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Help your pet without risking your financial health

Although most parents would bankrupt themselves to save a child's life, you don't face a similar obligation to extend a pet's life. But there may more ways to afford treatment than you think.

August 21, 2011|Liz Weston | Money Talk

Dear Liz: Due to lack of work over the last few years, I finally began my Social Security benefits this year. I can afford only catastrophic health insurance, so I hardly ever see a doctor anymore.

So here's the problem: A pet! I have had my cat Jackie for nearly 14 years. Jackie has a growth on her neck that has been growing since last fall. Last week, I took her into a pet clinic that offered free first visits. Their suggestion was to remove it and have it tested for cancer. The cost was $450 just to remove it, with another $150 to have it tested. Ouch! If it is cancer, I can't afford the treatment.

The vet says Jackie seems remarkably healthy and could live another five or six years. Do I spend that extra money for a possible negative assessment of something I can't afford to cure, or do I just let her live out her life with the growth continuing? I feel like I am not being a good parent.

Answer: A pet may feel like a family member, but your cat is not your child. Although most parents would willingly bankrupt themselves to save a child's life, you don't face a similar obligation to extend a pet's life.

You do have an obligation to make sure a pet doesn't suffer, and you may have more options for treatment than you think. Discuss your situation with the vet who assessed Jackie to see if more affordable diagnostic and treatment options are available. If you're willing and able, your vet may consider allowing you to work off a bill by cleaning kennels or answering phones, according to Humane Society of the United States.

If not, contact your local animal shelter to see if it can recommend a veterinarian willing to discount his or her services. There are also a number of national and local organizations that provide financial assistance to pet owners in need. You can find a list at the Humane Society's website.

If you get another pet down the road, consider buying a health insurance policy for the animal. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates a typical policy for a cat would cost about $175 a year, although premiums vary based on deductibles and what the policy covers. Veterinary costs have spiraled to the point where these policies can provide real protection against catastrophic bills.

Can credit scores affect insurance costs?

Dear Liz: My husband and I are in our late 60s and debt free. We recently were informed of a $200 annual increase in our auto insurance. Our insurer explained we have too many credit cards (all paid in full each month) and too many department store credit cards (including some we haven't used in years, and all with a zero balance). What does car insurance have to do with credit cards? Can the insurer do this? Should we close some cards?

Answer: Only three states — California, Hawaii and Massachusetts — prohibit insurers from using credit information when calculating premiums. In other states, the practice is common, since insurers have discovered a strong correlation between people's credit histories and their likelihood of costing an insurer money. (The worse the credit, the more likely they are to file claims, essentially.)

The states typically don't regulate how insurers use credit information, so behavior that might not affect premiums at one company could jack them up at another. Closing credit cards might not help, because that could inflict its own damage by changing the credit-utilization portion of your insurance score with that company.

This is yet another reason it's important to shop around occasionally for insurance: You can often find a better deal if you look.

Liz Weston is the author of "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy." Questions for possible inclusion in her column may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604 or via Distributed by No More Red Inc.

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