What to do about expensive vet bills

Of course you love your pet -- but the bills from the vet are another matter. Follow these tips on covering the costs, and on when it might be time to let go.

By Valerie Howes

Be prepared for the worst
My late dwarf rabbit Molly was known as the Two-Thousand-Dollar Bunny among my friends. In fact, medical bills for this fluffball -- adopted for just 20 bucks -- were closer to $3,000 by the end of her life, 11 months after I brought her home.

Molly had Snuffles -- not as cute as it sounds. Snuffles, or pasteurellosis, involves sneezing, wheezing, runny eyes and, in my bun’s case, an out-of-control abscess needing daily draining and two rounds of ultimately unsuccessful surgery.

I was a student at the time, and when my vet was talking options and price tags, I can't say every one of the tears I shed was for Molly. Later, as the bills piled up, my then-boyfriend demanded to know exactly where I'd draw the line. I couldn't say. He saw an inversely proportional relationship between the amount I'd spent on a rabbit and my suitability as a life partner. We'd already split up by the time Molly passed away.

Alda Loughlin, practice manager of the Animal Clinic in Toronto, sees many clients struggle with emotionally charged financial decisions about treatment. Here she shares insights into handling high-cost medical care for pets.


Reality cheque

People usually underestimate veterinary costs when they're planning to become pet owners. Loughlin relates that her clinic asks prospective animal adoptees how much they expect medical care will cost in the first year.

"How they answer dictates how we'll go forward with the application," she says. "People often think about $500 for a new cat or dog, but you may be looking -- without medical problems -- at $900 to $1,100, for neutering, exams, vaccinations and microchipping."

If those figures shock you, best get your fix of kitten cuteness on YouTube.


Cover yourself

One way of being prepared for big bills is taking out pet insurance; at Loughlin's practice, 30 per cent of clients have policies. While Loughlin supports this precaution, she admits hearing regular complaints about the hoops claimants jump through for reimbursements.

"If people don’t want pet insurance, I suggest they take $30 a month and put it away, or even pay it forward to their vet," she says. Loughlin stashes $100 a month between August and April for her own poodle's annual dental cleaning. "It's good to have a cushion," she says.


Negotiate a payment plan

If you're facing a big bill and you're not covered, your vet may let you pay in installments. "Mention that a treatment is price-sensitive," suggests Loughlin.

A word of caution: Not every practice offers this option, and if they do, they won't automatically make it available to every client. Loughlin recommends establishing a relationship with your veterinarian, as this will help.


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