How to save money on your pet's medical care

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LEWISTON — When Olivia the cat started having violent seizures multiple times a week, the vet prescribed the anticonvulsant Keppra.

It helped. A bit. When Jackie and Victor Leclerc could get Olivia to take it — because, you know. Cats.

At one point, she was on the highest dose possible and getting pills forced on her three times a day.

“Every eight hours,” Jackie Leclerc said. “Two o’clock in the morning, 8 o’clock in the morning. You can see the problem here.” 

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At $60 a month, the medication wasn’t cheap, and Olivia wasn’t swallowing it about a quarter of the time.

“I have never been able to successfully pill a cat,” Leclerc said. “The cat will keep it in a corner of their mouth and you’ll have a half-dissolved mess somewhere in a corner of your house. They spit it out, they hide it somewhere.”

Then Victor Leclerc came up with an idea: Compound the medication themselves.

It wasn’t a time-release pill, so it could be crushed. The Lewiston couple added a little warm water, sucked up the mixture in a syringe and —

“Boom!” Leclerc said.

Medicated cat.

Today, Olivia takes a combination of Keppra and Chinese herbs recommended by a naturopathic vet. The herbal medication helped dramatically reduce Olivia’s seizures, allowing the Leclercs to substantially cut her Keppra dose. And with the crush-and-syringe method, they’re sure she’s getting it all.

All three medications now cost $20 to $30 a month, a third to a half what the Leclercs were paying before, and Olivia is healthier.

“There’s no such thing as a free puppy or kitty,” said Leclerc, who is also paying for medication for the family’s two other cats, who are elderly and have kidney disease. “You have to be prepared for whatever gets thrown at you. It could be diabetes, it could be epilepsy, it could be kidney disease, it could be thyroid disease. Or you could get lucky and have a lifetime of a cat that just eats, goes to the restroom and dies a natural death at 19. You never know.”

That “you never know” can be expensive. According to a recent survey by Petplan pet insurance, Maine has the 7th highest unexpected veterinary costs in the country: $1,417 for an average bill.

That’s out of reach for a lot of Mainers.

So how can people save on pet medical bills without sacrificing care?

We talked to the experts.

Look around you

Need your pet spayed or neutered so you don’t end up with vet bills for 11 more adorable-but-expensive pets?

There’s a program for that.

Actually, there are a lot of programs for that in Maine.

The Cleo Fund, which is now part of the Animal Welfare Society in Kennebunk, provides vouchers for low-cost spaying or neutering of cats and dogs. It also runs spay/neuter clinics around the state. 

Help Fix ME is a state program that provides vouchers to pet owners who are on state or federal assistance. Take the voucher to a vet who accepts it and you’ll pay just $10 to treat a cat and $20 to treat a dog.

Various towns, shelters and vets also run their own clinics or voucher programs, including the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society in Lewiston, the Franklin County Animal Shelter and Maine Woods Mobile Vet in Farmington and Responsible Pet Care in South Paris, according to SpayMaine.org. Call around. There’s probably one close to you.

If Fido is spayed/neutered but doesn’t have his shots, there’s a community program for that, too.

Area stores, including Tractor Supply Co. and Petco, regularly host low-cost vaccination clinics for pets, with rabies shots for $5 or $10 and additional shots a few dollars more. Some also offer cheap nail clipping at the same time. (For your cat or dog. No humans, please.)

Animal shelters are increasingly getting into the health-care business, too.

The Greater Androscoggin Humane Society this year hosted several community clinics with free shots, pet food, certificates for spaying and neutering and certificates for microchips. It plans to start up those clinics again in the spring. (It’ll continue to give out free pet food through the winter.)

But perhaps the most ambitious — and potentially life-changing — program is coming from the Animal Welfare Society in Kennebunk. That shelter is opening its own vet clinic to provide low-cost care to families in need, the first of its kind in the state. Sick cat, injured dog, pets in need of a dental cleaning — it’ll do it all.

