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How much debt would you take on to save your pet? $2,000? More?

  • More than a third of Americans say they would go into debt for their pet, a recent survey shows.
  • 13% of cat owners owe at least $2,000 to their vet, while 9% of dog owners owe at least that much.
  • Pet insurance is still rare even though veterinary costs are rising. 

A young, newly married New Jersey couple had their Jack Russell terrier, Alex, only a short time before the feisty female tangled with a car on a nearby four-lane roadway. Alex lost the battle and suffered a fractured pelvis. The medical bill — a whopping $2,400 for the emergency care alone, with additional costs required to nurse Alex back to health. 

Even more painful is that pet medical bills aren't covered by people's health insurance, which can result in staggering costs. No surprise, then, that a recent survey by online loan provider LendingTree found that more than 40% of millennials have been "in debt for their pet." Cat owners outpaced dog owners, with 13% saying they owed at least $2,000 to the vet, compared with 9% for canines. 

"Most pet owners would do anything to keep their dog or cat happy and healthy, but it comes at a cost," said LendingTree research specialist Brianna Wright.

Hotels cater to pampered pets 01:53

According to the ASPCA, dog owners spend between $1,500 and $2,000 during the first year of pet care, and up to $1,000 annually thereafter. Cat owners spend slightly less — about $700 to $1,000 the initial year and $800 each subsequent year.

These costs include vaccinations, checkups, spay or neutering, food, litter and treats. A majority of pet owners surveyed say they factor these expenses into their monthly budget.

Still, emergencies can happen, and six of 10 pet owners say they've had to pay for them, even though they can cost thousands of dollars. About half say they can use cash or savings, while the other half say they would use credit cards or take a personal loan. 

Pet insurance — a good idea?

Pet insurance can help protect against sudden costs. Some companies even offer it as an employee benefit. Dog owners pay an average of about $42 a month for such policies, while cat owners cough up around $20. But the cost rises as pets age: As with humans, the last year of life is often the most expensive.

But according to Lending Tree, three-quarters of pet owners lack specialized insurance.

"Like all insurance, pet health insurance has a deductible," said Loretta Worters, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, a representative of the insurance industry. "Deductibles typically range from $100 to $500, and the plan doesn't cover pre-existing conditions."

Worters suggests consulting with your vet before purchasing such a plan. Certain breeds tend to have higher medical expenses, while others are known to live longer, which can entail higher costs.

"If you're disciplined and put money into an account to self-insure, you might not need pet insurance," Worters said.

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