Priscilla Butterfield of Richland owns seven cats and a dog and spends hundreds of dollars annually taking care of them.
But she hopes to reduce those costs by enrolling in a pet wellness plan offered by her veterinarian.
Well Pet Plans are essentially prepaid discounted pet health services. Pet owners sign a 12-month contract with a provider, pay a monthly fee and get a set of services that includes office visits, blood tests, vaccinations, de-worming, spaying or neutering and discounts for other medical procedures.
The plans are not pet insurance, which has co-pays and deductibles. They are more like a gym membership, said Daniel J. Patton, whose Pasco-based company, Prevent Plans, developed the program. Its focus is preventive care to save money in the long run, he said.
Veterinarians can catch a potential problem early, treat it and help prolong a pet's life, said Patton, who has degrees in veterinary sciences and business administration.
He and his wife, a nonpracticing veterinarian, started the business in March. So far, he's signed up 10 veterinary practices in the Northwest and is working with a private group that has 150 practices in 30 states, he said.
The plans, which range from $300 to $480 a year for cat and dog care, help trim costs for vets and pet owners, Patton said. There also is an application fee on plans for adult pets. Plans for horses cost slightly more.
Coleman Animal Health Center in Pasco became part of the network and began selling the plans in March, said Julie Coleman, practice manager. "We have over 30 clients."
A membership in a wellness plan encourages pet owners to seek medical care for their pets when they need it, she said. It's affordable, because the costs are spread over the year, she said.
"It's a better alternative to pet insurance that helps take care of the problems before they become big," she said.
The plans offer more doctor visits and services and save clients at least $400, she said.
They also mean a steady income for veterinarians, Coleman said. Her clinic is trying to market the plans for young pets to animals about 8 years old, she said.
Prevent Plans administers the program, leaving the veterinarians to focus on pet care, Patton said. He said the vets get 70 percent of the money.
Many veterinarians offer their own plans, especially for kittens and puppies, said retired Kennewick veterinarian Dr. William Keatts. Some may even offer geriatric plans for older pets. But plans can be difficult to administer, he said.
Animal Hospital of Kennewick offers discounted puppy and kitten packages, said Ernie Lopez, receptionist and vet assistant. The packages, which cost $295 to $345 depending on an animal's gender, cover office visits, vaccines, spaying or neutering, de-worming and two fecal exams that normally would cost about $680, Lopez said.
Like other small practices, Animal Hospital relies on cash and credit card payment, he said. "We are unable to extend credit."
Many veterinary hospitals provide credit on a limited basis to established clientele, Keatts said. It may easier for some Tri-City clinics with annual revenues of about $1 million to do that, he said.
Meadow Hills Veterinary Center, which has two locations in Kennewick, offers clients who buy a package for young pets an installment payment option for up to three months, said Brian Conrad, practice manager.
For other pet medical checkups and tests, clients need to pay at the time of service with cash or credit cards, he said. About 66 percent use a credit card, he said.
"We are a small business. We do have to turn a profit. Doctors and the support staff at the clinic count on getting their paychecks on time. And we need to purchase new equipment and invest in staff's continuing education," Conrad said.
The fixed services menu of a wellness plan may not be perfect for all pets, he said. For example, not all pets require vaccines, he said.
"We look at the (pets') age and environment they live in to decide what can be done to prolong their lives," he said. "Kidneys can be compromised up to 70 percent before we see clinical signs."
Meadow Hills clients on average spend $200 to $300 a year on basic preventive care, he said.
The American Veterinary Medical Association actively promotes the notion of preventive medicine and pet wellness, said spokeswoman Sharon Granskog.
She recommends the pet owners to look at the guidelines the association has developed when thinking about pet insurance or pet health plans. The site is: www.avma.org/issues/policy/insurance_pet_health.asp.
The Well Pet Plans offered by Patton's company in Pasco require a 12-month commitment and are not transferable between pets. And the pet owner is responsible for the contract payments even if a pet dies halfway through the plan or if the client has to move.
For more information, visit www.preventplans.com.