“We’ll have all the equipment that a full-service veterinary hospital would have,” said Executive Director Abigail Smith. 

That clinic will serve low-income families, particularly those getting state assistance. Pet owners don’t necessarily have to be from the Kennebunk area.

“Where we can, we’ll help people who legitimately can’t afford care and would lose their animals if we don’t help them,” Smith said.

Care won’t be free, but it will cost less than average, subsidized through grants and donations. The clinic is slated to open in January.

In the meantime, AWS is running a kind of mini version of the clinic. It doesn’t have all the capabilities of a full clinic, but it can help in some situations.

“If the only solution is your pet gets taken away from you and given to a shelter who’s is going to provide the care and then find them a new home? That’s not celebrating the human-animal bond,” Smith said. “That’s penalizing someone for their particular financial situation and we don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”

If a community clinic isn’t what you need, ask your vet and local shelter about assistance programs. They know what’s around, including:

* Canine Cancer Awareness, a Maine-based group that helps people who can’t afford cancer treatment for their dogs.

* “Beyond the Walls” at HART, a no-kill cat shelter in Cumberland. When it has money, that program helps families in need pay for surgery, hospitalization and other medical care for their cat.  

* The Pet Fund, a national nonprofit that helps pay for vet care for pet owners who can’t afford it

* The Big Hearts Fund, which helps families in need pay for medical care for a dog or cat that has heart disease.

* CareCredit and other medical credit cards, which may offer quick payment options.

National pet organizations, like The Humane Society of the United States, also list a variety of assistance programs. Even a quick online search can give a lot of results.

Go shopping

If it’s not a my-cat-was-hit-by-a-car emergency, shop around for a vet who can provide good care at an affordable price.

“We tell people who come to us, ‘Interview your vet. Talk to them about it,'” said Joanne Wallace with HART. “Just like anything else, you can have vet costs through the whole spectrum and every office that you go to has a different price point.” 

However, experts say, it’s also important to have a vet that you trust. A good vet should be able to tell you which shots, tests and procedures your pet really needs and which ones you can skip — saving you money and your pet some vet trauma.

“Sometimes people might look for the cheapest veterinary care that they can find. It might be worth it to pay a little bit more for a veterinarian that you really trust and that gets to know your pet really well and can give you that kind of advice,” said Katherine Soverel, executive director for the Maine Veterinary Medical Association.

Also worth shopping for: medications.

It might be super convenient to grab flea and tick control while at your vet’s office, but the same box might be cheaper in a nearby store, pharmacy or online. Same thing for heartworm pills, arthritis medication, seizure medication — pretty much anything.

If it’s something you need a prescription for, ask the vet to write one out. You can use that to buy what you need online or from a pharmacy, maybe even a human pharmacy

Just make sure you’re getting exactly the medication recommended by your vet. Some pets have been sickened or killed by well-meaning owners who gave them flea treatment meant for larger animals or a different species entirely.

A cat is not the same as a small dog.

Tricks

Even the cheapest medication gets expensive if you have to buy it five times because Fluffy keeps spitting it out or hiding half-dissolved pills under the couch.

Some pet owners swear by compounding, in which a pharmacist adds flavoring to the medication to make it taste like something an animal might want to eat or turns the medication into a liquid so it can be given more easily.

The Leclercs paid a compounding pharmacy to make Olivia’s seizure medication in a liquid, and it did work. They could be reasonably sure she was getting all the medication as prescribed. But while they weren’t wasting a quarter of the medication to spit-out pills anymore, the special liquid was more expensive.

That’s when the couple decided to try some basic compounding themselves.

“Just do it at home and save the money by crushing the pill, dissolving it in little bit of warm water, suck it up in a syringe, right down’s the cat’s throat. Boom! You’re sure they get their medication,” Leclerc said.

