While the basic veterinary cost of pet ownership is at least several hundred dollars per year, any health problem can bust a family budget. Illnesses like cancer, serious injuries, and all the other conditions that can befall our pets can get very expensive very quickly.
A pet insurance policy protects you against unplanned expenses when the inevitable happens — but we'll get to that later.
The Basic Cost of a Vet Visit
The costs of veterinary care vary across the country, just as other components of cost-of-living differ across regions. But overall, veterinary care is becoming more expensive as more — and more sophisticated — medicines and treatments become available. Pets are part of the family, and more pet owners are recognizing the importance of regular check-ups by a veterinarian, as well as the importance of following through on their recommendations.
And increasingly, veterinarians are recommending that pets see specialists to access the best care for many health issues.
Veterinary care has improved by leaps and bounds in tandem with the growth of specialist veterinary practices such as dermatology, cardiology, surgery, and oncology. Specialty veterinarians continue their education after veterinary school for 3-5 more years of training in their chosen discipline.
The result is that there are more and better treatments for many of the health issues pets face, but they're also behind a paywall of higher fees for care. While an exam at your primary veterinarian might cost $50-100, a consultation with a specialist could cost $150-250 or more.
Largely, the care available to dogs and cats is similar, and carries similar costs. The exception to this is due to the growing increasing prevalence of cat-only practices. Veterinarians in these clinics focus their training on cats, but may not have formal specialty training.
Accidents and Injuries
Injuries are one of the top reasons pets need to visit the veterinary emergency clinic. Whether it's a fight with another animal, being hit by a car, or an unfortunate accident at home, most types of physical trauma require immediate attention from a veterinarian. And the costs for an emergency vet visit are often higher than what some pet parents are prepared for.
Examinations at the emergency clinic, or after-hours at your primary veterinarian, are $100-200. Vet bills at the emergency clinic are almost always higher than they would be at your primary veterinarian. But the emergency vet is there when you need them most.
It's difficult to put a cost estimate next to any specific cause of an injury since each situation is different. Some dogs who are hit by cars walk away with just a scrape and a scare while others suffer life-threatening trauma. Instead, it's more informative to describe a type of injury and its associated costs.
The first step is diagnostic testing to determine the extent of the problem. This may involve X-rays (radiographs) or CT scan, ultrasound imaging, and other tests. The cost of X-rays depends on the number of locations that need to be examined while ultrasound imaging can be survey (brief) or complete depending on the needs of the pet at that time. If a pet comes into the clinic in unstable condition, the first step is stabilization before any injuries are addressed. Initial stabilization can cost $1,000 or more, including intravenous fluids, pain control, and other medications.
Cuts, scrapes, lacerations, and other damage to the skin may be superficial and need only a good scrub, or may require repair under anesthesia for $800-1,500. Some wounds require multiple surgeries at an additional $500-800 each. Degloving injuries are among the worst types of skin injuries and can cost tens of thousands of dollars with extended hospital stays. Similarly, severe burns require multiple procedures and extended hospital stays.
Surgery to repair broken bones (fractures) starts at $3,000, but that's actually cheap compared with emergency surgery to stop internal bleeding, which is more likely to run to $6,000. Sometimes bone fractures don’t require surgery, but cast bandages, recheck exams, and repeat X-rays add up as well.
On top of all that, each day of treatment in a hospital at an emergency clinic runs $800-1,500 or more if intensive care is needed. For example, hospitalization and monitoring for head trauma is more involved than hospitalizing to provide pain control for a broken bone.
Accidents and injuries are the catastrophes most likely to become a question of finances. Treatment is often all-or-nothing, because halfway doesn’t work and payment is taken up front.
Veterinary costs (accidents and injuries)
Emergency room visit: $100 - $200
Initial stabilization: $500 - $1,500
X-rays: $250 - $600
CT scan: $900 - $2,000
Ultrasound: $50 - $500
Wound repair: $500 - $1,500 per procedure
Fracture repair (surgical): $3000 - $7,000
Fracture repair (medical): $500 - $1,500
Abdominal surgery: $5000 - $7,000
Hospitalization (per day): $800 - $1,500+
Illnesses and Poisonings
When pets get sick, diagnosis and treatment often cost more than most pet parents are prepared for. Pets can’t describe how they feel, so diagnostic tests such as x-rays and blood tests are often required to make a diagnosis and select the right course of treatment. Both chronic and acute illnesses can require emergency treatment and hospitalization. Though the veterinarian is giving the pet everything to feel better as fast as possible, it often takes several days for a pet to recover enough to go home and continue to improve.
