By Dr Daisy A. May BVSc MRCVS, Veterinary Surgeon
Welcome to 2023: crocs have peaked, the giant shoulder pad has made a questionable comeback, and vet bills have never been higher.
If like many others you are feeling the pinch of the cost of living crisis and are looking to make your hard earned money go a little further (and you have pets), then you should definitely stick around, because every pet owner can save money by making use of the pointers below.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at ten practical steps you can take to save money on your vet bills in 2023 and beyond.
1. Request A Written Prescription
So, you’ve taken Wally to the vet, and he’s been diagnosed with atopic dermatitis (otherwise known as allergies); bless his darling Golden Retriever heart!
And bless your darling heart too, which is currently on the verge of stopping entirely when faced with the proposed cost of Wally’s allergy medication. Surely £100 / $125 a month can’t be right?!
Now, what your vet might not have mentioned is that the majority of canine allergy medications (and indeed, veterinary medications in general) can be purchased from online pharmacies these days for a fraction of the price at which they are sold by your veterinary clinic.
Let me give you a couple of examples: we’ll start with Wally, and his allergies.
If your vet is proposing Apoquel tablets as treatment (and they usually will), these are likely to set you back to the tune of about £100 / $125 per month for a Golden Retriever or similarly sized pooch. Or perhaps your vet has suggested a monthly Cytopoint injection at an approximately equal, cardiac arrest inducing cost.
Oh, and did I mentioned both of these treatments need to be lifelong?
That’s quite the financial burden.
However – did you know that you can purchase the exact same Apoquel tablets from online pharmacies for roughly half the cost? And Cytopoint, too. Whilst the latter must be given by injection under the skin, you may well find that a vet tech or nurse at the practice is able to administer this for you free of charge if you provide the medication yourself, or that the vet can teach you to administer the medication monthly yourself at home.
Of course, teaching you to administer injectable medication to your pet yourself at home is at your vet’s discretion, but it is something that I routinely will do with responsible, keen, (non-needle-phobic!) cost-concerned clients…and I know many other veterinary practitioners who are happy to do the same.
A second even more staggering example may be found in the case of the incredibly common pain relief and arthritis medication Meloxicam, commonly sold under the brand names “Metacam”, “Loxicom”, “Rheumocam”, “Meloxidyl” and others. These are all the same drug, by the way; just different brands (think Heinz baked beans versus other brands).
A 100ml bottle of Metacam will last a 20kg (45lb) dog nearly 3 months when given daily. From your veterinary clinic, you can expect this bottle to cost upwards of £60/$75.
But did you know the same 100ml bottle retails online for only about £16 (less than $20)? And that a 180ml bottle can be purchased with a prescription from an online pharmacy for about £22 / $27?
That’s a pretty staggering saving.
So. If your pet is on long-term medication, do a little research and check what that medication is selling for from online pet pharmacies.
If your pet has been prescribed a drug that is also used in human medicine (such as gabapentin, prazosin and many epilepsy medications) you can also phone your local human pharmacy and ask what these medications retail for with a private prescription. Yes, you can absolutely take a prescription for your dog or cat to a human pharmacy!
They won’t be shocked; it happens all the time.
Follow this tip and chances are you’ll save a fortune in the long run.
2. Stay On Top Of Preventative Healthcare…But Avoid Unnecessary Treatments
A great way to reduce your vet bills is to prevent problems from arising entirely.
Daily tooth brushing (yes, for dogs and cats!), routine ear cleaning (beneficial for many breeds of dogs, but especially Bull breeds and Spaniel breeds) and adequate grooming (the extent to which this is required will of course also be breed-dependent) are all absolute musts.
What’s more, you are likely to find that the cost of a yearly vaccination is substantially cheaper than treating your pet for parvovirus, leptospirosis, hepatitis, kennel cough etc. Now, I’ll admit – the odds of your dog encountering these diseases is relatively low (except for kennel cough, which is pretty common).
But a) nothing drains a bank balance quite like treating parvovirus, and b) most of the diseases we vaccinate against aren’t ones I’d want to fuck around with. Much better your pet is protected.
