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How to find quality pet care — without spending a fortune


“Let’s get a pet,” they said. “We’ll take care of it,” they promised. If you fell for it, you aren’t alone: Millions of American families have added new critters during the pandemic era.

We love our pets, and, as with any family member, we want them to get the best possible health care. To help you find a veterinarian who provides the care and service your pets deserve without wrecking your treat budget, nonprofit consumer group Washington Consumers’ Checkbook has evaluated area veterinary clinics and hospitals. Until March 5, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of local veterinarians to Washington Post readers via

Checkbook surveyed its members and Consumer Reports subscribers, plus other randomly selected individuals, and asked them to rate veterinary practices they had recently used. Most of the feedback was favorable, but some practices received low scores on many survey questions.

Although you can’t assess all aspects of a veterinarian’s technical skills and expertise, you can judge many factors central to good medical care, much like when choosing a physician. For starters, check the quality of the practice’s customer service and whether it has a convenient location and favorable hours. Can you arrange to get an appointment quickly? Does the vet listen to you and communicate well? Spend enough time with you? Give useful advice on preventing diseases, warning signs and treatments you can administer on your own? Seem competent and thorough?

It’s also important to determine how a vet handles emergency care outside of office hours. Most practices aren’t open 24/7. Some vets offer emergency services and will meet clients at the office when called; others refer clients to nearby 24-hour hospitals.

The most common complaints Checkbook receives from pet owners about their vets concern excessive and unexpectedly high costs. Many said vets not only failed to consider and discuss less-expensive options, but also pushed costly treatments that owners perceived as having little value.

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To compare what vets charge, Checkbook’s undercover shoppers called practices and collected prices for six different procedures. They made sure to collect pricing for the same package of services from each practice, such as fees for pre-surgical care, hospitalization, medications, lab work, X-rays, and post-surgical appointments and care. Checkbook found big price differences among Washington-area practices. Undercover shoppers were quoted fees ranging from $235 to $1,404 to spay a 7-month-old, 25-pound dog. And they were quoted fees ranging from $300 to $1,080 to clean the teeth of a 7-year-old, 65-pound dog.

Fortunately, Checkbook found that many of the lowest-priced practices received very high ratings from their surveyed customers. In short, you can save a lot of money by using an inexpensive vet without sacrificing quality of care. Using a facility that charges low fees is just one way to control veterinary costs. Getting — and following — sound advice on prevention and pet-care practices also reduces bills.

Veterinary hospitals can become accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association by meeting certain standards. This includes maintaining adequate medical records and providing complete diagnostic, pharmacy, anesthetic, surgical, nursing, dental and emergency service facilities. Of the 258 Washington-area practices Checkbook evaluated, 76 are AAHA-accredited. Interestingly, AAHA accreditation seems to have little relationship to service quality. For example, on Checkbook’s customer survey question “apparent competence/thoroughness,” AAHA-accredited practices, on average, scored about the same as non-accredited practices.

Because veterinary treatment can be expensive, an increasing number of consumers buy health insurance for their pets. But Checkbook recently analyzed pet insurance policies and found that, in most cases, even the best plans ended up costing more in premiums than they paid out over a pet’s lifetime.

Most insurance plans tout affordability. And, at first, they seem affordable. That’s because most buyers sign up when their pets are young and monthly premiums are low.

But Checkbook found that most insurers poorly disclose that, starting around age 4 or 5, their premiums typically start to steeply rise — for no other reason than the pets are getting older. Eventually, many plans’ premiums become unaffordable. (Some charge $1,500 to more than $4,000 per year to cover older animals.)

Between the cost of premiums, co-pays, lack of coverage for many categories of care, exclusions for preexisting conditions and other factors that limit benefits, Checkbook concluded that pet insurance is a bad buy for most families.

If you still want to buy pet insurance, shop carefully. Find out how premiums will increase as your pet ages. You can usually determine this by using the insurer’s online quote engine. First, get a monthly premium quote using your pet’s current age, then get quotes for the next 10 or 12 years. Multiply each age’s monthly premium by 12, then add up all the resulting annual premiums to estimate what insurance will cost over that period.

Also make sure you understand what’s not covered. No pet insurance policy covers preexisting conditions, and some conditions that are covered may be considered preexisting if they develop up to a year after you enroll. If your pet is ill or injured, the diagnostic exam is often not covered by many plans, even though the treatment itself is covered. Follow-up exams for that covered condition are often not covered, either. Those $50 to $100 exam fees amount to a hidden added deductible.

Avoid claim rejection for a preexisting condition by insuring your pet when it’s a puppy or kitten — before it has a chance to develop a preexisting condition (but don’t forget about the caveats listed earlier). You can typically enroll when your pet is 6 to 8 weeks old.

Don’t bother with add-ons for wellness, preventive and elective care. Checkbook found that these options rarely are worth the expense. To minimize out-of-pocket costs for coverage, consider accident-only policies, which cover injuries but not illness and can be considerably less expensive.

You must pay premiums every month, but you may or may not have to pay deductibles and co-pays, depending on your pet’s health. It may pay to cut your premium costs by increasing your deductible, reducing the percent you are reimbursed, and choosing an annual limit of only $5,000 or $10,000 instead of unlimited.

Kevin Brasler is executive editor of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of local veterinarians free of charge until March 5 at

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