Financial Safety Nets for Pet Owners

According to a study by the Open Journal of Animal Science called The Re-Homing of Cats and Dogs in the U.S., one of the top reasons for a pet owner to relinquish a pet is their inability to afford veterinarian costs, especially when household income is less than $50,000 a year. I interviewed a local veterinarian and a practice manager about this topic and both noted that money problems are a frequent topic of conversation between pet owners and veterinarians. The most often recommended solutions to unaffordable veterinarian costs include: preventive care, an emergency fund and/or pet insurance, CARE credit, discretionary veterinarian discount, and assistance from animal welfare groups.


Many pet owners choose foremost to practice preventive care. They provide their pets with basic health care such as keeping their pets’ hair groomed and their teeth cleaned, research into and purchase of the best foods for their pets, showering their pets with playtime and enrichment, and keeping their pets indoors except on supervised outings. In addition, they ensure that their pets remain current on wellness exams and vaccinations. These things promote good health and ensure that any health problems are caught early, thereby minimizing vet costs.

Dr. Amy Walton believes that Pet Care Center’s emergencies would be cut in half if all their clients would bring their pets in for regular exams. “Many diseases such as heart disease or kidney disease can be caught early and managed before a pet enters later stages and becomes extremely sick. While it’s beneficial for young and middle-aged pets to have bloodwork, it’s even more important that senior pets have regular bloodwork and health screenings. Animals are very good at hiding signs that something is wrong, and they can’t tell you if they feel a little off every day.”


A pet blogger in the BlogPaws News and Boost Group shared an article with me that she wrote about cutting medication costs. The catalyst for her article arose from her personal experience with her dog who underwent two separate bouts of chin acne and then a lump on his shoulder. Big Pet Mom offered these four tips:

  • Ask for a Prescription, Check Prices, and Shop Around: Big Pet Mom noted that prescription drug prices vary widely from pharmacy to pharmacy and so shopping around is critical. She also advised that when faced with needing pet medication, inquire about a less expensive, but just as effective human equivalent for that medication.
  • Inquire About Price Matching: Big Pet Mom said that many veterinarians will match the prices offered by pharmacies to retain a pet owner’s business and to become more competitive in the marketplace.
  • Take Advantage of Discount Programs: Big Mom Point advised pet owners to ask about discount programs offered by local retail pharmacies.
  • Explore Online Pharmacies: Through her personal experiences, Big Pet Mom discovered that online pharmacies can be valuable for pets that have chronic conditions for which medication is needed on an ongoing basis.


According to Insurance Information Institute, “the pet insurance industry got its start almost a century ago in Sweden where about half that country’s pets are now insured.” In North America, Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. sold its first pet insurance policy in 1982 to television’s Lassie Today there are 13 major pet insurance companies in North America. Pet Insurance Quotes provides a list of these companies and an overview of the type of coverage they offer. Insurance Information Institute states that the total number of pets insured in the U.S. and Canada reached 2.1 million by the end of 2017.

Both Carrie Johnstone, Practice Manager at Pitts Veterinarian Hospital, and Dr. Walton recommend that pet owners buy pet insurance. However, they cautioned that while pet insurance can be a huge help, it works differently than for people. Owners have to be able to afford the care up front and then wait for reimbursement from the insurance company.

Whether or not a pet owner elects to buy pet insurance, both Johnstone and Walton recommended having an emergency fund. According to them, putting aside a small amount of money each month essential. Walton pointed out, “We always hope that nothing happens but hoping only gets you so far. You must be prepared.”


Yes, I said in the introduction of this article that I would be talking about alternatives to personal finances and credit,but Care Credit is a little different from typical credit cards. It’s a healthcare credit card which allows pet owners to break their bill into monthly payments. In addition, amounts over $200 do not have interest for 6 months. According to the Care Credit site, there are only three steps involved to applying for the health card, at the end of which an instant credit decision is issued.


Many veterinarians are happy to offer discounts or payment plans to regular clients with good payment histories. Walton and Johnstone stressed the importance of pet owners establishing a trusting relationship with a veterinarian. According to the two ladies, this trust is best built by pet owners showing themselves responsible by paying for wellness exams and elective care, taking preventative care measures, preparing for an emergency, and being honest with and respectful of their veterinarian.