Next, I’m going to voice a fairly controversial opinion (amongst vets, at least): in some instances, you can probably get away with treating your (adult) dog or cat for fleas and worms a little less frequently than your vet advises.
At around $15 / £12 per month to cover a pet for fleas, and roughly the same again for worming treatments, this routine preventative healthcare really does add up.
Of course in an ideal money-no-object world you should keep your pet up to date at all times, regardless of your circumstances. But this isn’t a money-no-object world.
So, let’s apply common sense: if you have a healthy adult dog who has minimal contact with other dogs and cats, you don’t have young children, and you don’t live in a lungworm, heart worm or high tick risk area, then you might decide to worm every 3-6 months rather than monthly, and cover for fleas and ticks only when required.
Whilst not ideal, this would certainly not be unreasonable in many cases, either.
When making the decision of how often to treat against parasites for your pet, do remember to take wildlife into account: hedgehogs and foxes are frequently crawling with fleas, and yes, these can get on your dog if they share a garden.
Similarly, if you have an entirely indoor cat, the truth is it’s probably cheaper to treat a flea infestation in the very unlikely event that it arises (ie, you traipse a flea in with you on your shoe or clothing), than to flea treat your pet monthly. It’s also arguably gentler on their body than administering a monthly parasite treatment…no medication comes without the risk of side effects or the possibility of harm, after all.
At the end of the day it’s all about weighing up pros versus cons for your pet, and about making sensible decisions in regards to your pet’s individual level of flea, worm and tick risk.
3. When Problems Arise, Don’t Delay Treatment
Sometimes, despite our best efforts at problem prevention, issues arise. And when they do, it usually works out cheaper to seek medical attention early, rather than to put this off in the hope that things will resolve on their own. Many medical conditions progress and become more expensive overall to treat if allowed to fester and deteriorate (classic example: ear infections and deep skin wounds).
Right now it might be a simple cut from barbed wire that could be cleaned and stitched up under sedation for a few hundred dollars. Next week, you might be looking at several thousand dollars and a leg amputation.
Likewise, very many times I have seen pet owners (horse owners are the worst for this, sorry guys) try each and every home remedy they (or their neighbour, or their dog groomer) can think of before finally admitting defeat and calling the vet out.
I have also seen pet owners become disgruntled that they have already spent $50 on this-and-that from Amazon or Petsmart to try and resolve the issue, and unfortunately I typically have to break the news that the cream/spray/ear or eye drops they have purchased are entirely useless, and they will need to spend a further $50 on the correct treatment (better to skip the online shopping and get things right first time).
Obviously the exception to this rule would be very minor issues. For example, if a dog has acquired a small, very superficial scratch or graze I’ll usually recommend keeping these clean and dry at home and monitoring healing, visiting us in person only if healing is slow or signs of infection develop.
Or for another example, if a dog develops a mild bout of subtle limping after overdoing things exercise-wise often all that’s needed is to rest him or her entirely for 3 days, and then reintroduce exercise gradually, seeking vet advice if not entirely better.
If in doubt, phone your vet and ask to speak to a nurse or vet tech for initial free advice.
4. Ask For A More Permanent Solution (Wherever Possible)
If your dog or cat is suffering from a long-term or recurrent problem, be sure to ask your vet directly if there is a permanent solution. It sounds obvious, right? And surely they’d have told you if there was?
This is going to be a very honest explanation and is probably going to ruffle some feathers amongst both vets and pet owners. But this blog seeks the truth, and frankly, if we don’t recognise our failings as a medical system, how are we ever going to change them?
First, the most benign explanation: if you see a different vet each time you visit the clinic for a problem (example: recurrent ear infections), they won’t necessarily realise how frequently this issue is cropping up for your pet, or how much the costs are adding up.
After, all they are potentially meeting you and your pet for the first time, and have only had about 30 seconds to skim his or her medical history.
Next, a more concerning reality: sometimes even vets who do recognise that a permanent solution would be best may be hesitant to discuss this option with pet owners because of fear over how you guys will react when faced the an estimate of costs.
