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During the economic meltdown, families are looking to cut expenses, including their pets’ health care costs. But Arden Moore, editor of Tufts University's Catnip magazine and author of Happy Cat, Happy You (Storey Press 2008), learned firsthand why it's sometimes a good idea to pay a little more up front and avoid costly veterinary bills later.
Moore had purchased pet health insurance for her two dogs and her youngest cat. But when her 12-year-old cat, Callie, had to undergo radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism, it cost $1,500 from her pocket. "Because of her advanced age and preexisting condition, the insurance policy would only cover accidents -- not medical conditions," Moore says.
The lesson she learned: get a health insurance policy when your cat is young, before it develops a health condition. "We love our pets," Moore says, "but medical procedures can be very expensive." Here are some other pointers on how to best maintain your cat's health during the recession, without it costing an arm and a leg:
Tip No. 1: Don't Skip the Annual Checkup
While it may be tempting to skip your cat's annual or biannual veterinary appointment, you may end up paying more in the end. At a routine checkup, your veterinarian can spot signs of illness so that you can treat them early, potentially saving a bundle on bills later on and possibly saving your cat's life.
"When talking about pet health care on a budget, treat it like your child’s health care -- it’s the one thing you don't want to skimp on," says Pam Johnson-Bennett, certified animal behavior consultant and author of several books on cats, including Psycho Kitty (Ten Speed Press 2007). "Your cat should be going to the veterinarian a minimum of once a year for a checkup and whatever else the cat needs for its stage of life. The sooner you find out about something that might be wrong, the easier and cheaper it is to correct."
Tip No. 2: Shop Around for Vaccines
Vaccinations are one form of routine care that your cat needs on a regular schedule. But did you know that you have choices about where to get them done? Low-cost -- and safe -- alternatives are widely available for less than you'd pay at a veterinarian’s office.
First, try your local animal shelter or humane society. They often hold walk-in clinics. It may cost you in time (there are often waiting lines), but it will save you in your pocketbook. Certain humane societies, for example, have advertised feline leukemia vaccines for $15 apiece and rabies shots for as little as $12. Fees can vary.
If your local animal welfare organization doesn't offer vaccinations, ask other cat owners or inquire at your local pet shop about where an animal lover on a budget can get low-cost vaccines for kitty.
Tip No. 3: Ask for Generic Medications
Pet medications can cost a bundle. So when your cat needs a prescription, don't hesitate to pop the question that you've learned to ask your own doctor: "Is there a cheaper, generic version of the medication available?"
"Veterinarians are like that, too. You can ask them if a generic is OK," Johnson-Bennett says. "If it's not, they will specifically write that on the prescription." She also suggests that if you must spring for the name brand, see if your veterinarian might let you pay in increments on a payment plan if you've lost your job or are having other money troubles. There's no harm in asking.
Tip No. 4: Brush Kitty's Teeth and Hair
Get in the habit of brushing your cat's teeth at least a couple of times a week, Moore recommends. Use special toothpaste and brushes made specifically for cats. You can find these at most pet stores. Cats are physiologically different than humans, so don't try your own favorite brand on your cat. Regular dental care may prevent oral health problems that can be more costly in the end. "It can cost up to $400 to do a professional dental cleaning," Moore says. "By just getting in the habit, you'll be able to see early on if the gums aren't pink or if there is a tooth problem."
By the same token, another regular grooming routine to get into with your cat is brushing its hair. "I have a short-haired cat, and I brush it not only to keep the coat clean, but to let me feel for any lumps and bumps that weren't there last week," says Johnson-Bennett. Another positive effect of a regular brushing is that you can possibly cut down on your cat's hairballs. The more dead hair you remove, the less the cat is ingesting. Hairballs can become costly if they cause an intestinal blockage, which may jeopardize both your cat and your pocketbook.
Tip No. 5: Practice Good Nutrition and Don't Overfeed
Moore suggests that you spend a little more -- even in tough times -- to buy a good-quality commercial cat food made with real protein and all the other nutritional elements that cats need. In the end, you're actually going to save more on veterinary bills than you would if you started buying bargain-priced kitty food. To help cut costs, buy in bulk sizes. Moore recommends putting extra food in resealable freezer bags, adding a date and storing the food until you need it; however, freezing will not extend the “best used by” date of the product.
Keeping your cat at a healthy weight can also prevent future health problems. "Fat cats may look cute, but those cats can cost you because they’re more prone to developing diabetes, arthritis and other conditions," Moore says. "Treat them with calorie-free hugs, rather than a bunch of extra food treats."
Tip No. 6: Try Pet Health Insurance
Ultimately, as Moore discovered, it may be worth your while to spring for cat health insurance from the start. For as low as $8 per month, you can find some basic coverage for your cat that will pay up to 80 percent of most veterinary bills related to major illnesses or accidents. There are a variety of companies and groups that now offer cat health insurance, including Pets Best and VPI Pet Insurance. Even the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals now offers pet insurance in conjunction with the Hartville Group.
Here are some quick questions to ask when considering cat health insurance:
As Moore found out the hard way, cat health insurance "is your safety net."
Elizabeth Wasserman, a Washington, D.C., area-based freelancer, has been writing about pets, among other topics, for more than 15 years. Her love of dogs, in particular, was handed down through the generations from her great-grandfather, Eric Knight, who wrote the book Lassie Come Home in the 1930s.