We love our pets and, as with any member of the family, want them to get great health care. Given all the other sacrifices we make for the critters, however, we would prefer not to put up with unnecessary inconvenience, unpleasantness and cost to get that care.
As with choosing a physician, while you can’t assess all aspects of a veterinarian’s technical skills and expertise, you can judge many factors central to good medical care: Can you arrange to quickly get an appointment? Does the vet listen to you and communicate well? Spend enough time with you? Seem competent and thorough?
To help you find a veterinarian who provides the care and service your critter deserves without wrecking your treat budget, nonprofit consumer group Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org have evaluated area veterinary clinics and hospitals. Until Nov. 1, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of area veterinarians to Star Tribune readers via this link: Checkbook.org/StarTribune/vets. Checkbook surveyed its own and Consumer Reports subscribers, plus other randomly selected individuals. Most of the feedback Checkbook gets for vets is favorable, but some practices received low scores on many survey questions.
Veterinary hospitals can become accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) by meeting certain minimum standards: maintaining adequate medical records and providing complete diagnostic, pharmacy, anesthetic, surgical, nursing, dental and emergency service facilities. Interestingly, among the veterinary practices evaluated by Checkbook, AAHA accreditation seems to have little relationship to service quality.
The most common complaints Checkbook receives from vet customers concern excessive and unexpectedly high bills. Many commented that vets not only failed to consider and discuss lower cost treatment alternatives, but also pushed costly treatments of little value to the pet and owner.
Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found astoundingly big price differences. For example, to spay a seven-month-old, 25-pound dog, fees ranged from $243 to $825. And to clean the teeth of a six-year-old, 65-pound dog, fees ranged from $218 to $790. Fortunately, Checkbook found that many of the lowest-priced vets received very high ratings from their surveyed customers. In short, you can save a lot of money without sacrificing the quality of care.
Because veterinary treatment can be expensive, an increasing number of consumers buy health insurance for their pets. But Checkbook recently analyzed pet insurance policies and found that in most cases, even the best plans ended up costing more in premiums than they paid out over a pet’s lifetime. Most buyers sign up for insurance when their pets are young and monthly premiums are lowest. But four or five years later, the premiums most companies charge start to aggressively rise — purely because the pets get older.
Checkbook’s recommendation: Instead of buying pet insurance to pay the high costs of vet care, shop around for the lowest price on whatever veterinary services you need. If you are willing to pay any price to save your seriously ill or injured pet, here’s how to find the best deal on pet insurance:
• Start your shopping at the two companies that scored best in Checkbook’s cost-benefit ratings: Healthy Paws and Trupanion.
• Before buying, learn how your premium will increase as your pet ages by using the insurer’s online quote engine.
• Understand what’s not covered. A leading complaint to regulators is claims rejected for conditions or treatments the policy does not cover. No policy covers pre-existing conditions, and some conditions that are covered may be considered pre-existing if they develop up to a year after you enroll. If your pet is ill or injured, the diagnostic exam is often not covered by many plans, even though the treatment itself is covered.
• Avoid claim rejection for a pre-existing condition by insuring your pet when it’s a puppy or kitten — before it has a chance to develop a pre-existing condition (but don’t forget the caveat above).
• Forget add-ons for wellness, preventive and elective care.
• Consider accident-only policies, which cover injuries but not illness and can be considerably less expensive.
• You must pay premiums every month, but you may or may not have to pay deductibles and copays, depending on your pet’s health.
Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers we evaluate.