Whilst the long-term cost of a permanent solution may be cheaper, the upfront costs are usually substantial.
Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news, including medical professionals. Especially not medical professionals who have been beaten down by years of verbal abuse from clients and aggressive behaviour when clients are given estimates they cannot afford (this kind of reaction is sadly all too common).
Time and time again I have seen colleagues take the easy way out, and not mention the expensive permanent solution at all…instead throwing a short term solution such as antibiotics or steroids at the patient knowing full well they will return with the same problem a few months down the line.
That is the sad reality.
What’s more, in the UK at least it is commonplace for veterinary consults to be 10-15 minutes in length. Now, during this time we are expected to read your pet’s medical history; greet you and your pet; take a history of the presenting problem; fully and thoroughly examine your pet; come up with a mental list of possible diagnoses; discuss these with you; prescribe diagnostics or medication; discussed any treatment side effects calculate any drug doses; and make full, in-depth clinical notes.
It is physically impossible.
And if you turn up two minutes late, or side-track us with small talk for five minutes, or if your pet doesn’t want to be examined, we can end up with even less time.
It shouldn’t be this way. But it is.
What this means is that again, many vets (who are under immense pressure not to run behind) may feel they have no choice but to go down the quick, easy routine of offering a rapid short-term fix such as antibiotics rather than embarking upon an at-length discussion of diet trials, allergen specific immunotherapy, TECA-BO surgeries etc.
So: you need to be aware of the failings of the above systems. You need to take it upon yourself to ask about any permanent solutions.
Just to give you an idea of possible savings (and of benefits for your pet), I will take the super common example of a cat who has just been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism.
Cat A is treated for their hyperthyroidism with daily medication. It has a cheaper upfront cost: you’re forking out maybe £40 / $50 a month for it, plus £400-650 / $500-800 a year for regular blood tests to check how the medication is working. The average life expectancy of cat A is two years (from time of diagnosis). Total cost over those two years? Around £2000 / $2500.
Cat B‘s hyperthyroidism is cured with radioactive iodine treatment. Upfront, this cost the owners about £2000 / $2500. Their cat then does not require further treatment, and his or her average life expectancy is 6.5 years!!!
Shockingly, in the UK daily medication remains by far the mainstay of treating feline hyperthyroidism, with radioactive iodine treatment rarely being discussed with owners by many vets.
My assumption is that this happens largely for the reasons discussed above: it’s a lengthy discussion that can’t be squeezed into a fully-booked afternoon of consults, and a sudden 2k estimate can be enough to send some pet owners into a rage.
Again, it shouldn’t be this way. But it is.
Note – please don’t fly off the handle with your vet if you’re in the above situation. Remember they are a human being who got into this profession out of a genuine desire to help animals, but that they are under immense time pressures which are out of their control due to national vet shortages and often failings by veterinary management. They have also likely had numerous experiences of owners becoming aggressive over financial discussions, any may be genuinely very anxious about this.
5. Ask About Alternative Medications
Specifically, those that can be brought over the counter, and so are often oodles cheaper.
Classic example: ask if using human paracetamol tablets is a pain relief option for your dog, rather than whatever med has been prescribed. This can be an excellent option following minor surgeries such as skin lump removals.
And for goodness sake, tell your vet you want to buy it in yourself, or you’ll end up paying $25 for 16 tablets dispensed from the veterinary clinic.
Paracetamol is extraordinarily cheap. It’s also very effective and safe for most dogs when prescribed at an appropriate dose.
Obviously you should never give anything to your dog without first consulting your personal veterinary surgeon, as some dogs won’t be able to safely take this drug. And NEVER give paracetamol to cats; it’s deadly.
6. Be Hazard Aware
Don your very own safety manager hat and make it a habit to try and identify risks before they become problems.
For example: if your dog has a history of swallowing non-food items, then make sure everybody in the household knows not to leave socks, pens, hairbrushes etc. within reach.
If your pup is a scavenger, then don’t leave your handbag or jeans containing a pocket full of chewing gum (xylitol toxicity waiting to happen) where your pet can steal and eat it.
And for heaven’s sake, keep the chocolate decorations off the Christmas tree.
