You’re working in your first job as a vet tech in a busy general practice, juggling a new puppy visit and a drop-off lameness workup, when a client comes rushing through the door with an emergency. Her Jack Russell Terrier, Jackie O., has just been hit by a car. One of your fellow vet techs rushes Jackie back to the treatment area for a triage exam, asking you to take Jackie’s owner into an exam room and get a brief history.
As soon as Jackie’s owner walks into the room, she begins sobbing. She knows that Jackie has serious injuries and is going to need a lot of care, but she only has $75. She will have a little more money available on the first of the month, but still probably not enough to pay the hundreds or thousands of dollars that she expects this visit to cost. She mentions that she may have to euthanize Jackie, unless you can work with her on the bill.
While this scenario may sound unlikely, the truth is that it’s all too common in many practices. A 2017 survey by PetPlan Pet Insurance found that the average cost of an unexpected veterinary visit is $1,500.1 However, a survey by Bankrate found that less than 40% of Americans are able to cover a $1,000 emergency out of their savings account.2 While many pet owners have credit cards or pet insurance to cover unanticipated veterinary expenses, this isn’t always the case. Clients who cannot afford veterinary care are more likely to decline treatment or even opt for euthanasia.
Walk Clients Through Their Options
When a client presents for an emergency, they often are not thinking clearly. Think about how you feel in a crisis; it can be difficult to clearly evaluate all of your options and arrive at a rational decision.
If you can help walk clients through their options, ensuring that they consider every avenue, you may be able to improve the likelihood that they can afford appropriate care for their pet. Options to consider include:
- In-House Financing
Some practices allow established clients to make weekly or monthly payments on a large, unexpected bill. While this isn’t a common practice, it never hurts to ask your employer. Find out whether your practice offers payment options before an emergency arises, so that you aren’t left with that deer-in-the-headlights look when a client asks “can I make payments?”
CareCredit is a healthcare credit card that is accepted by most veterinary practices. This is typically the go-to recommendation for clients who ask to make payments on their pets’s care. Clients can apply online or over the phone, receiving an answer within minutes. Interest-free financing is often available, for a period of up to two years.
Scratchpay is a new program that is similar to CareCredit. The key difference is that Scratchpay is not a credit card; it is a one-time, short-term loan. Some practices offer both CareCredit and Scratchpay, to increase the likelihood that a client will qualify for at least one financing option.
- Friends, Family, or Others
Some owners successfully fund their pet’s veterinary care with donations from friends and family, or even through the use of GoFundMe. If a friend or family member is willing to pay the initial deposit to start the pet’s care, the client can then begin reaching out to others in their network to raise the remaining funds.
- Non-Profit Foundations
Some non-profit foundations help with emergency veterinary bills. The Brown Dog Foundation, for example, focuses on “bridging the gap between the cost of medical care and saving the family pet.” In addition to national organizations, you may find that smaller groups in your area are willing to help with cases like this. Unlike CareCredit, however, non-profits may take several days to provide approval. This can make them a less practical option in an emergency. If a client can come up with a deposit to begin care, they may be able to find a non-profit to help with some or all of the pet’s remaining costs.
Don’t Take It Personally
At some point, every veterinary team member will hear these painful words: “If you really loved animals, you’d treat him for free.” It stung the first time I heard it, but over time it becomes less hurtful. Trust me on that one.
There are going to be clients who cannot afford to treat their pet, or elect not to treat their pet, despite all of the options that you offer. Depending on the severity of the pet’s illness or injury, the veterinarian may decide that euthanasia is preferable to forcing the pet to suffer without treatment. None of that is your fault.
We cannot possibly save every pet. What we can do is offer clients treatment options and, when possible, help them brainstorm ways to pay for those treatments.
Prevent These Scenarios Through Education
When you see pets for their first puppy or kitten visit, or any other new patient visit, it’s a good opportunity to educate clients about the potential costs associated with veterinary emergencies. Few owners realize just how expensive veterinary emergencies can be, but they can begin planning if you give them a heads-up. Pet insurance or a dedicated pet emergency savings fund can literally be a lifesaver in the case of a serious pet emergency.
- Veterinary Practice News Editors. 2017. Petplan: Average cost for emergency vet care is $1500. Veterinary Practice News.
- Tepper, T. 2018. Most Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $1K emergency. Bankrate.