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If your beloved pet ever gets ill, you might find yourself facing a large medical bill that strains your finances.
According to the American Pet Products Association, pet owners in the U.S. spent almost $16 billion on veterinary care in 2016.
Veterinary care could include regular checkups and preventative care, but it also includes emergency vet costs.
And according to pet adoption site Petfinder, dog owners should be prepared to pay up to $2,000 – or more – for emergency veterinary care.
“I would say that in at least 50% of emergencies, owners don’t have the financial ability to afford care for their pets,” says Eva Evans, a veterinarian in Nashville. “In these situations, owners are often struggling to pay for other things like rent, food and clothing for their children as well.”
The Humane Society of the United States recommends that you discuss your pet’s likelihood of recovery with veterinarians before agreeing to costly treatment. The chance of your pet having a good quality of life after treatment should be a key factor in deciding whether to proceed with costly medical care.
But if you decide to proceed and shoulder the cost, here are four options to consider that may help you pay the bill.
1. Negotiate an installment plan
You may be able to negotiate an installment payment plan with your veterinarian, says economist Eric Tyson, author of “Personal Finance for Dummies.” This typically involves making monthly payments until the debt is repaid.
Kevin Gallegos, vice president of new client enrollment and Phoenix operations for Freedom Financial Network, a debt settlement company based in Arizona, says there’s no typical repayment period. The terms that consumers negotiate with their vets can vary widely.
“It’s completely up to the veterinarian,” Gallegos says.
Some practices offer interest-free repayment for a specific period of time. Others may require clients to apply for external financing. One option for financing is CareCredit®, a credit card that offers financing options at certain veterinary facilities.
Tyson says that many people are too shy or embarrassed to negotiate, but you’ll never know how willing your veterinarian is to work with you until you ask.
While some vets may be wary of installment plans, because there’s no guarantee that they’ll be fully repaid, Dr. John Clark, a veterinarian in Vero Beach, Florida, says your vet may be more likely to trust you if you’ve already established a relationship with them.
2. Ask if animal welfare organizations or charities can help
According to the Humane Society of the United States, some animal shelters offer veterinary loans and grant programs, and many veterinary schools run low-cost clinics.
In addition, some communities have nonprofit vet clinics that offer treatment at reduced costs, such as Harley’s Hope Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which offers financial assistance for vet care to low-income families.
“We work exclusively with people who have lower fixed incomes or do not have credit,” says Cynthia Bullock, executive director at the foundation. “We’re often the last resort.”
The downside of such programs is that the need for help with vet bills often exceeds available resources of the organization, Bullock explains.
“We always have more applications than funding,” she says.
3. Put the bill on a credit card
When consumers lack the cash to pay their bills immediately, some put the debt on credit cards, Gallegos says.
But a credit card, unlike an installment plan, usually doesn’t have a fixed term, he explains. The longer it takes you to repay what you owe, the more it could cost you in interest.
If you must use a credit card, Gallegos recommends that you set a deadline for yourself to repay the debt, and do your best to stick to it.
Putting large bills on credit cards can increase your credit utilization (how much of your available credit you use at any given time). A high credit utilization ratio has the potential to negatively impact your credit.
You should try to keep your credit utilization below 30%. To find this percentage, total up your credit card balances and divide this by the total of your credit card limits.Learn more: Credit card utilization and your credit scores
4. Consider a personal loan
Another repayment option is to take out a personal loan, Tyson says. Personal loans typically have fixed rates and usually must be repaid within a set amount of time in monthly installments.
Depending on your credit profile, you may be able to get approved for a personal loan with a lower interest rate than your credit cards.
However, you should keep an eye out for any fees, including origination fees and penalty fees for paying off a loan early, also known as prepayment penalties.
It can be difficult to decide against veterinary treatment, even if the long-term outlook for your pet is poor, but it’s important to determine if the treatment will improve your pet’s quality of life.
If you proceed with treatment but can’t pay the bill, ask if your vet will allow you to repay it on an installment plan. If you decide to use a credit card or a personal loan to pay your vet bill, make sure you understand the debt repayment terms as well as any potential impact on your credit.
And finally, if you decide to go forward with treatment that exceeds your budget, consider asking your vet if local veterinary schools or animal welfare groups can provide discounted care or financial aid.