One caveat: Not all pills, including time-release pills, should be crushed. Ask your vet what’s OK to do before you do it.

Also consider herbal or home remedies.

The Leclercs found great success with a pair of Chinese herbal medications suggested by a naturopathic vet who did a phone consultation from his office in Colorado. The combination has allowed Olivia to drop from the highest dosage of Keppra to just a fraction of a pill. The combination has also controlled her seizures far better than Keppra alone.

“It’s not going to work for every pet, of course, but for ours it’s been a literal lifesaver,” Leclerc said.

Drew Desjardins, an exotic pet rescuer and rehabilitator, often recommends brewer’s yeast with garlic for cats and dogs.

“It helps with skin and fur, ‘sweetens’ the urine to help prevent dead spots on the lawn,” he said. “But the most important thing is that it helps prevent fleas and ticks over time. It is cheaper than any flea prevention product and all natural.”

Brewer’s yeast comes in tablets and is sold at pet stores an online. Desjardins has seen pets scarf it down like a treat.

Yet, as much as he likes brewer’s yeast, Desjardins also warns pet owners to be careful with home remedies. They aren’t all good, and some can be dangerous.

No matter what the internet says, check with a vet before you try.

Pay a little now to pay less later

Although pet insurance is relatively new Lassie got the first U.S. policy in 1982, lucky dog — some experts say it’s worth taking a look.

Soverel, at the Maine Veterinary Medical Association, is one of them.

“There’s a broad range of options for pet insurance out there. Two policies aren’t necessarily interchangeable,” she said. “It can be a good option, but it does require someone doing a little homework to find the right insurance policy.”

Like human health insurance, pet insurance pays all or part of the medical bill. Also like human health insurance, any payment is contingent on co-pays and deductibles, exclusions and coverage limits.

Policy costs can range from about $15 a month to well over $100 a month, depending on the age and health of the pet and how much the policy covers. (Some pay for wellness visits and shots while others pay only if there’s a major accident or illness.)

It’s not the perfect solution for cash-strapped families since pet owners typically pay the vet first and then get reimbursed by the insurance company. But it can be a safety net. 

Also a safety net: a good old-fashioned savings account.

“Like maybe once a month put $10 in it or something,” said Donna Kincer at the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society. “Emergencies are going to arise when you have a pet. It’s going to happen.”

Even if savings can’t pay for an entire emergency, it may be enough to offset a chunk of the cost. A sudden $1,400 bill can be unmanageable, but $700 built up in a savings account — $10 set aside every month since you got your puppy six years ago — would cut that need in half. 

The most touted way to save money on pet medical care, though, doesn’t actually save any money at all. At least not at first. 

Pay for preventative care now — spaying/neutering, shots, dental care, basic exams — so you don’t have to treat more expensive problems later.  

“You know,” said Wallace at HART, “return on investment, basically.”

Kelsey Evans, of Boston, right, asks Dewey if he wants a “treat” at Tractor Supply Company in Lewiston Saturday night, Nov. 18. Her owner, Jamie Mcleod, of Lewiston, center, brought Dewey and Moxie, left, to get vaccines there. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Kelly Cole plays with her dog, Moose. Because she couldn’t afford Moose’s surgery, Cole gave her up to the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society, which financed the surgery for Moose. (Submitted)

Why it’s important

By Lindsay Tice, Staff Writer

LEWISTON — When Kelly Cole’s beloved dog, Moose, broke her paw jumping off a chair, Cole had just enough money to rush her to the vet and get it splinted.

Cole had only recently returned to Lewiston from Kentucky, where she’d been caring for a family member dying of cancer, and she was just getting back to work. She didn’t have much savings or good credit.

So when Moose developed a serious problem because of that splint, Cole was out of money. She’d been a loving, responsible pet owner since she got Moose as a puppy, but now she couldn’t pay for her dog’s surgery or after care.

“I wasn’t going to come home to her every night hurting, and I know she’s hurting,” Cole said.

