How to Prep Your Finances for an Emergency Vet Visit

When an accident sends your pet to the hospital, will you be prepared to handle the situation financially? Emergency vet bills can quickly make a huge dent in your savings, and that could leave you in a tough spot during an already stressful situation. Can your pet receive the care he or she needs, or will you have to euthanize the animal because you can’t afford the treatment? If you plan ahead, you can avoid the latter. Here’s how.

Get pet insurance while your pet is healthy

When my dog, Jaxon, was about a year and a half old, he was admitted to the vet with a respiratory infection that filled his lungs with fluid, which required several nights in the hospital. The bill for the treatment was nearly $8,000, a fee that my husband and I couldn’t afford as a young couple in New York City. Unfortunately, we also were unaware that we weren’t allowed to leave the hospital without paying the bill in full, and emergency pet care facilities sometimes do not accept payment plans.

Thankfully, we had insurance to cover it. We paid the full amount to the hospital on our credit cards and then had to wait to be reimbursed by the insurance company (a caveat to consider) after we submitted the claim. But it was a small price to pay to save Jaxon’s life. If it weren’t for the insurance, we would have had no choice but to put him down at that point. In hindsight, it was a valuable lesson to learn about emergency vet bills and pet insurance, and the life-or-death difference it can make. (See also: 7 Things You Need to Know About Pet Insurance)

Have copies of your pet’s medical records handy

If you have to visit the pet emergency room in the middle of the night, chances are the attending doctors will not be able to access your pet’s medical file, because your primary vet will be closed. So it’s a good idea to keep a copy of them at your home so you can grab and go when needed.

“If your pet has an ongoing medical condition, it would be best to bring any recent medical records, [and] X-rays with you,” says Dr. Gary Richter, veterinary health expert with Rover.com. “Similarly, if the reason for the visit is because the pet got into something that could be toxic, bringing the exact product or a picture of a label is very helpful. The more information you can provide to the team at the emergency clinic, the easier things are going to be.”

Bring some form of payment with you

Even if you haven’t figured out exactly how you’re going to pay the bill, you will need to show some form of payment (especially if you don’t have insurance) if you’d like your pet to receive care. Don’t leave home without it.

Most facilities have an initial exam fee, after which they’ll provide an estimate for recommended testing and treatment. Costs can range from under $100 to thousands if the pet is in critical condition. You’ll then have some time, but perhaps not much time if the situation is critical, to make your decision on what you can afford and how to proceed with the care. (See also: 8 Ways to Lower Your Vet Bills)

Put aside money for your pet’s emergency

You stash away cash for your own emergencies, so it makes sense to save a little extra for your pet’s needs since they are such an important part of your life. At the very least, you should have enough to cover your pet insurance deductible, but more will likely be necessary if you don’t have pet insurance.

“If you forgo insurance, you should have at least $2,500 set aside for your pet,” advises Jme Thomas, executive director of Motley Zoo Animal Rescue in Redmond, Washington. This is, sadly, really hard for a lot of people to do, but instantly when your dog gets hit by a car, that’s pretty much what you’re looking at to start — not even for the ongoing care and treatment. We feel that’s a slightly conservative estimate [for the actual care], but a relatively typical amount for an emergency fund.”

There are credit options specifically for these emergencies

If you’re in the hospital with your pet and you’re trying to figure out how to pay for the bill, CareCredit could be an option for you. You can apply for this medical assistance credit line in advance, possibly at your veterinarian’s office, or online, just so you have it on hand when the emergency arises. You can also do it at the emergency vet’s office at the time, if needed.

Your qualification for this card is based on your credit situation, like any other card would be, so you can’t have a terrible score, Thomas says. But it’s not as harshly critical of your score as, say, a mortgage lender would be.

“This is what saves a lot of people’s pets in the end,” she adds.

Don’t let emotion control the situation

You want to save your pet, there’s no doubt about that. But one practical question you need to ask yourself when your pet has an emergency is if going into debt for the treatment is worth it. That may seem harsh, but you need to keep a roof over your own head if you want to be able to afford caring for another living creature.

Adds Dr. Richter, “When people are faced with these kinds of choices, they need to weigh the costs with the pet’s prognosis and how spending the money will impact their lives. An excellent long-term prognosis — broken leg, for example — may warrant spending the money, whereas end-stage terminal cancer is a more difficult decision.”

In the end, it’s your decision, but you shouldn’t compromise your ability to provide for yourself. It defeats the whole purpose. (See also: 6 Money Lessons You Can Learn From Your Pets)

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