Personal Finance

Are you prepared for a pet emergency? Most Americans are not

Key Points
  • Nearly 70 percent of American households have a pet
  • The average cost for unexpected veterinary care for dogs and cats is between $800 and $1,500, according to Petplan
  • Only 39 percent of Americans have enough in savings to cover a $1,000 emergency
Chloe’s emergency only cost $100, but it could’ve been a lot worse.
Source: Lacey Patterson

A few days after Lacey Patterson adopted Chloe, a two-month old kitten, from a local shelter near her home in Clearwater, Florida, the kitten started showing signs of a cold.

At first, the symptoms were mild: sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes. But when the kitten started bleeding through her nose, Patterson knew it was time to take her to the vet.

Because it was a weekend and the kitten needed immediate attention, Patterson took her to BluePearl Veterinary Partners, an emergency vet in the area. Luckily, the vets there were able to see Chloe right away and prescribe antibiotics as a treatment plan. And, the cost of the visit was only $100, something that surprised Patterson.

"It was actually a lot cheaper than what I was expecting," said Patterson, a nursing student. "But also this wasn't anything complicated, there was no surgery involved."

Bark CEO on the big business of pets
Bark CEO on the big business of pets

Nearly 70 percent of households in the U.S. own a pet, according to a survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association. Of those pets, it is estimated that 1 in 3 will need emergency veterinary treatment every year.

Emergency treatment can be a huge added expense for pet owners. According to Petplan, a pet insurance company, the average cost of unexpected veterinary care for dogs and cats is between $800 and $1,500, depending on where you live.

Most Americans would be caught off guard by an unexpected $800 expense. Only 39 percent have enough in their savings to cover a $1,000 emergency, according to a survey by Bankrate.

"Out-of-pocket medical expenses is one of the leading causes of bankruptcy for people, and pets are one small version of that," said Eve Kaplan, a certified financial planner and investment advisor at Kaplan Financial Advisors in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.

As veterinary medicine has improved, there are a lot of treatments available to help pets in emergencies. But everything comes with a price.

"I don't think I can emphasize this enough — it is so difficult for owners when they are not prepared for the cost of their pet," said Dr. Cathleen Meeks, a veterinarian at BluePearl's specialty and emergency pet hospital in Tampa, Florida.

Dr. Meeks always tries to work within the financial means of her clients.
Source: BluePearl Veterinary Partners

Part of the family budget

Most families do not consider the most common pets — dogs, cats and fish — to be a major expense. In 2015, those households with pets spent about $1,000 a year on them, with some $425 of that being for medical costs, according to data from Harris Interactive.

But emergency room visits can cost thousands of dollars, especially if surgery is needed.

Financial advisors recommend adding a line item to your family's monthly budget for your pets, and including them in the family emergency fund.

Kaplan says that families should earmark $5,000 to $10,000 in the family emergency fund for a pet.

"It's easy to say that you wouldn't put that much money into a dog or cat but when it's happening you don't even think about it," said Kaplan at Kaplan Financial Advisors. "It's a family member."

I don't think I can emphasize this enough – it is so difficult for owners when they are not prepared for the cost of their pet
Dr. Cathleen Meeks

Consider your options 

Aside from having emergency funds built into your family budget, there are a few other resources to help with medical costs for a pet.

One is pet insurance, which is growing in popularity. Today, 2.1 million pets in North America are insured, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association.

"Sometimes pet insurance is really worth looking at," said Peter Creedon, a CFP at Crystal Brook Advisors in New York City. "You've got to look at your options and see if it is cost-effective for you."

If you do decide to get pet insurance, veterinarians advise getting it when your pet is young and healthy. As with human health insurance, pre-existing conditions factor in to most pet insurance plans.

CareCredit is another option to help with payments. It's a credit card that can be used for medical expenses, and most vets accept it. Cardholders who opened an account at a veterinary office used their card an average of 5.37 times for vet services in 2017, according to CareCredit.

"While costs can vary depending on the pet, CareCredit helps make it easier for consumers to say 'yes' to recommended treatment for their pet," said Boo Larsen, general manager of veterinary medicine for CareCredit.

It's easy to say that you wouldn't put that much money into a dog or cat but when it's happening you don't even think about it. It's a family member.
Eve Kaplan
CFP and investment advisor

Prioritize prevention

One of the easiest ways to avoid a pet emergency is to take your pet to their veterinarian for annual checkups. They will make sure your pet gets the medical attention they need and that you have the information you need to keep your pet healthy.

"It really is our job to prepare people for what they're going to have to deal with," said Dr. Nan Boss, a veterinarian at Best Friends Veterinary Center in Grafton, Wisconsin.

Dr. Boss also said that she wishes people would consult veterinarians before getting a new pet.

"A lot of diseases we see are genetic," she said. There are some dog breeds that will need surgery down the road, she said, such bulldogs, which have problems with their soft palettes and knees.

In addition, it pays to be prepared for all kinds of emergencies. Not all pet emergencies are medical emergencies, said Tierra Bonaldi, a pet lifestyle expert at the APPA. Natural disasters are an emergency that often leave pet owners scrambling if they don't have a way to transport their pet.

Pet owners should also consider the cost of pet care if they travel or are unable to take care of their pet.

More from Personal Finance:
The 10 best — and worst — places to retire
If you rent out your vacation house, don't forget to give the IRS a cut
Taxpayers who skipped filing their return face a higher penalty after June 14

Ways to save

Bonaldi said that although pet emergencies can be expensive, the cost of pet ownership doesn't have to be a burden, especially if you're responsible.

In addition, talk to your vet about your budget and what you can afford, emergency visit or not.

"It's kind of a taboo thing to ask an owner 'What can you afford to do?'" said Dr. Meeks in Florida. "But I do try to be honest and ask about what is within their financial means.

"Our job as a veterinarian is to give all the tests available so the owner can make a decision about what they want do to and can afford," she added.

In most cases, vets will be able to work with you to fit your budget and your pet's needs as best they can.

There are also ways to save outside of the vet's office, said Bonaldi at the APPA. Most pets don't need expensive toys or other accessories, so you certainly don't need to shell out for that fancy treat-dispensing camera.

"Pets are wonderful," Bonaldi said. "The benefits outweigh the expenses."