With no other options — she couldn’t find a vet willing to take payments and her credit score was too low to qualify for a special credit card for medical emergencies — Cole gave up Moose, signing over the Pomeranian-papillon mix to the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society so she could get her paw fixed.

It shocked and devastated Cole, who’d been as devoted to Moose as a parent to a child. But it’s a situation Maine animal shelters deal with all too regularly: Families who can’t afford their pet’s medical bills.

“It’s tough. . . . Just owning a pet, in itself, it’s an expensive endeavor,” said Donna Kincer, development director for the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society.

The Animal Welfare Society in Kennebunk is starting its own low-cost, full-service medical clinic for pet owners in just Cole’s situation. When it opens in January, the clinic will be the first of its kind in Maine. 

“There was this sentiment in years past where if you can’t afford to take care of your animal, you shouldn’t have one,” said Abigail Smith, executive director at the Animal Welfare Society. “Well, we think animals bring so much to people’s lives. If you don’t have much, having a pet could mean everything to you. So we really want to make sure people can take care of them well.”

But other shelters don’t have the money to follow AWS’ path, at least not yet. Greater Androscoggin Humane Society leaders have discussed opening one in Lewiston, but they have not found a way to pay for such a clinic.

Years ago, pets were euthanized when their owners couldn’t afford medical care. These days, the shelter takes ownership and uses donations or other funds to pay for treatment. The pet is then put up for adoption.

Moose got her surgery this month thanks to the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society, but Cole had to give her up. Afterward, Cole asked for Moose back and offered to reimburse the shelter for the surgery by making regular payments, but shelter officials declined. They’d tried that with people in the past and it didn’t work out.

“They might do a couple of payments, there’s no guarantee. Then we would be out the money going forth,” said Steve Dostie, executive director of the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society.

Moose is now recovering from surgery and will be put up for adoption. Cole could apply to adopt her herself, but Moose may require additional surgery and medical care and — again — Cole may not be able to afford it.

“We’d have to decide again what is the best interest of the dog,” Dostie said.

ltice@sunjournal.com

When Olivia the cat started having violent seizures multiple times a week, the vet prescribed the anticonvulsant Keppra. It helped. A bit. When owners Jackie and Victor Leclerc could get Olivia to take it. Today, the Lewiston couple compounds the medication themselves and gives Olivia Chinese herbals in addition. They’ve saved money and are certain Olivia gets the entire dose. (Submitted)

Gracie, 16, is one of three cats owned by Jackie and Victor Leclerc, of Lewiston. Gracie takes medication for kidney disease. (Submitted)

Elizabeth, 15, is one of three cats owned by Jackie and Victor Leclerc, of Lewiston. Elizabeth takes medication for kidney disease. (Submitted)

Need help?

Ask your vet and local shelter about assistance programs or check out national pet organizations online. They know what’s around for assistance, including:

* Canine Cancer Awareness, a Maine-based group that helps people who can’t afford cancer treatment for their dogs.

* “Beyond the Walls” at HART, a no-kill cat shelter in Cumberland. When it has money, that program helps families in need pay for surgery, hospitalization and other medical care for their cat.

* The Pet Fund, a national nonprofit that helps pay for vet care for pet owners who can’t afford it

* The Big Hearts Fund, which helps families in need pay for medical care for a dog or cat that has heart disease.

* CareCredit and other medical credit cards, which may offer quick payment options.

Moxie licks his lips as he sees other dogs getting a treat at Tractor Supply Company in Lewiston Saturday night, Nov. 18. Jamie Mcleod, of Lewiston, fills out forms at the pet vaccination clinic with Moxie and Dewey. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Tractor Supply Company in Lewiston held a pet vaccination clinic on Saturday night, Nov. 18. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Kelly Cole holds her dog, Moose. Because she couldn’t afford Moose’s surgery, Cole gave her up to the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society. (Submitted)

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