Dog at veterinary receptionist's desk

As a veterinarian, I've seen too many pet owners faced with the worst choice of all: choosing euthanasia over effective treatment for no reason other than not being able to pay for the treatment. I don't want this to happen any pet lover, which is why I'm a firm advocate for pet health insurance and other plan-ahead strategies.

Financial Realities

Truth to tell, I don't think there's a veterinarian alive who hasn't given away care, reduced the cost or offered payment options to patients faced with a seriously sick animal, but there's only so far we can go with that. After all, a veterinary hospital costs money to run, and like all businesses, those expenses go up all the time. Trust me when I say that If you're in it for the money rather than the emotional rewards, veterinary medicine is a very poor choice of professions.

I'm not complaining: I'm just explaining why, as a pet owner, you need to think about what you'd do if you were facing a really big veterinary bill. Because you might need to, and your veterinarian can help only so much and no more. And even if you can come up with the money — on credit, for many people — is paying off that charge or loan a good financial plan for you down the road? If you’re paying three times the bill in interest over time, how will that help you with your next emergency? With credit cards you can't pay off immediately, are you setting yourself up for bankruptcy? It happens too often.

Planning Ahead

Pet health insurance is really more like car insurance than most human health plans. Although some pet health insurance companies do offer "wellness" plans — which may be helpful, especially if you're not good at saving or budgeting — the real benefit of the plans is in covering a large part of the cost if something really bad happens: If your cat gets loose and is hit by a car, or your dog eats your underwear and needs surgery to clear the obstruction. Or if your pet starts limping and it turns out to be cancer, which has never been more treatable than it is today. But while cancer is treatable, it can be very expensive. Are you prepared for that?

Pet health insurance isn't supposed to pay off more than you put in every year. It's not supposed to save you money on veterinary care, and it won't pay out if your pet stays healthy. That's what insurance is all about: It's there when you need it, and it could save your pet's life — and, in the case of an emergency, your financial life.

Check it out. You'll want to look at all the companies, talk to your veterinarian, read the reviews and fiddle with the formulas online to see what company and choices best fit your pet. Pre-existing conditions aren't covered, of course, but a great many other things are.

A pet health savings account is also a great idea. Pet health insurance, like some people health insurance, reimburses you for part of your expenses, not all, and you still have to pay your veterinarian up-front, even if you're using a credit line as a temporary measure. Setting aside money every month in a pet savings plan can help with that.

It's worth it to never have to say, "I can't afford that, doc. You'll have to put him down," or, “We decided we didn’t want him to suffer anymore,” which many people say, and some veterinary professionals may translate as “I can’t afford to do what’s necessary.”