10 Ways to Save Money at the Vet

vet administering an injection to a young dog
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By Jennifer Magid

There's nothing you won't do for your pet -- but wait until you see the vet bill. Americans will spend nearly $16 billion on veterinary care in 2015, according to the American Pet Products Association. The industry group's annual pet owners survey found that an average of $235 goes toward routine vet visits for dogs and $196 for cats.

The total doesn't include non-routine expenses such as surgical vet visits: $551 and $398 a year on average for dogs and cats, respectively. Although pet insurance is an option, most pet owners pay for everything, from screenings to major surgery, out of their own pockets. If veterinary expenses have left you feeling a bit ill yourself, try these money-saving tips.

Shop around before choosing a vet. Veterinarians charge a surprisingly broad array of prices for the same services, even in the same location. Cheapism.com found that the fee for neutering a pet in southern Connecticut, for example, ranges from a couple hundred dollars to nearly $1,000. Before settling on a vet, make calls and ask plenty of questions regarding prices for a variety of services.

Look for wellness care packages. Keeping pets healthy is the easiest way to avoid costly problems and save money in the long run. Annual checkups and yearly vaccines are a must, but look into money-saving options first. Pet insurance may cover some preventative care, and some vets offer wellness packages that save a good chunk of change compared with paying separately for each vaccine or exam. Some wellness plans, such as those from PetSmart's Banfield Pet Hospital, include discounts on products and services not covered by the plan.

Look into veterinary discount programs. Depending on the age and stage of your pet (in particular, very young or elderly), visits to the vet may pile up. With a discount program, pet owners pay a monthly or flat fee to get reduced prices on services and visits at participating providers. Pet Assure is one of the better-known discount programs and offers packages for as low as $7.95 a month. Beware, though -- Pet Assure and similar programs may not apply for major medical problems, and not all veterinarians participate.

Give pets plenty of exercise. Aside from preventing problems such as obesity, regular exercise can keep pets from becoming bored, a state that can lead to destructive behavior, such as eating things they shouldn't. (Seems we all know of a pup that's downed a sock or devoured a piece of furniture.) This can prompt exorbitant emergency medical bills and surgery that could have been prevented.

Keep up on heartworm, flea and tick treatments. Regular doses of preventative treatments can help avoid the cost of actually treating problems such as heartworm disease, Lyme disease, or fleas (which can spread throughout the home). These medicines are available at the vet's office, but Amazon and Costco also sell them, so compare prices before stocking up.

Feed your pet well. In the interest of your pet's long-term health, don't just pick up the cheapest bag of food at the grocery store. Like humans, pets need a balanced diet. Cheapism's guide to the best budget dog food includes both canned and dry varieties. The website Dog Food Advisor maintains a comprehensive list of highly rated brands.

Look for vets with emergency hours. Should an after-hours pet emergency arise, owners may get stuck at the local animal ER, which can cost a small fortune. To avoid these types of bills, do some advance research to find out if any vets in the area have emergency, weekend, or late hours, where a visit may end up costing much less than the ER.

Question recommended treatments. In addition to the basics (e.g., vaccines and diet), there are a host of other treatments that may or may not be necessary for optimum health. Question the vet thoroughly on any recommendations before jumping in. For example, a canine influenza vaccine was recently introduced, but the American Veterinary Medical Foundation advises it is not necessary for every dog.

Don't be shy about saying 'no.' X-rays, ultrasounds, and the like can be extremely expensive, and your pet may not always need them. Some vets may recommend the most expensive course of action first, so always ask about alternative, less costly treatment options.

Request an itemized bill. Ask the vet for an itemized quote at every appointment and take a close look at the charges. Even if you can't dispute the bill this time, you'll have a better idea of services or fees that seem to be "extras" you can refuse next time.
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