Walton also emphasized the importance of pet owners simply being nice to their veterinarians. She explained that, “Many vets will be much more likely to work with you if you’re nice and show gratitude for them helping you. If you’re rude and get angry with the vet and staff because you cannot afford treatment, most vets won’t go the extra mile and make exceptions, change prices, or reach for those medications in the donation drawer.”

Johnstone advised pet owners to be open about any financial constraints at the start of an exam. “The most frustrating situation for a vet clinic,” Johnson said, “is when a client says in the exam room that they can or will do anything for their pet and okay all treatment options, but then get to the front desk and say they have no money. It puts the clinic in a very difficult situation. Please, be honest from the start. Most veterinarians will do their best to find a treatment option to work within their clients means.”

Johnstone said that Pitts Veterinarian Hospital works with some clients to help them pay veterinary bills. According to Johnstone, Pitts has long-term clients who have earned the option of financing plans for major expenses. She noted that other times staff have worked with people by helping them find a lower cost medication at a human pharmacy when appropriate.


According to the Open Journal of Animal Science study about rehoming cats and dogs, pet retention is more likely to happen when pet owners are provided with financial safety nets. Johnstone said that When a client can’t afford to pay the cost of diagnosis, she often encourages them to ask a family member or friend for help. “That way we can get their pet in with a veterinarian to get a better idea of what exactly is going on and what treatment recommendations might be,” Johnstone said. “From there, the client at least knows what is going on and what is needed next.

Members of the Best Friends Network’s Facebook group advised that pet owners in need of financial help should turn to an organization that can provide them with pet supplies and/or medical assistance. If a pet owner is able to obtain free food, treats, poop bags, litter, towels, shampoo, and other basic supplies, that will free up money for veterinarian costs. Medical assistance might also increase the likelihood that pet owners can afford pet emergency care.

In Lincoln, several organization exist to provide the following financial safety nets: pet food and supplies, low-cost spay/neuter and vaccinations, and medical assistance.

Pet Food Banks (and Supplies)

According to the Humane Society of the United States, an estimated 23 million dogs and cats live in poverty with their families in the United States. In addition, financial hardship accounts for 25% of the pets that are surrendered to shelters. Across the nation, there are 150 pet food banks, including the three listed above for Lincoln. “I know Lincoln Animal Ambassadors only has so much money, and is all run by volunteers, but I appreciate that they buy food from the vet office for me,” said Lynn, a pet food bank recipient.

Low Cost Spay-Neuter:

Twenty-five percent of pets in the United States have not been spayed or neutered. Cost is one major reason. The good news is that there are animal welfare groups in every state that offer low-cost spay/neuter services, including those listed above for Lincoln. The greatest joy for Pauline Balta, the spay/neuter coordinator for Lincoln Animal Ambassadors, comes from realizing the efforts that pet guardians will go through to keep their pets and keep them healthy. Balta gave the example of one pet owner who was helped by LAA: a young woman came to the organization for help because she struggled financially despite having multiple jobs, but couldn’t resist taking in a mother dog in need.

Medical Assistance:

Both the Coalition for Pet Protection and the Sadie Dog Fund offer financial assistance for emergency vet care. CPP relies on donations via its Paypal account and fundraisers to cover emergency costs, and typically offers up to $100. SDF relies on donations, fundraisers, and grants to cover emergency costs, and works closely with the dog owner’s veterinarian to determine how much to finance.


Although local financial safety nets exist, they aren’t always enough, especially if a pet will need ongoing medical assistance due to special needs or a disease. Several pet bloggers in the BlogPaws News and Boost Group recommended Waggle, which describes itself as “a pet-dedicated crowdfunding platform that partners directly with leading veterinary providers to help pet.” According to the website, for the families of more than 500,000 pets, the inability to cover the costs of treatment results in the decision to relinquish or euthanize a pet with a positive diagnosis. To use Waggle, follow these steps:

  1. Submits your pet’s profile to Waggle.
  2. Its team of professional writers will then create your pet’s story using information submitted.
  3. Waggle’s network of donors become involved in raising funds. 100% of donations are used to fund the patient’s care.
  4. You submit post-treatment updates, so Waggle can share it with donors.

Here is a graphic (source unknown) that is well-circulated in animal rescue circles. The graphic lists organizations that provide financial assistance to those that qualify and meet their criteria.

