Written By: Patricia Seaman
My dog once ate the entire bottle of painkillers prescribed after she was spayed and had to have her stomach pumped. One of my cats needed a C-section when her labor stalled out with one kitten still inside (we also paid for a kitten-sized NICU unit). Our other cat was chewing his fur off and ended up needing dental surgery.
Animals, people and money: everyone has a story or knows someone who has a story. Pets get into all sorts of mayhem, have accidents and fall ill (much like unexpected car repairs out of the blue). But decisions about pets are made in the murky area where finances and feelings collide.
How important is your pet? If your pet is like a family member (and 91 percent of us say so), emotions will play a huge role in the decision-making process. How much are you willing to spend on an animal? (That cat C-section cost $2,616.) Throwing children into the mix raises the emotional pitch, and usually they don’t know the family’s financial situation. Now you are looking at the big soft eyes of both your pet and your children, and realize you will be judged by your handling of this crisis. If you decide not to spend the money, you may be viewed as cruel and heartless.
If you decide to spend the money, your kids won’t know if it’s money you don’t have—but your partner will, and you may end up in a stressful emotional and financial deadlock. For other families, the choice is heartbreakingly simple: they just don’t have the money.
How to Help Your Clients
Before getting a pet. Help families understand the financial commitments they make when bringing home a pet. After start-up costs, the average annual cost to maintain a healthy medium dog is $695 and a healthy cat, $670. Even small mammals (mice, gerbils) cost $300 per year.
Walk your clients through pet insurance options (see sidebar). And discuss potential unexpected medical costs. One of the top emergencies for dogs is “foreign body ingestion” (Buddy’s sock), which costs an average of $1,502 to $1,967. Common canine skin allergies average $189, and feline bladder/urinary tract diseases average $425. Google “expensive pet injuries” and learn ways your pet can impact your bottom line.
Before the pet gets hurt. Help your clients avoid emotional overspending by setting a financial limit when all is well, and pinpoint where those funds will come from. And encourage prevention, such as storing medications out of reach, and keeping your pet on a leash at all times when outside your yard.
A Pet Needs Treatment Now or Very Soon
- Leave children at home when you meet with the vet. Consider your options without their emotions in the room.
- Discuss with your vet:
- Are there are lower-cost treatment options?
- Can you make payments over time?
- Can you barter services against your bill?
- Can you get the same quality of care nearby? Sometimes crossing a city or county line can put you in an area where things generally cost less.
- Check nearby veterinary schools where lower-cost services may be provided by students with professional oversight. Find schools through the American Veterinary Medical Foundation and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.
- Search animal welfare organizations for financial assistance programs, such as The Pet Fund and Red Rover Relief Grants. Red Rover’s website also lists state, national, condition-specific, breed-specific and general assistance organizations nationwide.
- Evaluate CareCredit, a health care credit card with a revolving line of credit for veterinary expenses. Although the APR is 26.99 percent, CareCredit also offers repayment options with deferred interest and reduced APR with fixed payments.
You might ask your clients about the financial impact of performing their jobs for free and encourage them to be businesslike when discussing money with their vet.
Making a Difficult Decision
Pet owners could spend a lot of money and still lose their beloved pet or fail to receive a definitive diagnosis. As your clients are considering difficult options, they also may be experiencing disapproval, severe emotional distress or guilt. Emulate vets, who tell their clients that the amount of money involved does not signify how much they care. Show empathy for the guilty feelings, and compassion without judgment for your clients’ ultimate choice. If appropriate, you can tie their decision back to their financial goals and help reinforce their progress towards their long-term plan.
It is quite common for clients to become angry at the vet for holding a firm line on being paid for his or her services. They don’t understand why the vet just can’t perform the surgery for free to save an innocent animal—and it is tough to cut through the emotions to counteract this anger. You might ask your clients about the financial impact of performing their jobs for free and encourage them to be businesslike when discussing money with their vet.
Evaluating Pet Insurance
Will it return more than you pay for it? Maybe not, particularly if your pet is healthy, or has a breed-specific or pre-existing condition that insurance won’t cover (such as hip dysplasia), but it might be worth it if your pet turns out to be accident- or illness-prone. Begin by researching policies and getting personalized quotes online, and understanding what vet services in your area typically cost. The ASPCA website offers side-by-side comparisons of 10 plans, including its own.
- Harris Interactive American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)
- Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI)
Disclaimer: Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process, or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.
Patricia Seaman, AFC®, senior director, National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) in Denver, Colorado. She has two dogs, three cats and two children—and the vet bills to prove it. She can be reach at email@example.com.