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Why Is My Veterinary Bill So High? Accessing Affordable Pet Care

Taking care of your pet’s healthcare needs comes with the territory of being a pet parent. And, while the desire to do right by your pet is top of mind, a simple trip to the vet can cause some major sticker shock. Even when it’s for the care of such a beloved family member, it’s normal to be concerned about charges on a bill. 

Young pets, like puppies and kittens, require parasite treatments, vaccinations, and booster shots. As healthy adults, they need annual routine veterinary care. When they become older, they may need more frequent visits to the vet to keep on top of any health issues that might come up. And, when they get sick or injured, well, the charges often add up beyond what a budget can withstand. That’s why it’s so important to have a plan.

If your pet has a health problem, you can ask for a treatment plan from your veterinary clinic so you can make an informed financial decision. Usually, the cost to implement the plan is given in a range because they don’t know if it’ll be an inexpensive problem to detect and treat, or if it will be a more complicated problem. For example, they might tell you that your pet’s treatment could cost anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. The exact cost will depend in part on the kinds of diagnostic procedures or detective work they need to do to identify the problem. What they find during those procedures will affect the steps they’ll recommend taking to solve the problem, which will affect the final cost as well.

Preparing for Veterinary Costs

Depending upon where you live and what kind of pet you have, the following breakdown of veterinary costs may vary but will help in planning a budget for your pet’s well‑being. 

The ASPCA estimates the first year of owning a healthy dog not used for breeding could cost upwards of $2,000, while a cat’s initial care will run in the neighborhood of $1,175. These costs include veterinary care and other initial expenses, such as collars, leashes, and toys. This may seem overwhelming, but keep in mind that the ongoing annual costs won’t be nearly as high (for a healthy pet, about $210 for a small dog or a cat, and $1,040 for a large dog). 

Common Initial and Routine Costs*

  • Physical exam / routine checkup $50 to $250
  • Spay/neuter $50 to $350 (one‑time cost; cheapest for a young, small male pet, most expensive for an older, large female dog)
  • Vaccines (per shot) $20 to $45
  • Fecal exam $40 to $75
  • Heartworm test $45 to $50
  • Dental cleaning $300 to $400 (unlike people, dental cleanings for pets are done under anesthesia; this does not include any other dental procedures)

Just as people have unexpected illnesses and accidents, so do pets. If a pet develops diabetes, for example, the diagnosis alone could cost $300. Heartworms can be fatal. Recommended heartworm treatment for dogs can cost in the $1,000 range. Accidents such as broken bones or wounds should be taken into consideration too. 

Common Emergency Costs*

  • ER exam $75 to $225
  • IV catheter $60 to $100
  • IV fluids $50 to $125
  • Blood tests (basic) $75 to $150
  • Urine tests (basic) $25 to $150
  • X‑rays (basic) $100 to $250
  • Blood pressure measurement $25 to $75 
  • Pain medication $40 to $80 
  • Hospitalization / vet tech monitoring $50 to $200

*These price ranges are based on typical veterinary care costs from veterinary clinics that listed their prices in Maryland, Virginia, and Ohio as of 2021. 

Finding Affordable Pet Care

Not all veterinary clinics charge the exact same prices to care for a healthy pet. Pricing can vary based on things like a clinic’s overhead costs, location, and business policies. What’s more important is building a relationship of trust with your veterinarian so that if and when your pet has a health problem that they will propose a range of testing and treatment options that can work within your budget. It’s best to be honest with yourself and your veterinarian about what you can afford.

Once you’ve found the right vet for you and your pet, it’s best to set aside money for your pet’s expenses when possible. But if savings still isn’t enough, or if your income is too low to save enough money, there are more options:

Resources to Help You Pay for Vet Care

Pet Insurance

Pet insurance works similarly to health insurance for people. Policies vary in terms of cost and levels of coverage. Ask your veterinarian what pet insurance company they recommend. You can search for providers online and compare them, or use an insurance broker such as Pawlicy, which will provide you with quotes from different insurance companies as well as a central place to apply. Costs for pet insurance can be as low as $25 per month for one healthy pet. Getting pet insurance while your pet is young and healthy is best. Over time, insurance rates increase with the age of your pet. Be sure you understand what pet insurance will and will not cover so that you’re not surprised.

Veterinary Payment Plans

If you can’t pay for a veterinary bill in full at the time of service and/or you don’t have pet insurance to cover all of the expenses, some veterinary clinics can make special arrangements through programs such as CareCredit or other payment plans like Scratchpay. Talk to the office staff at your veterinary clinic about what they can offer and what the process is. Some offer same-day service. Be sure to make monthly payments on time to avoid hefty fines. If you don’t qualify for any of these payment programs, then you can seek financial assistance that might be available to you. 

Financial Assistance for Veterinary Care

Non‑profit groups such as One Health Organization offer vouchers for eligible pet parents to help pay for approved services. Some are only available to seniors, people with disabilities, and/or those below the poverty line. The vouchers may be for limited amounts and may be accepted by a list of specific providers in one area. There may be a waitlist for these vouchers, so if your pet needs veterinary care, make sure to look into this option as far in advance as possible.

Keeping Your Pet Healthy

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, preventive care may seem like a no‑brainer. But things like fitness and nutrition are just as important to a pet’s health as they are for people. Keeping up on wellness checks, shots, and preventive treatment saves money by preventing more expensive problems. By offering healthful food, exercise, and plenty of love, care, and attention, pet parents can reduce visits to the veterinary office.

Download the Pet Parent's Guide to Caring for Your Dog or Cat