Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder.
Pet emergencies, like human emergencies, are unexpected, scary and expensive.
In fact, veterinary care in the U.S. is a $31.4 billion industry, based on data from 2020. With costs expected to continue to rise, how can you ensure that your pet receives the best care in the event of an emergency? First, you need to plan ahead for something you hope will never happen.
The No. 1 way to cover any emergency veterinary bills is with pet insurance. For an affordable premium that you can factor into your monthly budget, pet health insurance means you will only pay a deductible and/or coinsurance, depending on your plan, if your cat gets cancer or your dog breaks a leg.
But insurance itself can be cost-prohibitive for some families. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to find the best pet insurance policy for your needs, but we’ll also examine other ways to care for your pet in emergencies, especially for those who can’t afford insurance for their pets.
1. Pet Insurance
Increasingly, pet parents are turning to pet insurance to combat the rising costs of animal health care. In times of true emergency, pet insurance can be the difference between moving forward with an expensive procedure or having to turn down the veterinary care that your pet needs.
However, insurance only helps in an emergency if you’ve already signed up. What’s more, to prevent pet owners from signing up and trying to use pet health insurance for a problem the vet has just diagnosed, most pet insurance companies implement a waiting period before coverage kicks in.
To ensure your pet gets the most out of their health insurance, sign up for a policy as soon as you adopt your new family member. Most pet health insurance policies do not cover preexisting conditions, so if you wait to get coverage until your dog or cat is older, there will likely be several conditions that your vet has diagnosed in the preceding years that will not be covered.
What to Consider When Shopping for a Pet Health Insurance Policy
Sold on the idea of insurance but not sure where to start? We’ve put together a list of the very best pet insurance companies in the industry as a solid starting place. Among the top insurers are Trupanion, Healthy Paws, Lemonade and Figo.
When selecting the best pet insurance company for your pet’s health and your financial situation, consider the following.
Deductibles Versus Premiums
Higher-deductible health insurance means lower monthly payments (or premiums), but that also means you will have to pay more out of pocket for emergency medical expenses before insurance kicks in.
You’ll have to strike the balance between higher deductibles and higher premiums that works best for your personal budget, but never choose a plan with a deductible that you won’t be able to meet, as that defeats the purpose of having health insurance altogether.
Most plans have an annual deductible, but Trupanion offers a more unusual solution: a lifetime per-incident or per-condition deductible. For example, if your pet develops a chronic issue, like hypothyroidism, which might require regular blood work and medication for the rest of their life, you’ll only have to meet that deductible once.
From then on out, all care related to that condition is covered by insurance. If you adopt a breed that is famous for a specific chronic issue, this could be a good policy for you.
Coinsurance Versus Premiums
Once insurance kicks in, you may still be responsible for a portion of the bill, just like with human health insurance policies.
For example, if a policy advertises 20% coinsurance, you will be responsible for paying 20% of all vet bills after you’ve hit your deductible. Like higher deductibles, higher-coinsurance plans usually yield lower monthly premiums for a policy.
Not all pet health insurance policies are created equal. Most companies offer a basic option that covers illness and injury only; usually, these companies also have policies that include wellness coverage and even death-related coverage (euthanasia, cremation, etc.).
The extent of the coverage defines the cost of the policy; if you are comfortable paying for wellness visits on your own, you will likely save money by skipping that coverage and just paying for annual physicals and vaccines out of pocket.
Some policies exclude specific conditions, like hip dysplasia in certain breeds. Others allow for preexisting conditions, but often at a higher premium. Consider carefully any coverages you think you’ll need, which might vary by the breed or age of your dog or cat.
Lemonade is high on personalized plans so that you get the coverage that your pet needs. You don’t want to pay for coverage that you don’t need, but you also want to make sure the coverage you are paying for is exactly what you need.
Speaking of dogs and cats, most pet insurance policies focus on these common four-legged friends. However, some insurers, like Nationwide, offer coverage for pets like birds and lizards. ASPCA Pet Health Insurance even offers coverage for horses.
While pet health insurance is an ideal way to ensure you can cover emergency medical expenses, it’s only helpful if you already have it when tragedy strikes. But if you find yourself with an uninsured pet, wondering how you’ll afford the care your animal so desperately needs, there are other options to explore.
2. Emergency Savings
In case of a pet emergency, the first place to look is your own savings. If you have been able to put aside money each paycheck into an emergency fund, now is the time to utilize it.
