By EMMET PIERCE
If your beloved pet ever gets ill, you might find yourself facing a large medical bill that strains your finances.
According to a January 2015 CNBC report, pet owners in the U.S. spent an estimated $15 billion on veterinary care in 2014.
While a lot of this money was spent on regular check-ups and preventative care, it also factors in emergency vet costs.
According to a 2014 online poll conducted by Angie's List, 34 percent of respondents reported paying between $251 and $500 for an emergency visit; sixteen percent spent $1,000 or more.
In December 2015, the Associated Press reported the case of a 14-year-old shih tzu-poodle mix whose owners had spent $30,000 to treat it for lymphoma. The owner said the cost was well worth it because the dog was considered a member of the family - but not everyone can afford such care.
"I would say that in at least 50 percent 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 you may have to help 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 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 such as CareCredit, a credit card that offers financing options at certain veterinary facilities.
Tyson says 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, FL, says your vet may be more likely to trust you if you've already established a relationship.
2. 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. A credit card can help you take care of unexpected bills that you otherwise couldn't pay.
"A credit card can be a good idea," Gallegos says, "but there's a downside."
A credit card, unlike an installment plan, 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 utilization rate (this is how much of your available credit you use on a monthly basis) -- and that has the potential to lower your credit score.
He recommends that you try to keep your credit utilization rate below 30 percent.
3. Consider a personal loan.
Another repayment option is to take out a personal loan, Tyson says. Unlike credit cards, personal loans typically have fixed rates and usually must be repaid within two to five years in monthly installments.
Personal loans generally range anywhere from $500 to $100,000, according to a February 2016 Bankrate.com report.
One benefit of personal loans is that they're usually unsecured. This means you don't have to put up collateral, as you do with auto loans and mortgages. There are downsides, however.
Gallegos notes that unsecured loans can come with high interest rates, since lenders are assuming a greater risk than with a secured debt. For example, the APR range for a Discover Personal Loan can be anywhere from 6.99 percent to 24.99 percent, depending on your financial profile.
Personal loans can also come with fees, including origination fees and penalty fees for paying off a loan early. For example, Lending Club charges an origination fee of 1 percent to 6 percent of the loan amount, in part depending on your credit rating.
To get a personal loan, you typically need a strong credit profile, with a history of paying your bills on time, Tyson says.
4. 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. If you're unable to find the money you need through other means, this may be your last resort.
"We work exclusively with people who have lower fixed incomes or do not have credit," says Cynthia Bullock, executive director at Harley's Hope Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo. The foundation offers financial assistance for vet care to low-income families. "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.
We have a great emotional attachment to our pets, which makes it difficult to decide against veterinary treatment, even if the long-term prognosis for recovery is poor. 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 can 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 the potential effect on your credit. 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.
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