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During the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of Americans have turned to dogs, cats and other pets for comfort and companionship as they’ve coped with restrictions on outside-the-home activities.
A study released in December by the American Pet Products Association shows as many as 12.6 million U.S. households welcomed new pets during the pandemic, contributing to a spike in pet adoptions and helping push the U.S. pet products industry to a record-high $103.6 billion in sales last year.
But now that more than 124 million Americans have been fully vaccinated and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has relaxed mask guidelines, some new pet parents may be wondering how they’re going to deal with the costs of their newly acquired friend.
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Here’s expert advice about how to handle pet expenses, which during the first year of ownership can reach $1,600 for a dog and $1,100 for a cat.
How to Handle Unexpected Pandemic Pet Costs
Michael San Filippo, a spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association, suggests treating pet-related costs like you would any other household costs.
San Filippo acknowledges it can be tough to anticipate every pet expense that may arise, but he says you can minimize surprises by including routine costs — such as dog food, treats, litter, grooming and regular veterinary care — in your household budget.
You can help cover unanticipated pet expenses, such as a big veterinary bill, by earmarking extra money for that purpose.
San Filippo notes that budgeting for preventive veterinary care, like regular checkups, vaccinations and parasite protection, can help avoid future costly medical expenses — or at least catch problems early enough to possibly hold down pet medical costs.
“No one wants to make decisions about their pet’s medical care based on their pocketbook, but that’s the reality for a majority of pet owners, and many have to choose between a lower standard of care or going into debt,” says Sara Radak, a spokesperson for Embrace Pet Insurance.
Protecting Against Medical Expenses with Pet Insurance
Pet insurance can safeguard a pet parent against being financially bitten by high-cost medical treatments or procedures. A good pet insurance plan will provide broad coverage for accidents and illness, at a competitive price. Some plans offer add-ons for wellness that will offset the expenses of routine care.
San Filippo points out that pet insurance won’t help you save on pandemic pet costs if you buy it after your pet becomes sick. Consider buying a policy early in your pet ownership, before surprise vet bills come. Radak stresses that pet insurance policies don’t cover pre-existing conditions.
San Filippo recommends including the price of insurance in your budget for pet expenses.
“When choosing a pet insurance product, be sure to understand the scope of what it covers so you’re not surprised later when it’s time to file a claim,” he says.
The average annual premium for accident and illness pet insurance for a dog was $594.15 in 2020, compared with $341.81 for a cat, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association.
Even if you have pet insurance, ask your vet up-front about the prices of medical care for your pet, San Filippo says, and be frank with your veterinarian if you’re worried about covering pet medical treatment. If your budget is tight, your veterinarian may be able to offer flexible payment options.
Pet insurance generally works on a reimbursement basis, where you pay the vet bill and then file a claim for reimbursement. There’s usually a pet insurance deductible, such as $250, that you pay in vet bills first. Once the plan starts paying, there’s usually a reimbursement level such as 70%, 80% or 90%. You pay the remainder.
When you buy a pet insurance plan you’ll often have choices for deductibles, the percentage reimbursement and the annual coverage cap. If you choose the right plan, pet insurance can spare you from unexpected pandemic pet costs.
Finding Care for a Pet When You’re Away
As more employers ask workers to come back to the office, at least on a part-time basis, some pet parents face a dilemma: What do I do with my dog or cat when I’m away from home? You also may wonder the same thing if you and your family want to finally jet away on vacation but can’t bring your furry pal with you.
While cats may be able to take care of themselves during the day or for even a few days, dogs require more frequent help. You may need to make short-term or long-term arrangements to ensure your pooch is OK.
“While many dogs will adapt well — and may even appreciate some extra downtime — you might consider hiring a dog walker or sending your dog to doggy day care to ease their transition to a more typical day-to-day routine,” San Filippo says.
Keep in mind that you may need to make room in your pet budget for a dog walker or doggy day care, or for boarding your pup during vacations. Radak says you may be forced to decide whether it’s more important to take a lunch break at the office or head home to walk your dog.
“If you’re not able to factor a dog walker or day care into your budget, make sure to give your pup extra exercise before and after to work since their day will be more sedentary than they were previously used to,” Radak says.