On a normal car ride, Grace the brown-white Chihuahua might have been happily "singing" along in traffic with her owner, Ellen Ross. But this wasn't a normal ride.
Ross, author of the lifestyle blog Ask Away, was driving her 9-year-old dog to the veterinary specialist's office in September 2016 after noticing that even the slightest touch to her neck would cause her to yelp in pain -- and cause Ross' heart to shatter. She wanted answers and agreed to an MRI. All told, the bill for diagnosis came to $6,500, which she decided to "figure out" later.
"I was willing to do whatever it took," says Ross, 33. That included turning to emergency funds, a personal credit card and a financing offer via a second card offered at the specialist's office. It also involved a crowdfunding campaign Ross started while sitting in the specialist's parking lot.
When pets get sick, expenses pile up quickly. If you encounter a sky-high vet bill, it's important to have a plan for dealing with it while keeping debt under control.
FINANCING OPTIONS AND DISCOUNTS
- Pet insurance -- or even an emergency fund like Ross had -- can be helpful before issues arise. But not every pet or condition is eligible for coverage, and not every owner can afford to earmark savings for pet medical bills.
And by the time you're at the emergency clinic, it's too late to consider insurance. But there are other resources.
- Get a 0% introductory APR credit card. If your pet's condition isn't urgent and you have a good credit score (690 or higher), you may qualify for a card that can help you finance your vet bill at 0% interest over a long period. Some cards even offer a sign-up bonus that can defray a vet bill.
- Vet offices may also offer access to deferred-interest promotions; Ross used one for part of her bill. But unlike true 0% APR cards, these offers require you to pay off the entire balance within the promotional window, or you'll incur interest for the full transaction retroactively.
"These cards are considered a risk because any sort of setback that leaves you unable to pay off the full balance ... is going to result in a big bill, when the whole point of the card was to pay less," says Martin Lynch, director of education at Cambridge Credit Counseling.
Ross notes she understood the terms and paid off that balance within the promo period.
- Ask your vet for help. Some vets may be willing to work with clients on installment plans or offer in-house financial assistance programs.
"Here at my hospital, for example, we have a number of financial assistance programs all designated for different pets, different clients, different situations," says Gary Block, a veterinarian in Rhode Island and spokesperson for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.
- Look to nonprofits. The Humane Society's website lists resources by state that provide low-cost services or grants for veterinary services. Organizations may require tax forms, bank statements or pay stubs.
- Consider an accredited veterinary school's clinic. Vet school clinics can be more affordable, though finding one might require research. A good place to start is the American Veterinary Medical Association's website.
- Crowdfund. A couple of months after launching her GoFundMe campaign for Grace and sharing it on social media, Ross says she raised $5,327 to put toward the debt. She paid it off about two months later.
MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR YOUR PET
It's sometimes hard to align your heart and head when making medical decisions for a pet, Block says. He suggests considering the prognosis, likelihood of the procedure's success, present and future costs, long-term complications, financial circumstances, your pet's age and their relationship to the household.
"For me and most clients, the issue is whether short-term pain will potentially result in a long-term improvement in quality and quantity of life," Block says. "Adding days or weeks to a pet's life without quality of life is not fair to the animal."
For Ross, it was worth the MRI cost to learn that Grace has intervertebral disc disease -- the discs between her vertebrae press on the nerves running through her spinal cord and cause pain. Surgery was a risky, expensive option.
A second opinion from Ross' longtime vet led her to choose pain management.
"Grace is doing a lot better because we just get her pain medication," Ross says. "It only flares up twice a year."
Outside of those episodes, Grace lives for her walks, car rides and duets with Ross.
This article was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Melissa Lambarena is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lissalambarena.