Even before the economy took a nose dive in 2008, our rescue was getting requests for help from guinea pig owners blindsided by vet bills for illnesses and unplanned surgeries. Our friends in other rescues for dogs, cats, birds, bunnies, ferrets, chinchillas, and reptiles tell us that they similarly can't go a month without getting at least one request for help from a pet owner overwhelmed by an existing vet bill, or emotionally strung out because they have a pet that needs surgery but they just don't have the money to pay.
The requests for help fall into one of the following buckets:
- a straight handout that doesn't have to be paid back
- a loan that will be paid back over a period of time
- the chance to let them run their pets through the rescue's often-discounted account with a local veterinary hospital
- surrender the ailing pet so that the rescue can foot the bill, handle the medical care (e.g., antibiotics, wound care, post-operative care), and rehome the animal (or pay to have the animal put down if the problem reveals itself to be incurable)
Cash-strapped rescues rarely (or never) have extra funds to loan or grant to pet owners, and few will jeopardize their own relationships with vets in order to falsely funnel someone else's pet into surgery under whatever discount the vet has extended to the rescue. Some may have special arrangements with vets that allows them to provide "compassionate interventions," but they're more likely the exception than the norm.
It breaks our hearts to have to tell an owner whose guinea pig, say, has bladder stones that we can't help them financially, knowing that the animal may well die because the owner can't afford the surgery bill and the vet, for whatever reason, refuses to work out a payment plan. The best we can do is offer the suggestions we know about, and pray that one of them will pan out.
More Options Available Than You Think
Negotiate with a vet. In instances where the owner says they haven't asked their vet about installment payments over a course of two or three months, we encourage them to try negotiating such an arrangement. Vets may be willing to work out such installment payments if they can bill to a credit card number, or deposit post-dated checks, on mutually agreed-upon dates. Beyond that, we suggest vets whom we know have been reasonable with arrangements for critical-care patients whose humans are struggling financially.
Apply for a grant. There are some medical grants available, for which individuals can apply on their own or with the involvement of a veterinarian. These grants come from organizations like Help-A-Pet, United Animal Nations, and the AAHA Helping Pets Fund.
Repayment plans. Because the vets we know often won't extend payment plans more than three months from the original date of service, you might need to look elsewhere if you know that 90 days isn't going to be enough time. We are hearing more and more about financing arrangements, like Citi Health Card and Care Credit, that can give pet owners repayment plans stretching as long as 18 months. (If you can discipline yourself not to use it for other purposes, you could also simply have a separate low-interest credit card tucked away just for vet bills.)
Insurance and savings accounts. Some advice articles suggest creating health savings accounts (HSA) or flexible spending accounts (FSA) for your pets, the same as you can for humans. On the insurance side, we're aware of pet insurance plans from ASPCA, Purina, and 24PetWatch. The VPI Avian & Exotic Plan is the only one I've heard of (so far), that covers exotic pets, birds, and reptiles.
The best time to start contingency planning for the unexpected is before you need it. Doing so means that when your pet is in crisis, you can stay calm and focus on its needs and not on the growing hole in your wallet.
- Good dog, bad bill: Veterinary care financing options
- Having Trouble Affording Veterinary Care? (HSUS)
- Medical Grants for Homeless Pets and Pets In Need
- Insurance, credit options can take the sting out of vet care