A:  The most important way to avoid large veterinary bills is to make room in your budget for a good quality prevention program.  By spending a little now, you will reduce the risk of an unexpected illness that could force you to choose between your financial solvency and your pet’s life.

Immunizations are a terrific value.  Infections that are inexpensive to prevent can be very costly to treat.  The dog or cat “core” combination vaccine can protect your pet against multiple common infectious diseases for roughly $30 every three years. If given by a veterinarian, many higher quality vaccines even come with a manufacturer guarantee to pay for treatment if the vaccine doesn’t work as expected.

Altering your pet’s lifestyle may also help significantly reduce your veterinary bills.  Besides requiring less vaccinations, indoor cats and dogs that stay inside a fenced, regularly mowed yard are at considerably lower risk for infectious diseases and serious injury.  Hiring a pet sitter or a mobile groomer can also limit disease exposure.  Taking time to “pet proof” your home and yard can go a long way to preventing broken hearts and budgets.

Following your veterinarian’s parasite prevention recommendations can save you hundreds of dollars.  Buying those preventives in larger packs can save as much as 50%.  If used regularly all year, they can prevent common internal and external parasites.  For a single pet, a flea infestation leading to allergic dermatitis will likely take several months and hundreds of dollars to clear up.  Believe me, that’s a miserable way to ruin your budget.

                Ask your veterinarian about monthly specials, service discounts, and medication savings.  For example, right now we are offering dog owners $75 off to purchase a year supply of Heartgard Plus and Nexgard (after rebate). Our practice also gives discounts for senior wellness packages, early stage dental cleanings, and advance pre-surgical panels.  For chronic medications, we charge less per pill for a sixty day supply.  We have generic options for some medications.  Through our web page we offer even lower prices and direct home delivery (saves gas, too). The only way to know is to ask.

                Also ask about the availability of wellness plans. In our practice we also offer convenient annual packages that cover all preventive care services for as little as $34 per month.  Any pet on these plans can have a veterinarian examination for only $20 – even when they’re sick. Many practices also participate with healthcare financing companies that can provide interest-free payments for your veterinary expenses.  Even preventive care expenses may qualify.  You can take care of your pet and take three, six, or even twelve months to pay for it.

                Look into pet health insurance.  This is an excellent way to protect your budget from large veterinary bills.  However, you must purchase the plan while your pet is still healthy.  Waiting until illness strikes to investigate insurance will result in the condition being excluded from coverage.  Also, purchasing a policy while your pet is young will result in significant savings.

Finally, the best way to avoid catastrophic bills is to seek care early.  Even if you ignore everything else in this column, please listen now.  If your pet is experiencing a symptom, go to your regular veterinarian right away.  Let’s use a coughing dog as a fictional, but realistic example:

On Thursday night, Jane noticed Spike coughing.  First thing on Friday, she called my office and got an appointment for later in the day.  I placed the dog on a cough suppressant and an antibiotic.  Jane spent less than $100 and Spike feels great today.

On Thursday night, Junior noticed Princess coughing as well.  Money is tight, so he decided to give it some time.  Friday night the coughing seemed a little worse.  Yesterday, Princess stopped eating.  Junior figured that if she was still sick Monday, he would call my office.  Last night, Princess woke Junior with her wheezing and hacking.  At 3am, he rushed her to an emergency hospital an hour away.  She was diagnosed with pneumonia and was hospitalized.  If Junior is lucky, Princess will go home on Tuesday.  Her care is likely to cost around $5,000.

Please be more like Jane and less like Junior.  Your pet and your bank account will thank you.