How to Save on Vet Bills

Nothing is more important to me than our fur kids, so I will move heaven and earth to make sure they get the best care. The best care starts at home. Good food. Clean water. A place to exercise. And lots of love. But what happens when they get sick? A vet bill can sometimes leave you with sticker shock.

I was a vet tech for several years. I worked with a great, big, old bear of a veterinarian. He was as grouchy as he was loud, but underneath that gruff exterior was a heart of marshmallow. He taught me about veterinary medicine by working me to death and then quizzing me after every procedure. LOL!

I can't begin to count how many pre-vet students he scared off as interns, but I hung on because I was passionately interested in the work.

He gave me a foundation of knowledge I probably would never have had otherwise. To this day, friends and neighbors call me to get a second opinion. Most of them don't know I've ever worked for a vet, but I guess I exude some sort of confidence when it comes to animals.

A lot of it is common sense, and you can learn it too. Here's how to stay on top of any health issues when it comes to your pets.

• Be observant. Animals will tell you what's wrong if you learn to read their language. Look for panting, shivering, hiding,  salivating, or drooping heads and tails.

• Speak softly. Pets are far more sensitive than most people realize. Approach them quietly and touch them softly. If they trust you, they will allow you to examine them. (Note about the old vet who let me serve as an apprentice: For all his bluster, he was tremendously calm and quiet with animals. I think he just didn't like people.) 😁

• Handle with confidence. Animals know when you're faking it. It makes them nervous. If you can't handle blood, pain, or whimpering, take them to a vet.

• Find a vet before you need one. We tried three different vets before we found the fourth one, whom we adore. You need a vet who will listen to you and won't try to pad the bill.

• Speaking of bills...Always ask for an itemized accounting. If your pet needs surgery or other procedure, ask for an itemized estimate.

• If there is anything on that estimate/bill that you do not understand, ask. One of our dogs once needed stitches. The vet's office wanted to charge for blood analysis, rabies, and x-rays. The dog needed stitches. It wasn't major surgery. Once they realized I was going to question their bill, it was magically reduced by $400. We never went back to them.

• Talk to your vet. If your pet is getting vaccinations, ask about adverse reactions. We had a dog who had a bad reaction to her rabies shot. Scared the hell out of us when she went stiff as a board and keeled over. Greg rushed her back to the vet asap.

• Respect your vet. S/he's the expert. Rely on his expertise, but temper it with your experience with your pet. You know your pet. He doesn't.

Where to find reliable veterinary care.

• Ask friends for their recommendations.

• Check out the vets in your area before you need them. Make phone calls. Visit their facilities.

• Ask for their rates on vaccines, surgeries, and teeth cleaning. Ask about their hours and emergency care.

• Take the vet for a test drive. Take one of your pets for a checkup, vaccines, or for a fecal/heartworm test. Pay attention to how the vet treats your pet and you. Does he respect you? Does he listen to your concerns? Does he ask questions? If your vet knows your concerns I guarantee you he'll keep you in the loop thereafter.

If you're dead broke but still need vet care.

• Call your local shelter and ask if they offer low cost spay/neutering. They might also be able to recommend a vet that provides the basics.

• Keep an eye out for low cost vet care. Several times a year you might see a motorhome with a large sign offering low cost exams. I generally see them in the summer. It's a no frills vet visit good for vaccines, a checkup, and sometimes x-rays. It depends on your area. Many times my local farm and feed store will advertise the visit.

About pet insurance

I've never used it, but a friend of mine swears by it. She goes to a large corporate clinic with a lot of locations. The insurance came in useful because her pets ended up needing constant and long term care. So far, mine have been low maintenance.

We did have two dogs who came down with cancer, but that too was affordable enough for us to handle. We were lucky that there was an oncologist not far from us.

Before you get a pet make sure you can afford him. You never know what will happen. You could have a pet that never gets sick a day in her life, or one that needs lifelong medication and intervention.

Do you have pets? Have you ever had one with health issues?


Rebekah Loper said…
I've had pets my whole life, but of course wasn't really in charge of their care until I was an adult. But watching my mother have to say goodbye to many of her pets over the years because they needed care she couldn't afford changed my perspective. When my husband and I inherited Winnie from the family, I knew that when it came to medical care that she would *have* to have, we were going to make it work, no holds barred. And it was hard, but in the last 2 1/2 years of her life, we probably spent $5k keeping her healthy (hyperthyroid, cancer, and then declining kidneys), until she was just gone. But I don't regret a penny of it. I just wish I'd maybe gotten her into the vet earlier, the last week of her life. Maybe she'd still be here, if we'd caught on to the vestibular idiopathy sooner. Because her red blood cell count was so low by the time we realized her kidneys had gotten way worse and that she wasn't eating very well that last week or so because she was dizzy almost all the time. And she just couldn't pull out of it.

I've been seriously debating pet insurance for Tiberius and Bear, while they're still young enough to get decent rates (and be eligible) for it. Or, at the least, just starting to set aside $20/month for each of them for 'retirement'. Since Tiberius is only about a year old and Bear is 3, setting aside some money for each of them per month would definitely be worthwhile!
Not every vet takes care of reptiles, birds, etc so we're lucky to have found one who does and who we really like, plus a couple of back-ups. Thankfully, tortoises in general are pretty hardy. :)
rmacwheeler said…
I can't tell you how freaked out I was when over night, Sissy's leg, where a dog had bit her, swelled triple normal size with infection. Oh...thought she was going to die.
Marianne said…
My trainer told us when we were in puppy class with Kenzie -- if you don't buy insurance, then set up a savings account for your pets' bills and pay yourself monthly. I set aside at least $40 a month for vet bills. IMHO it's a great idea. Both Bailey and Dakota were costly as they got older -- Bailey needed two surgeries for a few grand and Dakota had umpteen diagnostic tests for her lame shoulder. I didn't save money for them and regretted it... now that I have two, it's just not an option.