In addition, I’ve started a page at LAA Pet Talk that lists national financial safety nets. At the moment, it’s bare-bones and far from being exhaustive. Please check it out at and, if you know of financial safety nets, please tell me about them in the comments.


At the beginning of this article, I referred to a study by the Open Journal of Animal Sciences, which found that one of the top reasons for a pet owner to relinquish a pet is the inability to afford veterinarian costs. This study also discovered that 88% of these owners, when told there may be financial support available, chose to keep their pet.

HuffPost reported that in 2014 the ASPCA started addressing pet relinquishment due to the inability to afford vet care by establishing and supporting “safety net” programs in communities across the country. One such program was launched at two of the highest intake Los Angeles County shelters. Since its launch, the program has assisted over 4,100 animals that were at risk of entering the shelter system. Early follow-up with a small sample of clients has reported that over 80 percent of these pets still remain in their homes.

The ASPCA cited all of the below as examples of safety net programs that can help keep pets in their homes, several of which I’m pleased do exist in Lincoln.

  • Assistance with housing issues, such as helping to pay a pet deposit fee
  • Pet food banks (and supplies) *
  • Spay/neuter services *
  • Temporary housing for animals whose pet parents faces crisis situations
  • Vaccination clinics *
  • Behavior classes and/or behavior help lines *
  • One-on-one counseling
  • Pet help lines (via phone and online) *

* Available in Lincoln to some degree.

More than one pet owner whom I talked with said that they’d use up their savings to pay the costs of emergency care for their pet or that they’d maxed their credit cards or increased their credit limits to care for their sick pet. Obviously, many pet owners wish to keep their pets in the family. My hope is that this article will provide them with a greater awareness of the financial safety nets that exist to help them.


When Your Cat Won’t Use A Litter Box

Stock photo, Wikipedia
Stock photo, Wikipedia

If you’ve ever faced the challenge of a cat not using its litter box, you’re not alone. At least 10% of cats have litter box problems. These are one of the most common reasons cats are surrendered to shelters. To spare your cat this fate, there are a couple of things you can do.  The first step is to take your cat to the vet. If your cat receives a clean bill of health, the next step is try behavioral intervention.


It is my general opinion that cats don’t stop using the litter box out of spite or anger towards you. They usually have a problem that they need help with.—Dr. Megan Ehlers, Ehlers Animal Care

According to Dr. Jody Jones-Skibinski of Cotner Pet Care, refusal to use a litter box should be considered a medical condition until proven otherwise. Dr. Megan Ehlers of Ehlers Animal Care agrees, saying that by inappropriately urinating or defecating, a cat might be conveying that something about their health is off. Dr. Jen Hiebner of Pitts Veterinary Hospital wrote that the right time to call a vet about bathroom issues is “ANYTIME!”  She advised that early intervention is vital.

What medical problems could cause a cat to stop using the litter box? Dr. Hiebner cited urinary issues such as infections, stones, or inflammation of the bladder. “Any of these can cause an increase in urinary frequency as well as pain and can cause the cat to seek more convenient places to urinate.” Dr. Jones-Skibinski offered the hypothetical example of Betty, a cat that was caught urinating outside the litter box. “A bladder infection was the final diagnosis. The infection caused the bladder to become more and more painful as it stretched to hold urine, until Betty couldn’t hold it anymore and urinated wherever she was to remove the pain.”

All three vets I consulted also advised that arthritis or general pain can be another reason that cats stop using the litter box. Unfortunately, pain is often overlooked in cats because they don’t always show obvious signs of discomfort. If your cat starts eating less, sleep more, or otherwise change its routines, you should take your cat to the vet. These symptoms may indicate an illness, which could also cause anxiety, depression, or other forms of stress, and lead to inappropriate urination.

A likely culprit in older cats is kidney disease which is a leading cause of death in cats. Knowing the risk factors and early signs is the best way to catch the disease while it can still be managed. Kidney failure is always on my radar, because my first cat died from it.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Dr. Hiebner advises cat owners to encourage their cats’ intake of water, which can help prevent many medical causes of bathroom issues. This can be done by keeping fresh water available, using water fountains, and restricting cats to canned food. Dr. Hiebner added that “Prescription foods are available to neutralize urine pH, decrease crystals, and can even contain supplements to help reduce stress in your cat.”

