For most pet owners, their companions are part of the family. This means providing them with high-quality medical care. Unfortunately, this often comes at a very steep price. In fact, just last year, I found myself faced with a dog that needed a very specialized surgery that could only be performed in the United Kingdom or in Japan, by only two surgeons in the world. 

Having to choose between financial stability and a pet's care isn't something anyone wants to do. Fortunately, there are a few ways to help ensure that an animal's illness doesn't blow your budget.

Dog on a pile of money with a $100 bill in his mouth.

Image source: Getty Images.

Buy pet health insurance

One choice is to purchase pet insurance for help covering your animal's care. If you go this route, you should buy insurance as soon as possible while your animal is still young and healthy. Pet insurers can exclude pre-existing conditions, so you may not get the coverage you need if you wait and something goes wrong with your animal. 

When shopping for pet insurance, consider whether the policy has annual limits on the amount that it will pay. It's common for pet insurers to cap coverage at around $10,000 or $15,000 per year. While this may seem like a lot, the costs of specialized care can quickly exceed these limits. 

You'll also want to read the policy carefully to find out if the insurer guarantees you can renew coverage, so you won't be dropped if your animal gets sick. And you'll want to find out about exclusions. I met many pet owners whose dogs had the same surgery mine did, and their insurers would not cover a procedure outside of the country -- although insurance did cover all of the pre-surgical testing done in the United States. 

Pet insurance typically also covers only treatments for illnesses, not routine care, unless you get an add-on wellness plan. So you should still budget for annual vet visits to make sure you catch any problems early on. 

Save up a pet emergency fund

Another option if you can't get insurance or don't want to rely on an insurer is to save up money in a dedicated pet emergency-care fund. This should be separate from your standard emergency fund. And if you're prepared to provide expensive treatments for your animal, you should make sure you're actually setting aside enough to cover the kinds of care your pet could need. This might mean saving several thousands of dollars per year in your fund. 

We had researched insurers when our pets were young and decided to save up an emergency fund instead of buying coverage because we were uncomfortable with the policy limitations we found. Because we had money saved for our animal's care, we were able to pay for my dog's costly surgery without having to get permission from an insurer. 

That's the upside of this approach -- the downside is that you could need a large savings account if something goes wrong. If you don't have a lot of money saved, you're stuck deciding whether to borrow or limit the care you provide. 

What's the best approach to paying for your pet's care?

You'll have to decide if you want to pay premiums for protection and accept the limitations of pet insurance policies, or if you want to set aside funds in case of illness and hope you have enough. 

Borrowing for pet care is also an option; you could consider a low-interest personal loan or a credit card offering 0% interest on purchases for a limited time. But it's generally far better to try to avoid going into debt by preparing for inevitable health issues that tend to occur as our companion animals age.