A few years ago, a little orange cat showed up on my front porch, and I fed him.

You can probably guess what happened next. Yep, he never left.

But as with any “free” pet, Hans cost a lot of money. This was especially true in the beginning when we had to have him neutered and vaccinated. We also paid for a six-month supply of flea treatment.

Then, Hans injured his paw. It swelled to three times its normal size, and he couldn’t put weight on it. Back to the vet we went, where we learned that the swelling was in an infected joint that usually doesn’t respond to just one round of antibiotics. Sure enough, after the first round, his paw was still swollen. So the vet called in a prescription for two more rounds, and finally, his paw healed.

Hans was his old self again, and thankfully his insurance picked up the $200 bill. No, we don’t have a pet insurance policy. Hans has a pretty sweet health-care plan that bills directly to our checking account.

The moral of the story? Pets can be really expensive!

But most pet owners don’t mind the added expense that comes with their furry friends. They bring a lot of joy into our lives. Still, there are ways you can minimize your vet bills, without cutting back on quality of care. In fact, many of the ways you can reduce your bill also result in a healthier pet.

An ounce of prevention
Similar to humans, preventive care results in long-term savings and a longer lifespan for animals. “Preventative care is the main thing that can save you money,” says Shari Valdez, an animal hospital practice manager.

Here are a few ways to prevent a trip to the vet in the first place, or to minimize your expenses if you do have to go:

  1. Help Fluffy maintain her girlish figure. Obese animals are more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, orthopedic problems and other disorders. Ask your vet about your pet’s weight. If your pet could stand to lose a few pounds, talk to your vet about how much food your pet really needs. If you need to switch to a “diet” pet food, make the switch gradually. Also, don’t leave food out all day if your pet is overweight. Slowly start getting her used to regular meal times so that she’s not overeating.
  2. Stay up on vaccines and parasite treatments. If you let treatments lapse, it could turn into a more expensive condition to treat. For instance, “it’s a lot cheaper to prevent heart worms than it is to treat them,” says Valdez. “Heart worm prevention is maybe $20-$45 for a six-month supply, depending on the size of the dog. Heart worm treatment consists of three injections over a three- to four-month period and can cost $1,000, depending on the size of the dog. Treatment is also very painful.” One way to save on routine care is to get a wellness plan. “[Our hospital offers] a wellness plan for preventative care, which actually isn’t pet insurance,” says Valdez. “The plan includes routine care like vaccines, physical exams, and blood work, and the annual cost is split into monthly payments, so it’s like zero-percent financing over 12 months. You also get discounts on things like heart worm meds and other services.” Another option is to check with your local animal-control organization to see if it offers low-cost vaccines, including shots for rabies.
  3. Pet-proof your house. A few years ago, a family friend’s dog got extremely sick, seemingly out of nowhere. My dad had been at their house recently and remembered seeing a castor bean plant outside, near where the dog was playing. He recalled reading something about castor beans being toxic to dogs, and he called our friend immediately, who called the vet treating her pet. It turns out that eating just a small amount of castor beans is likely to kill a dog. Our friend’s dog was lucky enough to survive it. So besides medications and household chemicals, be sure to keep poisonous plants out of reach.
  4. Pay attention to changes. If your cat suddenly stops using the litter box, he could have a bladder infection. If your dog’s breath suddenly becomes very foul, it could mean diabetes or oral disease. The earlier you can catch an illness, the more likely you are to save your pet a lot of discomfort and to save your bank account a hefty vet bill.

Of course, prevention is just half of the equation. There’s also a lot you can do to save money once you wind up in the waiting room.

At the vet’s office
The best way to save money while at the vet’s office is to talk to your vet about your situation. That’s not always easy, though. A lot of people feel uncomfortable haggling over procedures or telling their vet they can’t afford the recommended treatment, so the bills wind up on a credit card.

Here are a few tips that can make it easier to talk money with your vet:

  1. Ask about other treatment methods and associated costs. Even if you can easily afford the very best care, it’s a good idea to ask about all of the ways to treat a disease. For instance, when my cat started over-grooming, a former vet prescribed what was essentially Prozac for kitties. For three days, my cat stared blankly out the window. I stopped the meds and learned that there are a lot of non-drug methods I could’ve tried first that my vet never mentioned.
  2. Talk about over-vaccination. If your vet sends you a vaccine reminder every year, that doesn’t necessarily mean your pet actually needs another dose. In fact, we’ve been over-vaccinating our pets for years. For example, new guidelines suggest that we vaccinate for distemper, parvo and adeno every three years, not every year.
  3. Request a written estimate before treatment is provided. Until you see an estimate, you have no idea if a treatment is going to cost $100 or a full month’s rent. With an estimate in hand, you can make sure you’re only getting the services or treatments you want, and you won’t be caught off guard by a sky-high bill.
  4. Ask about ways to save on prescriptions. Sometimes vets have free samples. It’s also possible to shop around to have the prescription filled. For instance, some medications are also used to treat human conditions. “If it’s a prescription that can be filled at Walmart and it’s on their $4-prescription list, that could save a lot of money,” says Valdez.

Finally, talk about payment options. If your pet needs care and you’re planning to charge it on your credit card, wait. Ask your vet about payment options first.

Some vets offer a payment plan or a line of credit that doesn’t charge fees or interest for a set period of time. “We offer a zero-percent financing plan for big expenses like emergency surgery,” says Valdez.

In short, do everything possible to avoid paying interest, which only makes your vet bill even more expensive.

What are some other ways you’ve saved on vet bills?

This article is about Hints and Tips