Stress can be reduced with Feliway (a calming hormone diffuser or spray), Zylkene (a milk protein that helps calm the brain), homeopathics (holistic approach to medicine) or even prescription stress medications. Arthritis or other medical issues can be treated both medically and homeopathically. Medications can be given in pill form, mixed with food, by injection or made into liquids or even transdermals which can be applied to the skin.  Veterinarians have multiple options to help your feline friend be healthy and happy.—Dr. Jen Hiebner, Pitts Veterinarian Hospital


Underlying many of these issues is stress.  Despite the happy appearance of your cat, life can be scary. Seeing a cat outside, adding new family members, or simply moving the furniture can be enough to stress your cat.  Stress can cause a negative association with the litter box.—Dr. Jen Hiebner, Pitts Veterinarian Hospital

Stock photo, Wikipedia
Stock photo, Wikipedia

If no medical problems are found to explain your cat’s litter box issues, don’t give up hope. Behavioral issues can be treated. Below are ways to encourage cats to use a litter box.

Kittens: Contrary to widespread belief, kittens aren’t born knowing how to use a litter box. In the case of orphaned kittens, they may randomly choose a spot for their bathroom needs, and this could be your carpet or clothes. To prevent these accidents, you’ll need to place the kitten in a litter box after naps, meals, and play. You can further help your kitten by taking her front paws and showing her how to scratch the litter. My husband and I had to do this for a feral kitten that we rescued. If you show a kitten how to use the litter box a few times, she should catch on. Normally, by the time kittens are four-weeks-old, they’ll have been taught what and where the bathroom is by their moms. Even so, one of the first things you should do when you bring home a new kitten is to show it where the litter boxes are.

Strays: The same steps apply to a stray cat, except you might need to start with the material he most likely used outside, such as soil, sand, leaves, or grass. Make the switch by slowly changing the amount of old litter to new litter over several weeks. A stray cat will have had many sites to choose from; a negative experience could drive him to seek out a more secluded spot that will be less desirable to you such as the back of a closet. Help him develop a routine of using the litter box by calling him to it after he’s eaten, played, or napped. Praise him for approaching the litter box, then for getting into the litter box. The more positive his experience with the litter box, the more likelihood he’ll want to keep using it.

Occasional Litter Box Users: What about a cat who only sometimes misses the litter box? First, never punish her when she’s near the litter box. You’ll be teaching her that the litter box is a bad place, and she’ll be more likely to avoid it in the future. Second, clean and treat all soiled areas with an odor-neutralizing product. Third, if possible, visually change the most often soiled areas by adding a lampstand, an end table, or whatever would be suitable in those locations. Finally, if your cat sniffs around a forbidden area, redirect her gently but firmly towards the litter box.

Stock photo, Flickr
Stock photo, Flickr

Always Missing the Litter Box: If your cat stops using the litter box entirely, put on your problem-solving hat by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the litter box clean? At least once a day, scoop pee and poop from the box and replace old litter with about an inch of fresh litter. No less than once a month, clean the litter box with water. A little vinegar or lemon juice added to the water will help neutralize odors.
  • Is the litter box in the right location? Cats don’t like to soil the areas close to where they sleep or eat, so don’t put the litter box near these. They also prefer quiet and calm spots. Dr. Hiebner pointed out that if the boxes are in a utility room or basement, there may be noises that will cause your cat to avoid the area. If you have more than one cat, make sure the litter box isn’t in a location where one cat can corner the other. Cats should always have an escape route. If you have a dog that hangs around when your cat is using the litter box, Pet Coach suggests using a baby gate to block its access to that room. Place the gate a few inches off the floor so that only your cat can get under it or place the gate close to the floor and put a stool on both sides to help your cat jump over it. Finally, all three vets I consulted said that if there’s anything around the litter box that is causing your cat obvious stress, you either need to remove those things or relocate the litter box, as this might be reason enough for your cat to avoid the litter box.
  • Is the litter box the right type? Some cats fear covered litter boxes that hinder escape, while others feel more secure in them. Similarly, some cats detest the noise of self-scooping boxes while others aren’t bothered.
  • Is the litter box the right size? Cats need to have room to turn around and give the litter a few kicks. Also, it’s recommended that the sides be six inches high, but kittens and seniors will need at least one lower side.
  • Do you have enough litter boxes? The rule of thumb is to have at least one more than the number of cats, and to have at least one on each level of your home.
  • Is the litter the right type? Most cats prefer unscented, clumping litter. However, cats can be choosy about litter, so you should experiment with several types.
  • Did you change anything in your house around the time your cat stopped using the litter box? It could be as simple as a new mat underneath the litter box. If so, change it back!

