No Need to Go Into Debt Over an Emergency Vet Bill. Here’s What to Do

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Wrigley the dog is taken for a walk by his owner, Kelly Smith.
When Wrigley was a puppy, Kelly Smith, TPH email content specialist, had to take him to the emergency veterinarian clinic. She ended up putting the entire veterinarian bill on CareCredit. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder


The first time my dog, Wrigley, had to take a trip to the emergency veterinarian was after he vomited blood on the carpet in my bedroom. He ended up being OK after being hospitalized for 24 hours, but when I arrived to pick him up, I was panicking inside.

Emergency vet costs are notoriously expensive, and I didn’t have pet insurance to help pay the bill. I was a college student on an intern budget and had no idea how I was going to come up with enough cash to make a dent in the bill.

I had regular credit cards, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay off the balance within the next month –– meaning I would be stuck paying even more because of interest.

What was I going to do?

“Have you heard of CareCredit?” the receptionist asked me. “If you can’t afford this bill, you should give it a try. It’s interest-free.”

Flustered, I applied on the spot. I got approved and charged the entire bill, which was about $500, to the card. The receptionist told me I had 18 interest-free months to pay it back.

Interest-free financing sounded good, but was it my only — or best — option?

Should You Put Vet Bills on Your Credit Card?

Often, those “interest-free” periods on health care cards are actually deferred-interest periods. That was the case for my CareCredit card.

When a credit card comes with a truly interest-free period, you’ll accumulate interest charges only on the remaining balance when the promotional period ends. With deferred interest, if you don’t pay the balance in full during the promotional period, you’ll be charged all the interest you avoided during that period and whatever interest you incur afterward.

For example, say you charge $1,000 on a health credit card with a deferred-interest period of 12 months. Let’s say the card has a $26.99% interest rate, which is what CareCredit advertises for new accounts. After that period is up, if you haven’t paid the balance in full, you’d owe the remaining balance, plus interest on the full amount you financed. So if you hadn’t paid off the account in full, you’d pay $269.90 in interest (26.99% of the original $1,000) on top of the remaining balance.

If it’s an emergency, you have to choose the best option for you. Sometimes, that might mean opening a CareCredit account. Approval takes only a few minutes, and you’ll be able to charge to the account right when you open it. CareCredit now offers rewards benefits, too, meaning you can stretch your money further.

Going another route, like taking out a personal loan or applying for a regular credit card, could take much longer. You might get instant approval when you apply for a credit card, but you’ll have to wait for the card in the mail. If you have a credit line open already, you might want to compare its annual percentage rate (APR) to that of a health care credit card. Most regular credit cards have lower interest rates than health care credit cards.

Personal loans can give you money on the spot, too, but they might not offer an interest-free period.

Just remember: Always consider all potential repercussions before opening any line of credit.

To Avoid Vet Shock, It Pays to Be Proactive

People wait with their animals to have them examined at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Tampa, Fla. Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder pet insurance, pets, cats, dogs, animals in Tampa, Fla.

People wait to have their animals examined at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Tampa, Fla. Tina Russell / The Penny Hoarder

Ashley Skalko, a customer service manager at BluePearl Emergency Animal Hospital, often recommends CareCredit to pet owners who can’t pay a large bill upfront. However, she says there are a few other routes you can take before you reach for the plastic.

Many emergency vet hospitals are expensive because they are specialized, have wider access to resources and are typically open 24/7. These emergency hospitals typically don’t negotiate bills with pet parents, but Skalko says BluePearl does everything it can to address any financial concerns before treatment.

If an owner expresses cost concerns, we can tweak the initial treatment recommendation,” she said. “And if there are still concerns from there on, we would consider sending them to their primary veterinarian first.”

Primary care veterinarians are generally cheaper, and Skalko says this option can help offset costs. But it’s a difficult option to recommend in the middle of the night, when primary care offices are closed.

She does, however, offer a few free ways to avoid costly emergency vet bills in the first place.

“You can prevent big pet emergencies from happening by being proactive,” she said. “We try to teach pet owners to always use a leash to prevent animals from getting struck by cars, or we even recommend ‘baby-proofing’ their homes so cords are hidden, trash cans have lids on them, and toxic cleaning supplies are up high where animals can’t get to them.”

Skalko also stresses the importance of keeping up with routine care at a primary vet. Keeping your pet up to date with vaccinations can prevent illness, and it gives your vet the opportunity to catch chronic issues early on and work to maintain them before they develop into bigger issues.

Pet insurance can be an incredible way to offset costs. While most pet insurance companies don’t pay for bills upfront, Skalko has seen pet parents get as much as 90% of their total bills reimbursed.

How to Get Help With Vet Bills Without Using a Credit Card

If you were proactive and engaged in preventative care, yet Fido still manages to give you a scare, you could find yourself facing a huge vet bill. As a result, you may be overwhelmed with figuring out how to pay for it.

Not sure where to start? Consider these alternatives to putting the bill on your credit card:

Seek Help From Nonprofit Organizations

There are many organizations that are willing to lend a hand in covering vet bills. Often, these organizations run low on funds, so they may not be able to cover all of your costs. However, they may still be worth applying to.

It’s also important to keep in mind that some of these organizations pay the vet office directly and will not cover bills you have already paid. Be sure to think ahead!

A few nonprofit organizations you can reach out to for help include:

Paws 4 A Cure: This organization offers up to $500 in financial assistance to dog and cat owners who need help paying bills for illness or injury. The best part is it doesn’t discriminate based on breed, age, weight or diagnosis. To apply for help, visit its “Ask for Help” page. You should receive an answer in as little as 48 hours.

The Pet Fund: If your pet has a nonemergency chronic condition, keeping up with its maintenance and care costs can quickly add up. The Pet Fund helps pay for these types of treatments. If you struggle to pay for your pet’s cancer treatment, physical therapy, arthritis treatment and more, check out this list of qualifying conditions, then consider applying for assistance from the Pet Fund.

RedRover: This organization helps animals and owners who are survivors of domestic violence, along with animals rescued from disaster or neglect, or those that have a life-threatening illness. It also offers resources and support to low-income individuals by offering grants for urgent care, boarding for pets whose owners are escaping domestic violence and pet food. To apply for help through RedRover, visit its relief page.

Crowdfunding

If you’ve tried all avenues to get assistance with your pet’s vet bill and still need help, you can consider crowdsourcing to cover some, if not all, of the balance.

Crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe have become increasingly popular ways to raise money in recent years. Keep in mind, though, that some charge service and processing fees, so you may not receive all the money you raised. Here’s how much of your crowdfunded money will make it to your bank account.

So, Did I Make the Right Decision?

For me, CareCredit was the best choice for paying Wrigley’s vet bill. The monthly payments fit into my budget, and I paid it off before the promotional deferred-interest period was over. As a result, I was able to pay a large bill in manageable chunks –– without having to pay extra for interest.

Here’s to many more years — hopefully debt-free years! — with Wrigley.

Kelly Anne Smith is a junior writer and engagement specialist at The Penny Hoarder. Catch her on Twitter at @keywordkelly.  

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