8 pet emergency financing options

Regular animal care is already costly. Based on the Calgary Humane Society's online pet budget calculators, a dog costs an estimated $21,700 during its average 12-year lifespan. A typical feline costs $14,000. Medical care can add hefty charges to a pet's lifetime bill -- diabetes alone can cost up to $10,000. Unlike medical bills for people, pet owners usually have to pay for veterinary procedures immediately. With the ratio of average household debt to disposable income reaching a record 165.5 per cent as of  June 2013, many Canadians are forced to make heartbreaking decisions when their beloved dog or cat needs potentially lifesaving, but prohibitively expensive, surgery and medications.

Is it worth it to insure your pet?

Before you rule out purchasing pet insurance, consider how much your furry friend could cost you without it.

Avoiding abandonment and euthanasia
Financially strapped pet owners sometimes approach local animal shelters desperate to find subsidized medical care for their furry friends. However, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), the Humane Society and similar organizations can only provide suggestions about financial aid.

"The only time we cover the cost of veterinary care is when an owner surrenders their pet to us," explains Brad Dewar, an agent at the Ontario SPCA. "Paying for the care of a sick or injured animal is the responsibility of the pet owner, not the shelter."

Reaching out to family members or friends for financial help has been the go-to alternative for many Canadians. Below, you will find eight other options that can help pet owners cope with costs.

Option 1: Caring veterinarians
Sometimes veterinarians give their clients a financial break or may be willing to work out a payment plan. "There are many examples of veterinarians subsidizing or absorbing expenses in the case of owners in difficult financial circumstances," says Larry W. Odegard, registrar and CEO for the College of Veterinarians of BC.

Kristen Lynch, executive director of the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, adds that veterinarians represent a unique profession in that they typically join the profession because they have an affinity with animals rather than an overriding desire for a career that makes lots of money. "There's an additional element of caring -- or a cause, as I like to call it -- on top of the veterinary profession," says Lynch.

Option 2: Charitable organization assistance
A number of nonprofits provide financial help to pet owners who meet defined eligibility criteria. The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association established the Farley Foundation in 2002. The charity has helped more than 4,300 low-income pet owners across Ontario, paying out more than $1.7 million for non-elective veterinary care.

The Farley Foundation provides annual pet owner grants to vet clinics that support seniors, people with disabilities and financially challenged Ontarians who are receiving benefits under government programs such as the Guaranteed Income Supplement, Ontario Disability Support Program and Ontario Works program. Also eligible are pets of women victims of abuse and senior companion pets.

Alberta has established a similar pet charity called Tails of Help. According to Odegard, a new foundation in British Columbia called Balfour's Friends is under development.

While the eligibility criteria may differ by charitable organization, it is usually the veterinarian or a vet clinic staff member who applies for financial assistance on the pet owner's behalf.

Option 3: Vet school discounts
Canadian veterinary schools may not have specific programs for limited-income clients, but at least one offers a number of alternatives to pet owners.

The Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) is the regional veterinary college for Canada's four western provinces and northern territories. The dean of the college, Dr. Douglas Freeman, and Veterinary Medical Centre (VMC) director Dr. Duncan Hockley say the VMC will consider significant discounts in situations where pet owners have financial constraints. Discounts are done on a case-by-case basis and selection criteria include cases that will support the WCVM's teaching initiatives.

In addition, WCVM has a Good Samaritan Fund whose goal is to provide medical treatment for animals that are ownerless or owned by clients who cannot pay for care due to circumstances beyond their control.

Option 4: Vet clinic support programs
Odegard notes that many local animal hospitals and veterinary clinics provide assistance through individual payment plans that pet owners and veterinarians arrange in special circumstances.

The PET Fund is a financing support program available to clients of Chatham-Kent Veterinary Professional Corporation animal hospitals and vet clinics in the municipality of Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

Another example is the assistance program offered by the BC SPCA Vancouver Animal Hospital to people with low incomes. The pet hospital will cover up to 33 per cent of the cost of medical care. In Mississauga, Ontario, the HWY 403-Dundas Animal Hospital extends discounted services to senior citizens and local rescue groups.

Option 5: Specialized help for seeing-eye dogs
Emergency care for an ill or injured working pet is often critically important to owners with visual impairments or other mobility challenges.

Dog Guides Canada pays for vet care while a dog is in guide training, but doesn't finance the medical expenses of working dog graduates. "We provide a $25,000 Dog Guide at no cost, with the agreement that the client is able to care for the Dog Guide once they return home from training," says Dog Guides Canada communication manager Natalie Moncur.

Nevertheless, charitable programs like the CNIB Guide Dog Assistance Fund extend monetary help to visually impaired pet owners across Canada facing overwhelming vet bills.

Option 6: Pet card financing
Medicard and PetCard represent an immediate option for covering emergency vet bills. Both products are provided by iFinance Canada. Despite suggestive names, Medicard and PetCard are financing arrangements rather than credit cards. Medicard and PetCard clients can't even use a credit card to pay back their loans; they have to preauthorize automatic debits directly from their bank accounts.

Medicard and PetCard loan amounts range from $200 to $17,000. Borrowers can repay their pet loans at any time without penalty, while scheduled monthly repayment periods span from 6 months to five years.

"The interest rate is based on the applicant's credit worthiness, with rates starting at 9.95 per cent and can go up to 25.95 per cent," says Sophie Fournier, marketing manager for iFinance Canada.

The financing arrangement costs an upfront 6 per cent administrative fee. Also, iFinance will tack on a $30 charge for any cheque returned due to insufficient funds.

Option 7: Dedicated credit card or line of credit
Pet owners with adequate credit can pay for emergency pet insurance using their credit cards.

One approach is to choose a low-interest credit card and dedicate that card specifically for pet emergency medical bills. Consider choosing one with no annual fee.

Option 8: Raise your own pet funds online
Web-savvy pet owners can pursue another emerging avenue for generating funds. They can post emergency pet care expenses as a cause on one of a growing number of fundraising websites.

The National Crowdfunding Association of Canada says that FundRazr has a fundraising campaign page specifically for animals and pets. Other websites that enable Canadian pet owners to raise funds online include Indiegogo, PetCaring.com and YouCaring.com.

Despite the enticing opportunities, consumers should carefully research any required fees before signing up for any fundraising service.

See related: How to spend less on Fluffy and Fido; Expert advice: Simplify your expenses
Updated June 24, 2014

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