FREEPORT – Dr Carolyn Radding, owner of the Freeport Veterinary Hospital, 4 Post Road, has just partnered with pet food giant Purina to offer a program called Partners in Wellness, a monthly payment option for a pet’s recommended annual preventative care. The program offers a wide range of services and is designed to ease the upfront financial burden of veterinary care. Radding, 51, who bought the clinic eight years ago, is hoping to provide an option for pet owners who are struggling to make ends meet but still want to provide necessary care for their four-legged family members.

Radding recently sat down with the Tri-Town Weekly discuss the basics of the Partners in Wellness Program, why veterinarian care costs what it does, and why pet care mirrors our own trips to the doctor.

Q: Why were you interested in this program?

A: When the economy crashed a few years ago, people were asking if they could do a monthly payment plan but we were not set up to do so. What we were seeing nationally is that people were not bringing their pets to the veterinarian because of cost, and certainly I was observing this here in Maine. People want to do the right thing but they may not have the cash. It can be a dilemma: Should I get my medication, food for my kids or bring my pet in for a checkup? People have been having to make those choices, so there has been a drop nationally in the amount of visits. What’s also happening is pet owners are waiting until something is really wrong to bring in a pet, which sometimes can be too late. If they had of visited earlier we could have discovered a problem when it’s much easier to treat and much less expensive. We have just started the program, but other participating animal hospitals have reported as much as 25 percent of their clients are Wellness Plan members.

Q: How does the program work and how did you get involved?

A: I had thought about something like this for a while, but could not afford the administration component such as software – we are, after all, a small business. We sign up as a clinic and make an agreement. When Purina came out with this program a year and a half ago I contacted them immediately. They handle the administrative side. People can pick one of nine plans based on type, age and needs of a particular pet. It spreads the payments over 12 months depending the complexity of a given plan. Purina takes the credit or debit card information and automatically withdraws the funds on a monthly basis. There is no credit check involved. When a customer comes in who is on one of our plans, we make a normal invoice but the costs are diverted through the plan. It’s really easy for both us as a clinic and the customer.

Q: What types of preventative treatment options are offered through the program?

A: Some of the services included in these plans are wellness exams, vaccinations, health screenings, and other treatments that are recommended annually to keep a pet healthy. Owners can choose from several plans for both dogs and cats. Plans are based on age and include puppy/kitten, adult, and senior options. There is also a plan for dental care, an important part of maintaining an animal’s overall health. Each plan also offers two additional office calls besides the yearly wellness checkups which can help decrease costs for medical issues that may arise throughout the year. One example is a Kitten Plan, which includes everything recommended for a kitten in his/her first year of life including examinations with the doctor, vaccines, spaying/neutering, and lab work, all for under $55 per month. By signing up with the plan, not only is there an affordable monthly payment instead of one large sum, there is also a 10-20 percent discount compared with the total retail price of those services if they were purchased outright. There are also discounts on certain items such as flea and tick and heartworm preventatives if an owner is a plan participant. Again, this encourages people to bring in a sick pet and provides a certain financial peace of mind.

Q: Does this cover major pet surgeries?

A: No, it’s strictly preventative care. The plan is not meant to cover an animal’s chronic illness.

Q: Can people opt out? What is the minimum commitment?

A: It’s based on a year, 365 days. There is no commitment after the bill is satisfied. We do look at individual cases such as a move or if a pet passes on. Chances are we would not allow someone to be charged after they’ve satisfied what is reasonable.

Q: Is this designed primarily for dogs and cats?

A: Yes, but you can enroll an exotic pet through a participating clinic.

Q: Is this essentially pet insurance?

A: No, absolutely not. This is a great addition to an existing pet insurance policy but not in any way insurance.

Q: There is a perception that veterinarian care is too expensive. Is this true?

A: I’m not sure the public really understands how costly it is to run a veterinary clinic. Part of it is because we are used to looking at our own human health care through insurance. When we go to the doctor we make a co-pay, you’re not really paying for the doctor visit. If someone had to pay the real cost of seeing a doctor without insurance, most people would be shocked. The other piece is that when someone visits a doctor, there’s not an X-Ray machine in the office, not an onsite blood analysis computer or a surgery suite with heart monitors, things of that nature. It’s an extremely expensive operation from an overhead standpoint but it’s all contained here, there are no specialists involved. We have trained technicians and other staff. The cost is high but the level of care is exceptional. The only way to stay in business is to charge accordingly so we can pay our bills to provide the services people demand to care for their pets. I find pet care mirrors human health care in so many ways, especially on the emphasis on preventative care. I’m not sure there is a price you can put on good health.

Q: How often should people be bringing their pets in for a checkup?

A: In the first year of a puppy or kitten’s life, you should be seeing a vet every three to four weeks until they are roughly 12 to 16 weeks old to have vaccinations. There are always a lot of questions pet owners have when they have new animals. Between 1 and 7 years, we recommend a once yearly annual physical. Animals hide pain and illness until a problem is pretty advanced and often an owner does not pick up on this. After 8, cats and dogs are considered seniors. If you look at the age charts, one animal year is equal to 7 human years. So, if you bring a pet in once a year after the age of 8, it’s the equivalent of us going to see a doctor every seven years when we are senior citizens. A lot can change. This program and plan can make sure animals reach those advanced ages in the best health possible.

Dr. Carolyn Radding with Freeport Veterinary Hospital resident Jimmy. Radding has started a program to provide low-cost, monthly payments for annual preventative care for dogs and cats.

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