Taming Costly Vet Bills

By Thomas M. Anderson
Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Sunday, July 20, 2008

Keeping your furry friend happy and healthy may not be as easy as you think. Medical bills and pet insurance can be expensive but necessary.

If your cat comes down with pneumonia, the bill could run $1,900. Cancer therapy for a dog averages nearly $3,600. James Busby, veterinarian and author of "How to Afford Veterinary Care Without Mortgaging the Kids," recommends that pet owners ask upfront about all treatment options and costs, including for routine care. For example, many vets vaccinate dogs every year. But according to an American Animal Hospital Association study, adult dogs need most shots only once every three years.

The typical insurance premium for a dog is about $40 per month -- that's $5,280 if a dog lives 11 years, the average canine life span in the United States. Policies usually cover illness and accidents, although some insurers provide only accident protection. A few policies cover preventive care, such as regular checkups and vaccines.

Payouts depend on the insurer, but it's common for companies to foot 80 percent of the bill. To compare the benefits, co-payments and deductibles of major pet insurers, go to http://www.petinsurancereview.com.

A low-cost basic plan, with a premium ranging from $13 to $25 per month, offers fewer benefits and higher deductibles but still lessens the burden if your pet suffers a catastrophic injury or illness. If you have more than one pet, ask your insurer about a multiple-pet discount.

Sign up your puppy or kitten before it gets sick. Insurers normally exclude preexisting conditions. Eligibility depends on the insurer. For older animals, you may have to submit medical records and tests to obtain coverage. Membership in Pet Assure ( http://www.petassure.com) gives you access to a network of participating veterinarians and animal hospitals and can reduce your bills by up to 25 percent. The Humane Society and other local groups often host events at which low-cost pet care is available.

Reputable breeders are listed on free referral services offered by the American Kennel Club ( http://www.akc.org) and the Cat Fanciers' Association ( http://www.cfainc.org).

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