How to Afford Vet Bills and Pet Care (when you have no money)

There's no two ways about it, affordable pet care can be a real challenge, especially if your pet needs a major surgery or becomes very unwell.  There are however several strategies for how to pay for vet bills.


In this #DrAlexAnswers article, I attempt to answer the concern put to me that:

“My biggest concern is not having money to take a pet to the vet.”

If you have a question you’d like answered simply leave a comment below, ask on twitter or reply to my newsletter to get priority. Make sure you include #DrAlexAnswers

7 Steps to affording pet care

  1. Use the cheapest effective products available

  2. Join your vets pet health scheme

  3. Don't waste money on fads or unproven products

  4. Consider pet insurance

  5. Start and emergency fund

  6. Build up a credit on your pet's vet account

  7. Look at charity options

Emergency Vet Care - no money

Pet care can broadly be broken down into preventative care - trying to keep your dog or cat as healthy as possible - and reactive health care - providing for your pet when they are sick or injured.

One of these can be planned and budgeted for, the other has the potential to present us as pet owners with a big bill just when we can least afford it.  The last thing we want is for our finances to be the reason for being completely unable to afford any kind of treatment. Being in the position of your pet needing emergency vet care but having no money is a source of worry for many people.

It’s all too easy to claim that either vet’s are massively overcharging or that if they really cared about their patients they would do the job for nothing.  Neither are realistic nor accurate (I probably need to address this separately at some point). No-one though can deny that costs can be eye-watering in some cases.

No matter what you do or how you plan, cutting edge surgery or medical treatment might remain out of reach.  With a bit of thought though, and this starts from the very moment you plan to bring a pet into your family, you will be able to provide a good level of care to your dog and cat throughout their life.

Optimizing health when your pet is well and making best use of your resources when they are sick or injured is key.

How to afford preventive pet care

Preventive pet care focuses on keeping your pet as healthy as possible in the first instance.  This can be made more affordable by:

  1. Using the cheapest products available (that does the same job as the most expensive products) - these might not be the most convenient, needing more frequent administration or taking more ingenuity to administer, but if the outcome is the same you can save some valuable dollars to put towards emergency planning.

  2. Joining your vets pet health scheme to spread costs over 12 months and take advantage of discounts offered. Not all vets will have such schemes but when available they can represent a significant saving, as well as help with budgeting. They may even offer discounts should your pet become unwell or injured.

  3. Don’t waste money on products with little to no evidence of a health benefit. Basically get the most bang for your buck! There are too many supplements which offer the world and deliver next to nothing

Preventive pet care involves vaccination, parasite control, dental hygiene management, weight optimization, neutering (I have already written about the pros and cons of spaying a female dog and desexing your cat), good nutrition, and socialization to name but a few.

It’s a long list but attention to all of these aspects of routine dog and cat care can all add up to make your pets health better and their risk of disease lower.  The best way to afford vet bills in general is to reduce them. Or at least reduce the risk of your dog or cat becoming unwell if at all possible.

Ultimately, a healthy pet will also cost much less on average.

You’ll have noticed that much of preventive pet care doesn’t actually involve a vet doing anything. Instead it involves effort and planning from you as your pets owner and carer. Consider which breed is right for your family situation, and what problems they are more likely to suffer with (is a brachycephalic really affordable for example?). Learn how to condition score your pet, feed them appropriately and keep them a healthy weight.  Start brushing or using dental chew toys. Make sure your dog (and cat as well) is properly socialized.

Your efforts will pay off.

How to afford unexpected vet bills

As I’ve already mentioned, we can’t predict when our pets will need treatment for illness or injury.  Nothing we do can completely eliminate the risk. Reactive vet bills can be made more affordable by:

  1. Pet insurance - this is a big topic in itself. Premiums can be expensive but there is nothing quite like the peace of mind knowing that your pets vet bills are covered no matter what happens to them. You need to consider what’s covered, any payment limit and excess, co-payments, how payment is made, exclusions in old age and read all the small print. You should definitely not decide which policy to take based on cost alone.

  2. Pay into an emergency fund for your pet every month - for those of you who are good, regular savers this may be an alternative. Pay a small amount into a separate account that is only ever to be used to pay for your pets vet bills. Just $10 each week will give you a total of $5,200 by the time your pet gets to 10 years of age. The problem with this approach is two-fold. The first is that some treatments will be much higher than you can ever hope to save up and so remain unattainable (and that’s OK as I’ll discuss in a minute). Secondly, if your pet becomes unwell or injured while they are young, a broken leg at 9 months of age for example, your emergency fund may only cover a relatively small portion of the bill.

  3. Add money to your pet's vet account so there is a credit that can be used when needed. There may be financial regulations which prevent your vet taking money in this way and it may not be a service they can offer. It is though an option to explore if you can’t trust yourself not to dip into any savings. You will of course miss out on any interest compared to having your own account, but it is of course your money if you did need to use it for any other reason.

  4. Look for local/national charities that may be able to help with costs. This last option will very much depend on where you live. In the UK both the PDSA and RSPCA provide free or discounted vet services if you are eligible. Local charities may be happy to contribute towards your pets vet bill if you can demonstrate a need. Your vet may know who to approach or jump on google/facebook and see what you can find.

Be honest and upfront

Being honest and upfront with your vet about what you can afford is also vital.  There is often a plan B, C or D that can be formulated to try and maximize the chance of a successful outcome while at the same time keeping within financial constraints. Agreeing to a plan you can't afford and then failing to pay as agreed is not fair on your vet and is only going to cause you more stress and financial hardship in the long run.

This might mean cutting corners and not treating optimally but so long as there is still a chance of success these plans may be what needs to be considered to give your pet any chance of recovery or quality of life.

If your vet knows you very well and you have a long history together they may even allow you to pay in installments. A large bad debtor list and bills that need to be written off has removed this option in most cases - unfortunately too many people promise to pay and are never seen again. You will know that you will pay your vet as agreed but unfortunately that is also what all the people who were never seen again promised too. Being open to start with, especially if you have a long history with your vet (another reason not to chop and change vets all the time) may make you the exception though.

I hope that helps you think about how you can afford your dog or cats healthcare. Planning is so important. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and let all of us know any other strategies you might have to help. 

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