Being Prepared Financially for Pet Emergencies

Walking around the Hill during this post-holiday season you might see young puppies on leashes with their happy, new owners leading them and exploring together. There is nothing quite like the euphoria of a new pet in the home. New pet owners are generally optimists. Most have a false sense of security about their animal’s health: “Mixed breed pets are always healthy.” “My pure bred is fine. I researched for months to find this cat or dog. I have the best breeder around.” or “My older cat or dog has never had a problem, why should I start worrying now?”

Of course we should know better. A quick discussion with my colleague, former ER veterinarian Dr. Antkowiak, will quickly set you straight. With over 15 years of emergency veterinarian experience, he knows the consequences of not having a plan in place for when your pet develops a sudden or severe health problem. Often disaster strikes on a holiday, during the middle of the night, or when owners are out of town. This can make not being financially prepared a nightmare and can waste valuable time that is best spent on decision making and treating. Having an emergency financial plan in place with your family or your pet sitter, can save time, stress and in some cases, your pet’s life.

As the quality and standard of care of veterinary medicine increases, so can the price tag. If your dog were to develop an acute or complicated problem that cannot be fully diagnosed by your primary veterinarian, you might be referred to one of several veterinary specialists. An after-hours problem will require the use of an emergency veterinarian at a 24-hour facility. If the concern is believed to be caused by a neurologic problem, you may be sent to a veterinary neurologist who might recommend an MRI. Or maybe there is chronic pain or a systemic problem that is ailing your pet. In these cases the aid of an orthopedic specialist or an internal medicine veterinarian might be the next best step. In each of these cases, you can plan on spending around $150-200 for an initial visit with advanced diagnostics, surgeries or hospitalization for treatment quickly jumping to the hundreds to possibly thousands of dollars.

There are several strategies to keeping up with costs of medical care for your pet. The most common approach is to depend on your savings. We strongly encourage pet owners to start a “rainy day” savings account for possible veterinary medical problems. It is easy enough to divert $5, $10, or $20 a paycheck, depending on your income, into an account solely to be used for veterinary emergencies. However, this is often not an option for people who are caught off guard by their pet’s acute decline in health.

A line of credit is another option. A common question for veterinary clinics is “Do you offer payment plans?” These days, very few vets offer any form of in-house credit. There is just too much risk to the business. They do, however, offer third party payment plans such as CareCredit. These types of companies provide credit specifically for medical care, much like a credit card. They are very helpful for families that need help in a pinch, but credit approval is needed (this can be performed online prior to arrival http://www.carecredit.com/apply/) and while there is often zero interest initially, once this period is over (60 – 120 days) the interest rates skyrocket.

Pet insurance is becoming a much more accepted and encouraged way of being prepared. Dr. Antkowiak says, “In my experience, owners with insurance have the cushion of a safety net and are able to quickly consent to necessary diagnostics that can get us to a diagnosis faster and make treatment easier.” The pet insurance industry is still in it’s infancy but is growing rapidly. There are an ever increasing number of companies to choose from with 5-10 that are trying feverishly to corner the market. The most commonly seen companies at AtlasVet are Trupanion, ASPCA, VPI, and Petplan, but there are many more to choose from.

While many of the aspects of pet insurance function much like human insurance, there are several major differences. The primary difference is that your veterinarian is rarely involved directly. Payments to the veterinarian are required by the owner at the time of service and the insurance company then will reimburse the pet owner once a file has been claimed. This means you need to know what kind of insurance you have and what it covers. There is also a seven day to three month delay in getting reimbursed.

Some plans just cover accidents, while other more in-depth plans can cover some breed specific diseases that often are considered pre-existing. The more expensive plans will cover routine visits and prophylactic diagnostics. This way your pet is covered for sudden, severe problems that might arise as well as increasing the chance that more chronic issues will be caught and treated earlier. It is important to note that if you purchase a plan from a specific hospital (i.e. Banfield) instead of an insurance company, that plan will only be accepted at that specific facility or chain of hospitals. So do your research: There is nothing more frustrating or disheartening than finding out your insurance company will not be reimbursing a treatment you believed to be covered. Furthermore, do not be the client who asks if they should get insurance after a shocking diagnosis. Like with human patients, insurance just does not work that way.

What holds true in other aspects of life applies to pet ownership: Be financially prepared for the unexpected. Even young or healthy pets can take a quick turn for the worse. Knowing what your goals and expectations are with your pet will help you with decision making later. Even though it is difficult to consider, understanding what your options are and having a financial plan for when things go poorly can save the day.

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Dr. Antkowiak is a graduate of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Miller is a graduate of the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. Both Dr. Antkowiak and Dr. Miller reside in Capitol Hill and are the owners of AtlasVet (the Atlas District Veterinary Hospital) at 1326 H St. NE (www.atlasvetdc.com, www.facebook.com/atlasvetdc, @atlasvetdc)


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