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Published 24 May 2023
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5 minutes

Pet Owners Avoid the Vet as Household Finances are Squeezed

With household budgets stretched, some pet owners are delaying taking their furry, feathered or scaly friends to the vet to avoid increasingly tough-to-afford bills. We look at the options to help manage these costs.

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Our pets give us companionship and unconditional love, but it comes with the responsibility of keeping them well, fed and watered – and paying their vet bills. 

Around one in two (52%) adults in the UK owned a pet in 2022, according to vet charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA).

So it’s worrying that Co-op Insurance research revealed last month that a fifth (19%) of dog and cat owners are not taking their pets to the vet because they can’t afford to. Of those, 20% said an unexpected vet bill would even mean they would have to give up their pet for financial reasons. 

“Sadly, we are seeing an increase in calls from owners needing our help with their pets due to the cost of living and rising pet bills,” says Caroline Reay, chief veterinary surgeon at national pet charity Blue Cross.

While pet insurance can help to cover unexpected bills, premiums can be expensive – especially for older pets or those with pre-existing medical conditions. And it may not be available at all for some breeds  – dangerous or banned dogs, for example. If you’re struggling to pay for your pet or vet bills, we weigh up your options and explain where help can be found. 

Pets can be pricey 

The PDSA estimates that costs can start from between £6,600 and £10,400 to keep a medium-sized dog over its lifetime. Even a pair of outdoor rabbits could set you back by at least £6,600 to £9,100. And that excludes the cost of vet bills if your pet is unwell or injured. 

To help owners who are struggling to feed their pets, Dogs Trust is working with pet food companies and other charities to deliver pet food and other essentials to cash-strapped owners, as well as setting up temporary food banks for dogs. 

Blue Cross has also set up food banks for dogs, cats and small pets for owners in need, who are sometimes even “sacrificing their own meals in order to feed their pet,” says Reay.

Unfortunately, some owners feel they’ve reached the end of the road. “We have seen more people getting in touch to rehome their pet,” adds Reay, who says the charity is doing everything it can to help keep pets and their families together. 

Chris Bennett, community support manager at Woodgreen pets charity says they are feeling the effects of this on the ground. Rabbits, for example, have been given up at “record-breaking” levels since the pandemic.

“It’s really challenging and we’re under enormous pressure – we’re at full capacity with long lists of pets waiting to come into our care,” he explains.

There is no NHS for pets 

There is growing concern that costs are putting owners off making non-emergency vet appointments. This comes as no surprise, given that the average pet insurance policy costs about £24 a month, according to Co-op Insurance. 

But it’s not just about premiums, explains Bennett. “Even owners who do have insurance policies are having difficulties with paying their excess, or treatment for issues that aren’t covered by their insurance packages, so it’s a really tough time at the moment.”

Considering insurance is still worthwhile, though. “The cost of providing healthcare for your pet can be expensive and vet bills can quickly add up,” says Reay. “Having pet insurance means you can concentrate on getting your pet better without the added worry of vet bills. Some policies will also include other costs, such as theft and liability cover.”  

The average claim on a UK pet insurance policy in 2021 was £848, according to the Association of British Insurers (ABI), with examples of claims including £13,000 for a puppy’s hip dysplasia, £12,200 for soft tissue sarcoma in a cat, and £560 for a tortoise with a digestive disorder.

If you’re worried about vet bills

There are ways to cut costs if you’re struggling to afford vet bills. Shopping around for pet insurance – on a price comparison site, for instance – may help you find a more affordable premium, and if you have a few pets you could look out for multi-pet discounts. If you are thinking of cancelling your pet insurance policy, bear in mind that if you apply for pet insurance in the future, insurers may not cover health conditions your pet already has.

For some owners, saving money for unexpected vet bills is preferable to paying monthly premiums, or at least, a more realistic option. “If you’re unable to afford pet insurance, then we would advise owners to try and put some money aside each month in case of an emergency,” says Reay.

But you need to be aware that your savings may not be enough if your pet becomes seriously ill or needs expensive ongoing care – for example, monitoring and medication for heart disease.

The Animal Trust, a not-for-profit veterinary company that offers free consultations and aims to keep costs affordable, lists a fracture repair costing up to £1,849, with an X-ray alone coming in at £369.

“Owners should speak to their vet about payment options or their situation and look around for other support such as from local charities,” says Bennett. You may be able to spread the cost of your bill, but be clear on any interest you’ll be charged if it’s a credit agreement. 

You may want to ask your vet about other treatment options that may cost less, or get a second opinion from a different practice, to compare charges. If you go to another practice, there may be a fee for this. Some charities, including Blue Cross, Dogs Trust, PDSA and RSPCA, offer access to free or low-cost vet care for owners who are eligible for certain means-tested state benefits who can’t afford to pay. 

Otherwise, you can get practical advice and information from charities, such as those listed above, over the phone or online if you’re struggling with the cost of pet food and healthcare.

Image Source: Getty Images

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