your veterinary hospital would charge. Big box or chain pharmacies purchase medications in bulk and can pass the savings onto you. Costco prices are usually some of the lowest, and some human pharmacies offer substantial AAA discounts for pet prescriptions. For veterinary prescription items your dog receives on a regular basis (heartworm preventive, flea and tick control products, prescription diets), you might find the best savings via online pharmacies (bear in mind, not all such pharmacies are reputable — it pays to do some research). Yes, you still need your veterinarian’s authorization. You can ask your vet for a written prescription and use it as you would for your own prescriptions. Another option is to contact an online pharmacy with your request and they will request authorization from your veterinarian via a fax transmission. These days, veterinarians are certainly used to receiving such requests.

Nancy Kay is a veterinarian in Rohnert Park, California, and the author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life.