RE: vets -- I have one I've used for more than 15 years and have always loved and respected him ... until recently. He misdiagnosed Brandy with a seroma after her spay (it was an infection, and the other vet in the practice diagnosed correctly on a second visit) and when I went in for her anxiety and wanted puppy Prozac (as suggested by two different trainers) he prescribed something else instead, which did NOT work, and ($100+ wasted later) I've ended up taking her to a behaviorist instead. Since then, I've consistently requested to see the other vet in the practice. It's quite possible everything would be fine with him moving forward, but I've lost confidence and that's huge.

I'm also super picky about food -- I'd rather keep them healthy instead of treating illness if at all possible!
Maria Zannini said…
Rebekah: We've been lucky that we've been able to afford things like chemotherapy and surgery when two of our girls came down with cancer. But it's a roulette game. You never know if you're going to have a pet that never has a sick day in his life or one with a chronic problem.

It's probably a post for a different day, but I am very nearly convinced that the commercial food we feed our animals are directly responsible for why so many pets come down with cancer and other life threatening illnesses. I've been watching this slow decline in pet health for over 40 years and there's a definite trend.

Supposedly, we take better care of our animals than we did 50 years ago, so why are they getting sicker more often?
Maria Zannini said…
How smart of you to have back up vets. And thank goodness you have someone that treats tortoises.
Maria Zannini said…
Mac: Dog bites are cesspools of bacteria--and I speak from personal experience. Glad she came out of it all right.
Maria Zannini said…
Marianne: re: savings account
That's a good idea for pets and people.

Communication is critical. I'm willing to assume the vet knows what he's doing, but if I start asking questions--and I will--he better have answers and options. I don't mess around when it comes to my kids.

re: misdiagnosis
That's frustrating. I don't blame you for switching from him. It's not worth the health of the pet.
We had one vet put Iko on a combination of 'downers' for his anxiety. Outrageous price when Xanax was so much safer for him. Never went back.
Angela Brown said…
I've used Emancipet to care for my too cute Tiny Terror. They offer low- cost services for shots, spay/neuter, heartworm test and pills, and flea/tick prevention.

I became aware of our area vets when I rescued an older Great Dane. I needed to get her to a location that could check her for a chip.

That experience really opened my eyes to how important it was and is to be knowledgeable of where to take my Tiny Terror. And your tips will be very helpful.
Maria Zannini said…
Angela: Aw, you keep calling her a Tiny Terror. I don't believe it. She's a victim of circumstance. :D

PS Thank you for rescuing the Great Dane!
Jenny Schwartz said…
A friend of mine swears by pet insurance as well. It takes a tiny bit of the stress (some of the financial side) out of vet visits. Always so worrying when a pet gets sick.

Great post!
lv2trnscrb said…
I loved the vet/office we had as our last vet for our corgi. The other ones were good, but we just saw them routinely for vaccinations and small matters, but the last vet/office was with us through our corgi's cancer journey and then subsequent remission for close to 4 years. When we made the decision to put him down since his cancer came back with a vengeance there was not a dry eye in the office. Corgis are obsessive about food and he knew when he arrived at the office he would always get a treat or two from the front staff. It was expensive but the items were broken down by cost and we always had the option to refuse any treatment as they broke down the treatment prior to rendering it and we had to sign that we would pay for it (of course they didn't release him from the back until the bill was taken care of in the front). I'm sure they were stiffed a few times.We moved away and I doubt we're getting another dog soon, but if we were in the area I would use them again in a heartbeat and have recommended them to others in the area. Because of his fragile state with the chemotherapy (got pneumonia because of low white counts one time) and his diabetes he got from the prednisone initially used to treat his swollen glands that turned out to be cancer, we never took chances. Anything that seemed off we would just call the vet and risk him to be seen. He was our third child, LOL :)

Maria Zannini said…
Jenny: It's a shame we don't all have a crystal ball to know if we'll need the insurance. I've had dogs that never had a sick day in their lives. But I've also had a couple that needed high dollar care. Not all vets take insurance though and that's where you're limited.
Maria Zannini said…
Betty: I'm so glad you had a good vet. Even if they're expensive, quality care is more important to me.

I'm sorry your baby had trouble with chemo. Most dogs respond better than people on chemo, but it sounds like yours had had enough. Sometimes it's kinder to let them go. It's the hardest decision I've ever made.
LD Masterson said…
Also be aware that different vets within the same practice are not created equal. When our dog Chance started limping and showed obviously sign of being in pain, I called for an appointment. Our regular vet was out of town but the other guy in the practice was available. He examined Chance and decided he needed surgery to repair the knee ligaments in his back leg. Went directly for the surgical option. I accepted the diagnosis and we scheduled the surgery, but I wasn't comfortable with it so the day of the surgery, I told them I wanted my regular vet to look at Chance first. He quickly determined it wasn't the knee and ordered back x-rays. Turned out to be inflammation of a disk which was corrected by medicine and restricted exercise. That other yahoo would have put Chance through a totally unnecessary surgery that could have made his back worse and would have cost us a ton of money.
Mike Keyton said…
I can't make a meaningful comment here —do I ever? :) — so I'll just say this reads as excellent advice.
Maria Zannini said…
Linda: So true! Thank God, you asked for a second opinion. I tend to do a lot of research before I accept a diagnosis. I want to make sure I understand what is being said to me and why they reached the conclusions they did.
Maria Zannini said…
Mike: If not meaningful, always entertaining. :)