If your cat is still occasionally or regularly missing the litter box, you might need to retrain him. Start by limiting your cat to a single room, preferably one with non-porous floors. Petfinder recommends a bathroom, which offers him privacy but also ensures he won’t be alone for prolonged periods of time. Provide him with bedding, water, and food on one end of the room, and a freshly cleaned litter box at the other end. A regular feeding schedule is also encouraged so your cat will develop a corresponding bathroom schedule. After he’s been successfully using only the litter box for at least a week, if possible, allow him access to other rooms one at a time. The best time to let him roam is right after he’s used the box. When your cat reliably returns to the litter box on his own, begin to cut back on the supervision. Do not rush this process; instead focus on building a solid foundation to set your cat up for success. Dr. Hiebner recommended also trying “Feliway” which is a calming hormone diffuser or spray that makes a cat feel more secure or “Cat Attract” which is an herbal additive designed to attract cats to the litter box.

Changing a behavior problem related to the litter box may take patience.  The cause has to be found, changes need to be made, and then finally determining the response to the adjustments.–Dr. Jody Jones-Skibinski , Cotner Pet Care

The above article is based on research, personal experience, and consultation with vets. My deepest gratitude goes to Dr. Ehler, Dr. Hiebner, and Dr. Jones-Skibinski who offered their expert advice on bathroom issues and cats.


Animal Planet

Humane Society

Perfect Paws

Pet Coach

Pet Finder

Vet Street

Interview with a Local Veterinarian

From a young age, Dr. Jen Hiebner has been an animal lover. Her first pets were hamsters, gerbils, parakeets, and a rabbit. She has also long loved science, which explained the workings of the world around her. Naturally, these two loves led to her decision to become a veterinarian

In 2000, the World Veterinary Association initiated the annual World Veterinary Day on the last Saturday of April to bring attention to the ways our animal doctors help make the world a better place. We all know that vets care for pets, and some also see livestock, but vets also serve their communities in the areas of education and public health. I recently interviewed Dr. Hiebner from Pitts Veterinarian Hospital about her life as a veterinarian. If you’ve never thanked your vet, consider doing so on World Veterinary Day.

ALLISON: Why did you become a vet?  What kind of training did it involve?

DR. HIEBNER: To be accepted to a veterinary school, you have to complete the prerequisite classes.  An actual degree is not necessarily required.  These are mostly science, such as biochemistry and biology, but also include physics, communications and English.  I completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Veterinary medicine at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

I attended veterinary school at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS.  The first three years are lectures and labs about everything medical such as anatomy, physiology, parasitology, pharmacology, contagious diseases and nutrition.  The last year is a full year of clinical rotations through large and small animal general medicine, critical care, anesthesia, surgery, dentistry: everything you need to know to practice.  To practice, you must graduate from a veterinary school and pass state and national board exams.  To keep practicing, you have to complete 32 hours of continuing education every 2 years.  Some veterinarians go on to an extra four years to become board certified in specialized fields.

ALLISON: What does a typical day at your job look like?

DR. HIEBNER: I work at least 40 hours a week, usually more.  I spend four days seeing appointments and one doing surgery.  Appointments are usually vaccines or rechecks on animals with medical conditions but also include injured or sick animals.  I spend a lot of time doing phone calls and paperwork as well.  On surgery days I do mostly spays, neuters, dental cleanings and mass removals.  I also perform more complicated surgeries as needed.  I rotate with my co-workers clinic duty on the weekends.  We check on hospitalized animals and make sure things are going smoothly.

ALLISON: What is the riskiest part of your job?