Similar to injuries, the first step is to diagnose the problem in a way that provides the veterinarian with information about the best treatment plan. As with injuries, this may involve X-rays and ultrasound. But it also likely includes bloodwork and additional secondary tests to confirm specific illnesses.
Some illnesses are commonly treated at emergency clinics. Dogs and cats with diabetes can develop metabolic imbalances that are life-threatening if not aggressively managed in the hospital (diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA). Monitoring these imbalances while trying to correct them drives up the cost of treatment so that an estimated daily cost could be $1,800 per day for at least 2-3 days.
Pancreatitis and acute hemorrhagic diarrhea (AHDS) are two common illnesses necessitating hospitalization in dogs. In cats the ebbs and flows of chronic kidney disease or inflammatory bowel disease may require hospitalization to resolve. These are all slightly less expensive, in the range of $1,200 per day including basic medications. Treatment of pets requiring oxygen therapy such as asthmatic cats or dogs in heart failure will easily cost $2,000 or more per day.
Some of the more common poisonings are rat bait (rodenticide), human prescription drugs, illicit drugs, and food (chocolate, raisins or grapes, onions or garlic). For the most part treatment of these falls in the basic hospitalization category, except when continuous sedation is required such as for some illicit drug consumption, which adds $300 - $500 per day.
Though it's expensive, rest assured that your veterinarian is doing everything possible to get your pet home to you as quickly as possible. Emergency veterinarians and their staff only want the truly sick animals in their hospital so that they have more time and attention to devote to those pets. Unfortunately, medicine can’t be rushed, and it takes time and time costs money.
Veterinary costs (illnesses and poisonings)
•Emergency room visit: $100 - $200
•Initial stabilization: $500 - $1500
•X-rays: $250 - $600
•Ultrasound: $50 - $500
•Initial bloodwork: $150 - $350
•Secondary testing: $30 - $300 each
•Hospitalization and basic medications: $1,000-$1,800/day
•Additional monitoring: $200/day per parameter
•Oxygen therapy: $30-$60/hour
Cancer is a common problem seen in pets, especially as they age. However, cancer can strike in puppies and kittens too. No matter the age, pet parents are never ready to hear their veterinarian deliver the devastating news.
Fortunately, cancer treatment in pets has become increasingly sophisticated. Many diagnoses that were previously terminal can now be treated with combinations of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation just as in humans. Sometimes only one modality is required while other times two or more are necessary to achieve remission of a pet’s cancer.
Veterinary oncologists specialize in the treatment of cancer in pets. It is important to remember that the goal is always good quality of life for the animal, and so treatments are not as aggressive as for people. Pets do not lose their hair and veterinary oncologists place a premium on minimizing side effects. However, that level of care comes at a high cost, easily many thousands of dollars.
Unfortunately that barrier means that without pet insurance many pet parents have to make an economic decision instead of offering treatment to their pet.
The first step is always complete diagnosis and staging (determining the extent of cancer). This includes X-rays, ultrasound, blood testing, and microscopic examination of the cancer. All of this information informs the oncologist's treatment recommendations and costs $800-1,200.
Chemotherapy is medical treatment of cancer, and can come in the form of pills taken at home or injections given in the clinic. A full course of chemotherapy, the amount of medicine needed to achieve remission or cure, usually requires multiple rounds of treatment over weeks to months. Different medications are used for different types of cancers and the options are continually expanding. Expect chemotherapy to cost $300-1,000 per session (or month of at-home medicine) with 6-12 sessions considered the full round.
Surgery is also used to treat cancer. Sometimes surgery is curative, meaning that removing the cancer mass is all that is required. Other times follow-up with chemotherapy and/or radiation is recommended. Estimates for surgery start at $2,000 if your primary veterinarian is able to perform the procedure, to more than $6,000-8,000 for complex or difficult cases when a specialist surgeon is required.