While the specifics can vary based on your personal situation, experts commonly argue that a family should have three to six months’ worth of living expenses set aside for emergencies. This includes necessary expenses, like mortgage or rent, groceries, utilities, health insurance, car payment (and gas and insurance), and any other recurring bills for necessary services.
However, a 2021 Bankrate survey found that more than half of Americans don’t have three months’ worth of expenses saved up, and CNBC found that fewer than 2 in 5 Americans can rely on savings for a $1,000 emergency expense.
Yet in 2020, 70% of American households had at least one pet. That means that not all pet owners can rely on their savings to cover emergency medical treatment for their pets.
If your emergency fund is nonexistent and you’ll do or pay anything to provide the best care for your pet, you do have other options that tap into your own net worth, such as early withdrawals from your retirement savings.
Be aware that this will result in a penalty, however, meaning you would be jeopardizing your own financial future. A better option may be to take on debt.
3. Credit Cards
If you’ve been hit with an unexpected vet bill before, you may have heard your vet talk about a CareCredit credit card. This card can be used for expenses outside the realm of veterinary medical care (like for human dermatology, vision and dental), but tread lightly.
While CareCredit advertises options like short- and long-term financing and no-interest periods, this card is famous for its predatory APR (currently 26.99%) that just prolongs the hardship of medical debt for those living paycheck to paycheck.
Instead, consider opening a new regular credit card when faced with a devastating vet bill. While credit cards can be dangerous if you struggle to keep up with payments, they can help in emergencies. Look for a credit card that has a no-interest introductory period.
If you are able to put only this medical debt on the card and pay it off before the interest kicks in, you won’t be out any extra money, but you’ll have given yourself multiple months to pay for your pet’s health care, rather than right then and there on the day of the procedure.
Even better, if you obtain a rewards credit card, you could actually earn cash back or points when using the card to pay for an emergency medical procedure. And if your credit score is high enough, you might even qualify for a sign-up bonus with a new credit card.
4. Personal Loans
Qualifying for a credit card, especially one with low or no interest and rewards, might be challenging and take too much time. If you need to act fast to fund your pet’s care, consider a personal loan.
Family and friends are a good place to start if you can swallow your pride and ask for money. Just be understanding if you are turned down.
If you can’t get a loan from a friend or family member, you can instead turn to a bank or credit union. While taking out a personal loan means you’ll now have to juggle minimum monthly payments and a potentially high APY, it also means you can fund your pet’s care immediately.
5. Payment Plans With Your Vet
If you have exhausted other options for assuming debt — or perhaps even before agreeing to a more predatory loan option like the CareCredit credit card — ask your vet if they could offer a payment plan.
Typically, payment plans for veterinary bills will mean you’ll pay more in the long run, like with a credit card or personal loan; however, it is possible your vet will have a more palatable option with lower interest.
6. Low-Cost Clinics
If the estimated vet bill for a procedure your pet needs is too steep and the required pet care is not immediate, you can always “shop around” for veterinary care at a low-cost clinic. You can typically find low-cost clinics within veterinary schools.
Check out the state school listings at the American Veterinary Medical Association website to locate schools in your area, then call those schools or visit their websites to find out if they offer such a clinic.
7. Local Animal Shelters and Rescue Groups
Local organizations such as the SPCA, Humane Society, county shelters and animal rescue groups may also offer low-cost clinics for everything from wellness checks and vaccinations to urgent care.
If you rescued your pup from a specific organization, it couldn’t hurt to call and see if they have resources for helping with emergency pet care.
Sites like GoFundMe have made crowdsourcing easy and convenient, whether it’s for helping a family after a natural disaster, assisting someone with an unexpected financial hardship or funding someone’s medical care.
If you are a pet owner in need, there is no shame in creating a GoFundMe for your own pet.
In fact, GoFundMe has its own section of the site dedicated to animal fundraisers.
9. Grants and Funds
You don’t have to just rely on the generosity of friends and family on social media to fund your pet’s emergency vet care. There is a wide range of grants and funds available, offering financial assistance to pet guardians in need.
We have identified a few nonprofit organizations offering financial assistance to pet owners, but keep in mind that applying for aid does not necessarily guarantee you will receive it:
- All Pets Wellness Foundation
- Dylan’s Hearts
- Friends & Vets Helping Pets
- The Mosby Foundation
- Paws 4 a Cure
- Pet Assistance Inc.
- The Pet Fund
- RedRover Relief
- Rose’s Fund
You can often find more specific animal welfare funds targeted at specific conditions or breeds, as well as different geographic locations. If you are desperate for financial aid, do some googling with specific search terms about your pet’s breed and condition and your location.
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