DR. HIEBNER: I deal with a lot of animals that don’t like me.  I get it – I am a funny smelling stranger that does things in their personal space.  We try not to but being bitten is part of the job.  Our technicians are great at gentle restraint and handling difficult patients.  I also deal with a lot of diseases that are contagious to people, including ones that are potentially deadly.  Protecting ourselves as well as clients that have been exposed is part of our job.

ALLISON: What is the saddest part of your job?

DR. HIEBNER: I would say the saddest part is when there is nothing you can do to help an animal and their owners.  Medicine has its limits.  Sometimes there are things you cannot fix even if you want to.

ALLISON: What keeps you going in the tough times?

DR. HIEBNER: First puppy and kitten exams.  We all congregate when a new puppy or kitten comes in.  Puppy kisses and kittens climbing around the room – they are like little rays of sunshine.  Honestly, we also love it when clients bring us food or send cards of appreciation.  Cards go on the wall for all to see.  I often eat my lunch in little bits between appointments or not at all.  A plate of cookies in the back is pure joy.

ALLISON: Describe a happy moment in your job:

DR. HIEBNER: I recently got certified in animal acupuncture.  I studied with the Chi Institute in Florida.  I took the beginning courses which was about 6 months of online and on site lectures and labs.  I then took the advanced course and completed a case study to get certified.  I really enjoyed learning about acupuncture and was very excited to be able to offer this as a supplement to western medicine.  I have studied a little about food therapy and am currently studying to be certified in herbal therapy as well.

ALLISON: Do you have your own pets?  Tell me about them.

DR. HIEBNER: I currently have three dogs, four cats and a fish.  Three of my cats (Sam, Tessa and Isabella) are senior cats that I acquired through rescue in vet school.  They mostly just lay around and do cat things.  I have a fourth much younger cat (B.B.) that was brought in to our clinic as a stray.  She likes to play, randomly run around the house and be carried around by my daughter.  The dogs include a Schnoodle (Sugar) that we got from the humane society and a Chihuahua (Napoleon) that was surrendered to our clinic.  The third is a Great Pyrenees puppy (Comet) that only likes to play at 5 am.  The beta fish (Ruby) lives in my daughter’s room.

ALLISON: What is something that the public doesn’t know about vets but should?

DR. HIEBNER: I would say one thing to consider is that it is very hard for vets to not take their jobs home with them. We all have days of some joys and successes but also disappointments, euthanasia, and angry clients and pets.  Despite a bad day, we still try to put on a happy face when we see the next client.  When we leave the office, the hard parts tag along and we stress about them. Stress from work, high educational debt and just life in general is high in our lives.  As a result, veterinarians do have a high risk of substance abuse, divorce, and suicide.

ALLISON: What basic pet care do you see most neglected?

DR. HIEBNER: Dental care.  I see a lot of pets that come in with tartar, gingivitis and even rotten teeth.  Bad teeth can cause pain and lead to infections in the heart, liver and kidneys.  If you can’t brush your pet’s teeth (honestly, I don’t either), supply them with chews to help clean their teeth or have a dental cleaning done under anesthesia to prevent severe dental disease.  People are very worried about anesthesia and dentals.  I prefer to do dentals with proper blood work, IV placement and technician monitoring.  This allows the dental to be performed safely and also allows x-rays and a better look at the inside and back of the mouth.

ALLISON: What is one easy way pet owners can enrich the lives of their pets?

DR. HIEBNER: Find out what they like.  Do they like toys?  Chewy treats?  Walks?  Visiting other animals?  Stimulating their imagination helps too.  Puzzle balls with treats are great.  Cat trees to climb.  Windows to look out.  Visits to the park or walks around the block to stimulate their brains with sights and sounds.

ALLISON: What one medical or technical advancement in the future do you most want?

DR. HIEBNER: I’d love to have a MRI in my pocket.  I do a lot of ultrasounds and x-rays but to really look in a brain or spinal cord, you need an MRI.  This would be incredibly helpful for diagnosing strokes, cancers, epilepsy and other neurological issues. Unfortunately at this point they are too big and expensive to be practical in a clinic.

ALLISON: What ways can a person help homeless animals?

DR. HIEBNER: Volunteer or donate to your local animal shelters or rescue groups.  I especially like local groups because you can see personally what they do.  There are so many good groups that do fundraising, events, fostering, adoptions or will take donations of necessary items like collars, leashes, cat litter and food.