Radiation therapy is the third branch of oncology available to veterinary patients. The cost is per session, and depends on the location, size, and type of cancer being treated. Costs range from $2,000 to $6,000.
Just as in humans, cancers can return following the first course of treatment, and then a new protocol may be selected with similar costs to the first therapy.
Veterinary costs (cancer)
• Staging (complete diagnosis): $800-$1,200
• Chemotherapy (per session): $300-$1,000
• Surgery (primary vet): $2,000-$4,000
• Surgery (specialist): $6,000-$8,000
• Radiation: $2,000-$6,000
Routine and Preventative Care
Pets should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year when they're healthy; this is one of the few predictable costs of pet parenthood. An annual visit allows your veterinarian to perform a complete physical examination and find changes before they become problems. It is also an opportunity to develop a relationship with your veterinarian so that you can reach out for support when needed. Most costs of preventative care are similar between cats and dogs, however cat vaccines tend to be more expensive than dog vaccines.
A physical exam at your primary veterinarian’s office will cost $50-$100. Vaccines and vaccine boosters, including the required Rabies vaccine, are given every 1 or 3 years (depending on the type of shot) and cost $25-$75 each. As pets can pass fecal parasites to family members, fecal exams are recommended at least annually and cost $25-$75. Annual bloodwork, including a heartworm test, is highly recommended to assess body function since changes detected early are easier and less expensive to resolve. The cost of bloodwork depends on the comprehensiveness of the information, and so can range from $25 for just a heartworm test to $250 for a more complete assessment.
Heartworm prevention is offered in several forms (oral chew, topical, injection) and should be given year-round across the continental United States due to the increase in heartworm incidence. Annually heartworm prevention cost varies by pet size, $100-250 per year. Along with heartworm prevention, flea and tick control is important because these parasites carry diseases that are dangerous to you and your pet. Prescription flea and tick prevention is about $200-$300 per year. Some heartworm prevention and flea and tick control is available as one combined monthly medication. Recommendations for parasite control may differ by region of the country due to weather and the local wildlife.
Puppies and kittens require multiple visits to the veterinarian and several rounds of vaccines. As pets become more advanced in age, they should be examined more often: Geriatric screenings should take place as much as once every three to six months. Pets with health issues often require frequent veterinary exams to monitor their health and progress or decline.
Dental care (regular cleanings and X-rays) is also considered routine care. If ignored, dental disease can become an emergency, often due to infection of tooth roots or discomfort when eating. Dental care is performed under general anesthesia for the safety of the pet and the veterinarian. A basic cleaning with dental X-rays costs $300-600. Any tooth extractions are additional and can cost as little as $25 each, or more than $150 each depending on the tooth. The frequency of cleaning depends on your individual pet’s oral health and can range from every 6 months to every few years. Routine dental care can be performed by your primary veterinarian, though veterinary dentistry specialists are available for more complex needs.
Some insurance companies offer wellness plans (like this one) to reimburse the costs of preventative care.
Veterinary costs (routine and preventative care)
•Complete exam: $50-100
•Core vaccines: $25-$75 each
•Fecal screening: $25-$75
•Heartworm test: $25-$60
•Basic bloodwork: $50-$250
•Heartworm prevention: $100-$25/year
•Flea & tick control: $200-$300/year
•Dental cleaning (without extractions): $300-$600
Insurance: How to Cover Veterinary Costs Without Depleting Your Savings
Most costs of veterinary care are unpredictable. That makes them difficult to save money for. It is the unexpected that makes pet health insurance coverage a must for pet parents. When your pets get sick or injured, having insurance can be the only thing that enables pet parents to afford treatment. In a particularly dire scenario, having insurance can mean the difference between saving your pet or being forced to euthanize them. Insurance can also help protect your pet’s health when the cost of early intervention is covered by taking away the hesitation that leads to delayed care.
FYI, pet insurance doesn't work exactly the same as human health insurance: Instead of paying your veterinarian or practice, pet insurance companies directly reimburse you, the policyholder, for the costs of treatment. Rather than restricting you to specific networks or providers, this model allows you to visit any vet you choose.
It's all worth it to know that the health of your pets is protected. To get an insurance quote for your four-legged friend, just visit this page.