We are a nation of animal lovers. Indeed, we’d do anything to keep our pets in the pink of health — and our vet bills prove that: We spend a hefty $18 billion per year on our furry, finned and feathered friends’ medical services.

But take heart. There are ways to keep your pet and your bank account healthy.

In answer to the question, “Can we do right by our pets and our pockets at the same time?” Dr. Andrew Kaplan, founder of City Veterinary Care in New York City, answers a resounding, “Yes, most definitely — if you become educated and follow some simple steps.”

Roseann Trezza, executive director of Associated Humane Societies Inc., concurs. The keys, she says, are common sense and preventive care.

Plan ahead
Of utmost importance is not waiting for an emergency before selecting a vet. A crisis is no time to attempt to make sensible decisions.

Even if you already have a vet, are you aware of his or her policy regarding emergency services, hours and fees?

Matty and Michele Luxenberg had a pet-owner’s worst nightmare when their 4-year-old cocker spaniel Jordy became acutely ill on New Year’s Eve

“Our voice messages to our now-former vet’s office went unreturned,” says Matty. “We thought we had no choice but to take Jordy to an emergency center, which could’ve cost a fortune.”

Instead, the Luxenbergs tried the vet who just opened an office across the street — Dr. Kaplan, who treated the ailing pooch pronto and did not charge a premium “emergency fee.”

Did you think emergency fees were unavoidable? They may be common, even standard procedure, but the trick is to ask a vet’s policy before a crisis occurs.

Here are some other ways to increase the odds of doing right by your best friend and your finances:

  • Consider alternatives. Humane society or university vet clinics may offer thriftier medical services than private practitioners. Ask other pet owners about their satisfaction with establishments you consider.
— Updated: May 4, 2006
  • Spay/neuter! Reproductive reasons aside, an animal that has been spayed or neutered has decreased chances of getting a variety of serious illnesses. It’s also generally known that such animals have fewer behavioral problems. Says Dr. Kaplan, “There is a better than 99 percent reduction in the incidence of malignant breast cancer in dogs and cats if spayed before their first heat cycle. That benefit drops to 92 percent if the spay is performed between the first and second heat cycles. Un-neutered male dogs have a greater risk of prostate infections.”
  • Keep careful records of your pet’s inoculations and other health-care services. If you switch vets, you won’t risk having costly procedures duplicated if you can’t recall what was done.

  • Speaking of inoculations,don’t assume a yearly schedule is necessary. There’s been much talk in the medical community about repeating certain procedures only after two- or even three-year intervals.

  • Be selective about follow-up care. Don’t automatically follow up with expensive emergency-hospital staff — unless indicated by the hospital and endorsed by your vet. You can often follow up emergency care with your regular vet during normal business hours.

  • Learn what constitutes a true emergency. As examples, Roseann Trezza lists weakness and difficulty in breathing. As for emergencies that might necessitate a rescue of your pet while you’re away, you can order free “rescue my pet” stickers from Associated Humane Societies by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to 124 Evergreen Ave., Newark, NJ 07114. (You’ll also receive a sample copy of Humane News.)

  • Consider
    pet health insurance. It works in much the same way as it does for people — there’s generally a deductible, a co-pay or both, and forms to be filled out. Pre-existing conditions and certain procedures may not be covered. Fees, which are usually much cheaper than that for people, can range from roughly $10 to $30 per month. Carriers include PetCare Pet Insurance (1-866-275-PETS) and VPI Pet Insurance (1-800-USA-PETS or 888-899-4VPI).

  • Shop around for medicines, online and locally.
    Discountpetmedicines.com has a wealth of links to thrifty pet-med sites. DrsFosterSmith.com (1-800-381-7179) offers everything from Yogurt Drops for your doggy to a mini “jukebox” that plays “Love Me Tender” to your bird.

  • Always seek a second opinion when a vet suggests a pricey procedure. This is very important for both your pet’s health — and your wealth. You’d do it for yourself, right?

  • Brush those pearly whites! Not only will your pet’s teeth suffer if you don’t — it can affect its overall health. Oral bacteria can lead to serious problems and complications. (Ask your vet about the proper procedure for keeping kitty’s teeth clean — and good luck!) “You’ll not only save on dental cleanings,” notes Dr. Kaplan, “you’ll eliminate the risk of the anesthetics used to professionally clean your pet’s teeth.”

— Updated: May 4, 2006
  • Get samples of new products from your vet — ask and ye may receive.

  • Consider dietary improvements. Check with your vet as to the advisability of switching your pet from its regular food to one tailored to it — for example, a type of food geared to pets that are senior, overweight or prone to urinary tract problems. Upgrading to higher-quality premium foods can pay off in health dividends, Dr. Kaplan advises. Feed your pet food specific to its species for optimal health. If you have a hamster, for example, feed it hamster food — not nibbles from your nachos.

  • Be your own pet (health) detective. You know about The Merck Manual, which lists symptoms of people’s medical conditions? Well, check out the online veterinary version merckvetmanual.com to do the same type of detective work for your pet.

  • Use free resources such as your local pet-supply store. Personnel tend to be animal lovers with a fairly good layman’s knowledge regarding a variety of critters. But even for questions that require a more expert opinion, they may point you in the right direction. Additionally, some stores sponsor day-with-a-vet events.

  • Read, listen and watch. Take advantage of other free resources, such as pet publications and TV and radio programs. Sue Moyer, an office manager with a multi-cat household, cites animal expert Warren Eckstein’s national call-in radio program thepetshow.com as a valuable source of information. “Among other things, I learned how to clip my cats’ nails,” she says of the difficult procedure.

  • More is less good when it comes to stuffing your pet with vittles. Overfeeding is an especially common problem with fish, and the results can be catastrophic. The uneaten food rots in the tank, creating a toxic environment. Overfeeding landlubber pets can create the same health problems it can in people. “Studies in dogs have shown that a slightly underweight dog has fewer health problems and a longer lifespan than overweight dogs,” notes Dr. Kaplan.

  • Don’t let your pets run loose or unsupervised. Have fenced-in areas for four-footers, who should never be out of your sight. (In addition to the dangers of nature, there’s the terrible one posed by pet-nappers.) Dogs should always be leashed, fenced or supervised.

As for cats, they unfortunately fall from windows of apartment buildings so often, the phenomenon has a name: high-rise syndrome. Jewelry designer Jon Fjerkendstad found out about this the hard way. While he knew never to open his windows wide enough for his beloved Siamese Mickey to fall through, a thoughtless visitor, warned not to, did just that.

“The emergency visit cost about $350,” recalls Fjerkenstad, who immediately afterward rigged his windows to lock in place. The happy news is that Mickey recovered and lived to nearly 20.

The bottom line? Your pets are your best buds. To keep them healthy, you don’t have to be wealthy!

— Updated: May 4, 2006