If you’ve spent enough years in the good company of fine dogs, there’s no escaping one attribute they all share: Hunting dogs are expensive. If you haven’t depopulated your wallet or set fire to your credit card on behalf of your hunting companion, you should know that your time is coming.
From gear to kibble, and GPS collars to late-night emergency vet visits, there are nearly infinite ways to pour your hard-earned money into the only thing that likes hunting more than you. I can’t help you save cash on shells for your Weatherby or gas for your truck, but I can offer some advice for making vet visits cheaper.
First, let’s dispel any notion that vets are just in it for the money. Over time, I’ve grown resentful of those that propagate this myth after confronting a large bill for essential, often life-saving services. While it’s true we didn’t invest this much time and money to subsist on ramen for another decade, we bring home a small sliver of the salaries earned by our counterparts in human medicine. We enjoy helping animals and people, and there’s a certain richness gleaned from that endeavor, even if it’s not legal tender.
Train for Vet Visits
The easiest way to spare some coin at the clinic is to desensitize your dog from a young age to things they may encounter during a visit. I’m not impressed by the number of Master Hunter ribbons Diesel earned if he won’t let me look in his mouth or requires three vet techs to restrain him for a rabies vaccine. I understand that not every dog loves coming to the vet, but it’s very little work on your part to train a dog to accept that not everything in life is comfortable.
In between training sessions for blind retrieves or steadiness, teach your dog an equally valuable lesson that examining their feet, mouth, ears, eyes, and yes, private parts, is a perfectly normal part of their life. Failure on your part to include this in your training program means you’ll have to pay me each time there’s a problem. If your dog won’t let me do it, prepare to fork over even more money for drugs that allow me to chemically overcome the strong, learned resistance that could have been nipped in the bud years ago.
When I have to go to the lockbox for a cocktail to restrain them, that’s when zeros start getting added to your bill. I’m not implying there’s never a reasonable time to sedate a dog to address something painful, but something as benign as a nail trim shouldn’t require that much intervention or expense.
Shop Around for Meds
The most common pet meds have multiple generic options and online retailers, and nearly all states require that veterinarians provide a written prescription for drugs if you request it. I’m going to receive a tongue lashing from some of my practice-owning colleagues for this one, but there’s a considerable markup on medications purchased from the clinics. The reality is that vet clinics have had a monopoly on them for years.
Check your gut for your stance on supporting the local businesses over the mega-pharmacies. Keep in mind there’s a substantial convenience worth paying for in getting the medications your pet needs while you’re still at the vet—particularly when an illness is involved.
The tech support for meds purchased from your vet has value as well. There’s a good chance the outside pharmacist won’t have much of a clue about the particular pharmacology in dogs for the drug your vet just prescribed. The dose or mechanism of action might differ greatly from the human model they’re familiar with.
A good compromise for long-term meds might include purchasing the first few doses from your vet and working with them in the event the amounts need tweaking. Once the routine is established, then seek savings from a cheaper pharmacy, particularly if your dog will need it for months or years to come. If financial limitations truly come between your hunting dog and the medications it needs, you’ll have a hard time finding a vet that won’t encourage you to price shop, even if it hurts their income. I already told you we aren’t in it for the money.
Consider Pet Insurance
Bird dog owners frequently ping me for whether the benefits of pet insurance justify the price. Admittedly, it’s a difficult question to answer without a crystal ball and familiarity with your preference for risk-taking. A single serious injury or illness can wipe out a paycheck (or more), forcing you in a painfully awkward position of choosing between debt or euthanasia.
Generally, most pet insurance companies have been easy to work with, particularly when compared to the average human medical insurance transaction. The vet gets paid, you get reimbursed quickly, and your hunting dog often gets a higher quality of care than if you were paying out of pocket. If I wasn’t a vet already I’d certainly carry insurance on my dogs, even though we’ve been spared any serious medical issues so far.
DIY or Wellness Plans
Client tolerance for blood or sharp things runs the gamut, so it’s difficult for me to prescribe a single course of action for everyone. I’ve had an octogenarian and former nurse fill in as an overnight ER tech while covered in her dog’s blood. I’ve also watched as a bearded beast of a client hit the floor unconscious when I uncapped a needle. Know your limitations.
An annual exam to discuss vaccines for your bird dog is still a great idea, but you can save some money by doing those boosters at home. While I don’t compromise on ensuring a puppy is fully vaccinated, I’ve always felt comfortable with clients giving boosters (except rabies, which requires a vet to administer), assuming they can provide proof the injection was given properly.
That’s exactly how I rolled with my own bird dogs before becoming a veterinarian. I’m a big proponent of the DIY mentality, as long as safety and efficacy remain priorities. And despite what some vets tell you, most retailers do a good job of shipping or storing vaccines at a safe temperature.
If needles aren’t your thing, many vet practices offer reasonable packages that are often referred to as “wellness plans.” These deals include exams and immunizations at a reduced rate if you commit to them ahead of time.
I Feel Your Pain
The financial hemorrhage of bird-dog ownership is unavoidable, even for a veterinarian. In fact, I might argue that in addition to the aforementioned expenses incurred, I’ve doubled down with 10 years of higher education and a mountain of student loan debt.
However, my experience in practice has taught me a few ways to be frugal in the clinic. As a fellow bird hunter and dog owner who also feels the squeeze of pouring a finite resource into a bottomless chasm, I’m happy to help.
Feature image via John Hafner.