“Let’s get a pet,” they said. “We’ll take care of it,” they promised. And you fell for it!

Even though you’ve assumed almost all responsibility for feeding it, walking it, grooming it, and cleaning up its messes, you’re glad your kids (liars) talked you into getting a pet (or three). We love our pets and, as with any member of the family, want them to get great health care. Given all the other sacrifices we make for the critters, however, we’d prefer not to put up with unnecessary inconvenience, unpleasantness, and cost to get that care.

As with choosing a physician, while you can’t assess all aspects of a veterinarian’s technical skills and expertise, you can judge many factors central to good medical care: Can you arrange to quickly get an appointment? Does the vet listen to you and communicate well? Spend enough time with you? Give useful advice on preventing diseases, warning signs, and treatments you can administer on your own? Seem competent and thorough?

To help you find a veterinarian who provides the care and service your critter deserves without wrecking your treat budget, nonprofit consumer group Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook evaluated area veterinary clinics and hospitals. Until Nov. 6, Inquirer readers have free access to Checkbook’s ratings of area veterinarians: Checkbook.org/inquirer/vets. Checkbook surveyed its own and Consumer Reports subscribers, plus other randomly selected people. Most of the feedback Checkbook gets for vets is favorable, but some practices received low scores on many survey questions.

Veterinary hospitals can become accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association by meeting certain minimum standards: maintaining adequate medical records and providing complete diagnostic, pharmacy, anesthetic, surgical, nursing, dental, and emergency service facilities. It’s interesting that, among the veterinary practices evaluated by Checkbook, AAHA accreditation seems to have little relationship to service quality. For example, on its customer survey question “apparent competence/thoroughness,” AAHA-accredited practices, on average, scored about the same as non-accredited practices.

Although you want the best possible care for your pet, you don’t want it to cost you your life’s savings. Unfortunately, this is an area in which consumers are often dissatisfied. The most common complaints Checkbook receives from vet customers concern excessive and unexpectedly high bills. Many commented that vets not only failed to consider and discuss lower cost treatment alternatives, but also pushed costly treatments of little value to the pet and owner.

To compare vets for price, Checkbook’s undercover shoppers called practices to collect their prices for six different procedures. There are astoundingly big price differences. For example, to spay a seven-month-old, 25-pound dog, area practices charge fees ranging from $190 to $860. And to clean the teeth of a six-year-old, 65-pound dog, fees ranged from $208 to $854. Fortunately, Checkbook found that many of the lowest-priced vets received very high ratings from their surveyed customers. In short, you can save a lot of money without sacrificing the quality of care.

Because veterinary treatment can be expensive, an increasing number of consumers buy health insurance for their pets. But Checkbook recently analyzed pet insurance policies and found that, in most cases, even the best plans ended up costing more in premiums than they paid out over a pet’s lifetime. Most buyers sign up for insurance when their pets are young and monthly premiums are lowest. But four or five years later, the premiums most companies charge start to aggressively rise — purely because the pets get older.

Checkbook’s recommendation: Instead of buying pet insurance to pay the high costs of vet care, focus on cutting those costs by shopping around for the lowest price on whatever veterinary services you need. If you have the bucks, and you’re willing to pay any price to save your seriously ill or injured pet, here’s how to find the best deal on pet insurance:

  • Start your shopping at the two companies that scored best in Checkbook’s cost-benefit ratings: Healthy Paws and Trupanion.
  • Before buying, learn how your premium will increase as your pet ages by using the insurer’s online quote engine. First, get a monthly premium quote using your pet’s current age; then get quotes for the 10 or 12 ensuring years. Multiply each age’s monthly premium by 12; then add up all the resulting annual premiums to estimate what insurance will cost over that period.
  • Understand what is not covered. A leading complaint to regulators is claims rejected for conditions or treatments the policy does not cover. No policy covers pre-existing conditions, and some conditions that are covered may be considered pre-existing if they develop up to a year after you enroll. If your pet is ill or injured, the diagnostic exam is often not covered by many plans, even though the treatment itself is covered. Follow-up exams for that covered condition are often not covered, either. Those $50 to $100 exam fees amount to a hidden added deductible.
  • Avoid claim rejection for a pre-existing condition by insuring your pet when it’s a puppy or kitten — before it has a chance to develop a pre-existing condition (but don’t forget the caveat above). You can typically enroll when your pet is six to eight weeks of age.
  • Forget add-ons for wellness, preventive, and elective care. We found that one major carrier’s plan with wellness cost significantly more when our model pet had only moderate levels of health trouble.
  • Consider accident-only policies, which cover injuries but not illness and can be considerably less expensive.
  • You must pay premiums every month, but you may or may not have to pay deductibles and copays, depending on your pet’s health. It may pay to cut your premium costs by increasing your deductible, reducing the percent reimbursed, and choosing an annual limit of only $5,000 or $10,000 instead of unlimited.

Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org are a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers evaluated. See ratings of area veterinarians for quality and price free of charge until Nov. 6 at Checkbook.org/inquirer/vets.