Kitten being examined by a vet
Ever heard of a wellness plan? If you’re like most pet owners, you probably think of it as the sum total of all the simple things your veterinarian recommends for preventive care. Others among you may automatically associate the term with pet health insurance. Both perceptions are kind of accurate — but neither camp is wholly correct.

Have I piqued your curiosity? Good. Because before I can offer you the answer, you’ll have to read a bit of background on pet wellness and the many ways you might find yourself paying for your pet’s preventive care.

Better to Prevent Than Treat

We veterinarians are always trying to come up with novel ways to make sure your pets get all the preventive care they need. Here are a few examples of the standard recommendations you’re probably familiar with:

  • Annual or semiannual physical exams
  • An individualized vaccination plan
  • Routine testing for common conditions
  • Breed-specific screening (for example, heart checks for Boxers
  • Prophylactic dental cleanings
  • Medication to prevent parasites and the diseases they might carry
It all sounds great. Who wouldn’t want to do everything their veterinarian recommends to help keep their pets happy and healthy? After all, keeping up with tried and true means of preventing problems (or identifying them early on) is considered the most humane and cost-effective way to manage any veterinary patient’s health care.

But we also know that kind of care doesn’t come cheap. Sure, it beats having to pay for conditions that could have been prevented. Or worse — losing a pet to a highly treatable disease. None of us should have to suffer the agony of knowing we failed our pets by falling down on their fundamental medical upkeep.

Scenarios like those explain why, as a profession, veterinarians are increasingly looking for ways to make preventive veterinary care more affordable. Because, as we all can attest, cash has a way of getting kind of scarce.

Payment Options

With that in mind, here are a handful of the most common methods available for paying for your pet’s preventive health care, and more:

1. Budgeting. Worried about what preventive care will cost you? Get an individualized list of what your veterinarian recommends for each of your pets each year. Budget accordingly.

2. Pet health insurance. The trouble with budgeting is that major accidents and illnesses aren’t anticipated. That’s what pet health insurance is for. However, most companies will also offer plans including coverage for wellness issues, too. Personally, I’m a fan of budgeting for wellness and using pet insurance for the big stuff, but if sticking to your budget isn’t so manageable, consider one monthly payment — to your pet health insurance company — for all your pet’s health needs.

3. Credit cards. The trouble, of course, is that pet health insurance (if you’re smart enough to have it) doesn’t cover everything. Though some offer peace of mind to the tune of covering 80 or 90 percent of your total financial outlay, you’ll still have to shell out some funds along the way — including deductibles, of course.

Which is where credit cards come in. Because when your bank account says no way, something’s got to give. Some companies specialize in offering lines of credit dedicated exclusively to veterinary care. (That is especially useful in the event of an emergency.)

But we all know that keeping a balance on our credit cards is an expensive way to pay for stuff. Not exactly ideal.

4. Low-cost preventive care. Depending on your municipality and your income level (and sometimes your age), you might be eligible for subsidized routine pet health care at a reduced fee at special low-cost clinics. 

But remember, “routine care” means different things to different people. Some places think a rabies vaccine is all it takes or maybe some deworming, too. Which probably explains why I don’t know of one publicly subsidized low-cost clinic that offers prophylactic dental cleanings, much less basic heart screenings for predisposed breeds.

Now, on to the answer you were waiting for:

5. Wellness plans. The first three approaches I’ve mentioned are valid, and the fourth option, while not ideal, is still better than no health care. But the options don’t always work for everyone. Or, to be more precise, let’s just say that some are more appropriate than others. After all, most of the approaches will still have pet owners scrambling to find ways to pay for the simplest things a veterinary hospital offers. Or worse — going without.

Which explains why some veterinary hospitals now offer their clients what some consider an easier, more complete system for preventive health care. Though the plans vary, they tend to work like this: You pay a manageable sum every month in exchange for the right to see the veterinarian for all things routine. In some cases, they’ll also offer you a discount on accident and illness care, too.

Such plans are based primarily on the notion that you’ll come to the vet more often if you know your visit is covered. In that way, they’re kind of like pet insurance. But they’re not the same. Here’s how: Wellness plans are almost always designed to be exclusive to a particular practice. While the vast majority of pet health insurance carriers will reimburse you regardless of where you go to get your health care, wellness plans require you to remain loyal to your location.

Which is part of the point, from a veterinarian’s point of view: In exchange for a good deal on a wide spectrum of your pet’s wellness-based health care, you agree to keep coming back. Makes sense, right?

To me, it does. Which is why our hospital aims to offer such a plan come 2015. But does that mean we’ll stop offering credit services and recommending pet health insurance? Not a chance. Because sometimes the best approach is a combination of options.