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Keeping your pet healthy while saving on veterinary bills 

A veterinary student tends to a patient.

A veterinary student tends to a patient.  Credit: AP / Sarah A. Miller

On a normal car ride, Grace the 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," Ross, 33, says. 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.

Financing options, 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. 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.

Ask your vet for help. Some vets may be willing to work with clients on installment plans.

"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 representative 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 a veterinary school's clinic. Vet school clinics can be more affordable. 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. "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," he 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. Surgery was a risky, expensive option.

A second opinion led her to choose pain management.

"Grace is doing a lot better because we just get her pain medication," Ross says, adding that she again lives for her walks, car rides and duets with Ross.

Though decisions about a pet's health tug at the heart, it's important to consider the prognosis, likelihood of a procedure's success, cost, long-term complications and your pet's age when deciding on treatment, says veterinarian Gary Block.

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