7. Adopt Wisely
This point only really applies to those who are considering adopting a new pet. If you’re in this boat, I strongly advise that you consider adopting a mongrel or a moggy instead of a pedigree dog or cat, for one significant reason.
Moggies and mutts, as a broad rule, have notably less health problems over the course of their lifespan.
And less health problems obviously = less vet’s bills.
Non-pedigree animals are often cheaper to insure too, constituting further substantial savings over time.
Be aware too, that large breed dogs aren’t just more expensive in terms of buying in more dog food. Their medical treatment is a lot more expensive, too. This is because nearly everything – from a course of antibiotics through to a general anaesthetic – is priced for weight.
As an example, a two week course of the common antibiotic amoxicillin-clavulanate may cost a chihuahua owner around £50/$65. The same two week course could easily cost £200 / $250 for a St Bernard.
Weight aside, some breeds just have a lot of health problems. Anecdotally, as a UK vet it is my opinion that the following breeds tend to cause the greatest financial burden for their pet parents:
- French bulldogs (considered by many vets to be the “ticking time bomb” of the canine kingdom)
- English bulldogs
- XL bulldogs (I’m noticing a theme here…)
- Labrador Retrievers
- Yorkshire terriers (a surprise addition to the list, but typically troubled by dental disease, skin disease, tracheal collapse and locating patellae)
Avoid these breeds if you are cost concerned, or ensure you have excellent, lifelong pet insurance.
8. DON’T Feed Raw!!!
Wait, why is what I feed my dog important in terms of saving money?
Guys, it’s vitally important. Not just because raw meat diets can be hella expensive.
These pricey fad diets (which have approximately zero solid scientific backing regarding health benefits) can easily lead to a variety of health problems which are not cheap to treat.
Examples: nutritional deficiencies (or overdoses); gastrointestinal obstructions or oesophageal damage from bones, requiring urgent surgical correction and often a lengthy hospital stay; haemmorhagic gastroenteritis (shitting blood and becoming dehydrated) due to salmonellosis.
Whilst you may be tempted to ignore me because I’m just another money-grubbing vet, ask yourself what I gain from you choosing not to feed raw? Oh wait…nothing, except the satisfaction of having helped your pet.
If anything, vets will get less business if you avoid raw feeding because your pet is less likely to get sick.
Not sure I’m qualified to discuss the subject?
Well, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but I did spend six years at university studying your pet’s anatomy and physiology in great detail, and I actually did my dissertation specifically regarding raw meat diets in dogs.
Want more info? Link below.
9. Check Your Support Options
If costs have become a real concern and you are not sure where to turn, research whether you are eligible for any help based on your personal circumstances; for example, check your eligibility with the PDSA in your area (of the United Kingdom).
Consider too whether there is an Animal Trust branch that you might be able to attend; there is no consult fee with Animal Trust, instantly saving you in the region of £30-60, and as a not-for-profit organisation their prices for diagnostics and surgical procedures are also frequently much lower than other independent and corporate veterinary practices.
10. Prioritise Pet Insurance
Pet insurance! I saved the best ’till last.
Having a reliable, high quality pet insurance policy in place is the number one way that you can save (sometimes many thousands of dollars or pounds) on your vets bills over the course of your pet’s lifespan.
It will also provide you with immense peace of mind; sudden, unexpected illnesses or injuries will be infinitely less stressful.
It is important to take out pet insurance as soon as you are able, because insurers will always take pre-existing conditions (those that have been documented already on your pet’s medical history) into account, and may well refuse to pay out for any such conditions.
Best to start young, where possible.
The best approach is to take out a lifetime insurance policy with a generous annual and/or per-condition limit, and to ensure this is renewed in a timely manner each year so that it never runs out.
With a lifetime insurance policy, any medical condition your pet develops will be covered for life (so long as you never let your policy expire); whereas with non-lifetime policies, your insurer is likely to exclude medical conditions and refuse to pay out for them after your policy has renewed at the end of the policy year.
If this post saved you some money, why not share it so that others can benefit, too?
You’ve got nothing to lose!