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Can I Take a Stray Cat to the Vet for Free? What You Need to Know!

Cassidy Sutton

By Cassidy Sutton

a stray cat lying on a sidewalk

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Dr. Paola Cuevas

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So, you have an alley cat near your home, and you’ve noticed that it’s looking less than healthy. Now you’re scratching your head, wondering how in the world you’re going to pay for a vet exam for this cat. Never mind capturing it and getting it in the car—can you even afford to help it?

For starters, pat yourself on the back for wanting to help a sick, homeless animal. Good for you! Now, let’s break down what the vet costs might look like. It’s possible to take a cat to the vet for free. However, this will likely involve taking them to a shelter or low-cost clinic. Before you do, there’s one step you should always take when dealing with stray and lost pets.

The Importance of Scanning for a Microchip

Before considering anything else, you should always check if the stray has a home. Scanning for a microchip is crucial if you find a stray cat, especially in parts of the country where it’s normal to let cats roam outside. Not everyone correctly tags their pets, so don’t assume a cat is a stray just because it’s outside.

Only vet offices and shelters can scan for a microchip. If the cat does have a microchip and you can locate the owner, hooray! You won’t have an obligation to pay for the cat’s health if you don’t want to.

Sometimes a microchip is present, but the contact information isn’t up to date. Use your best judgment if this is the case since there’s no way to contact the owner. However, if the cat is a stray, you and the vet can make the executive decisions for its health.

How Much Does a Basic Veterinary Exam Cost?

cat microchip getting scanned at vet
Image Credit: Lucky Business, Shutterstock

Let’s jump into the nitty-gritty info about vet exams. It’s hard to determine the exact cost of a veterinary exam because of so many variables. Exam prices vary based on the species, location, type of hospital, and additional services.

If your stray cat needs a general exam, you can expect the doctor and veterinary technician to do the following:
  • Weigh your pet
  • Listen to the heart and lungs
  • Check temperature, respiratory rate, and heart rate (vitals)
  • Check the ears, eyes, and mouth
  • Fecal exam (optional)
  • Vaccinations (if necessary)

A spay or neuter procedure isn’t included in a general exam. If you want to spay or neuter a stray cat, you’ll need to budget for that. Depending on what part of the country you’re from, you can expect to pay between the following prices:

Standard Vet Procedures Regional Pricing Sheet for Cats

Procedure West Coast Midwest East Coast
Office Visit $71.95 $54.95 $69.95
Rabies Shot $27.72 $24.24 $27.38
Professional Teeth Cleaning $408.95 $334.95 $401.95
Neuter package (6+ months) $275.95 $241.95 $272.95
Neuter package (less than 6 months) $221.95 $193.95 $218.95
Spay package (6+ months) $374.95 $327.95 $369.95
Spay package (less than 6 months) $318.95 $278.95 $314.95
Euthanasia package $136.95 $127.95 $135.95

Source: https://www.banfield.com/Services/price-estimator

Additional Costs to Anticipate

Like human medicine, veterinarians can be either general practice doctors or specialty doctors. Specialty doctors include emergency, dermatology, surgery (excluding spay and neuter), physical therapy, etc.

If the stray cat you want to help needs emergency care, you’ll have to pay for an emergency exam which can cost around $100–$200, depending on your location and the hospital. Additional services include:

  • IV catheter
  • IV fluids
  • Bloodwork
  • Urine tests
  • X-rays
  • Ultrasound
  • Blood pressure measurement
  • Pain medication
  • Wound treatment and repair
  • Hospitalization

It seems like a lot, but it’s better to be prepared. It’s okay if you can’t afford this. Many people have trouble digesting the cost of veterinary care. Luckily, general exams and vaccines won’t cost as much as emergency care.

Veterinarian at vet clinic giving injection to cat
Image Credit: Tom Wang, Shutterstock

Rural vs. City Veterinary Offices

As we mentioned before, your location will significantly dictate how much veterinary care costs.

You might notice that rural areas tend to be cheaper than urban locations, specifically in the Midwest, where the cost of living is more affordable. The downside is that there are fewer veterinarians available in rural areas, so you might have to drive into the city where there are more competitive veterinary rates.

Shelters and Low-Cost Clinics

Shelters and low-cost clinics are your best bet for affordable veterinary care for a stray cat. Still, you might be limited on what services are available to you.

For instance, some humane societies offer discounted spay and neuter surgeries to low-income families. You’ll have to provide proof of income to qualify. Other low-cost clinics and shelters offer free microchipping, discounted vaccines and exams, dental care, and other services. If a clinic doesn’t offer discounted rates, you can always check if they accept payment plans.

Banfield Pet Hospitals offer medical packages that require a set payment once a month for an entire year. So, you might pay $50 per month for free exams, vaccines, flea and tick prevention, and one dental cleaning. There’s usually a down payment required for these services, but they make veterinary care more accessible.

cats in animal shelter
Image Credit: Yulia Grigoryeva, Shutterstock

How Often Should I Bring a Stray Cat to the Vet?

If you live in an area with a large stray cat colony, this is probably a question you’ll ask yourself often. Is it worth spending money on an animal that’s released back into “the wild” after treatment?

Honestly, that’s up to you. It’s never wrong to want to help a homeless animal in need of medical care. You have to decide for yourself if you want to spend money on a stray cat that you don’t intend on adopting. Plan a medical fund to help with future medical bills if you feel called to help your neighborhood stray cats. That way, you can take care of yourself as well.

You also have to consider specific medical issues. It’s hard to tell without an examination, but serious conditions, like parasites and open wounds, should be treated immediately. Common health concerns to look out for include:

  • Eye and nasal discharge
  • Distended belly
  • Open wounds near the base of the tail and surrounding area

Other Factors to Consider

Even if you’re able to find free veterinary care, you’ll still have to dedicate the time to trap the cat, take it to the vet, and provide after-care.

Trapping a stray cat can take time and deliberate preparation. You must schedule vet appointments around the time of trapping the cat (assuming the cat won’t let you handle it). You also need to plan for a longer vet visit since it’s likely the stray cat will be aggressive.

If you’re going the TNR route (trap-neuter-release), you’ll need to set up a space for recovery before releasing the cat into the wild. This can take some time, so prepare beforehand.

spaying cat
Image Credit: De Visu, Shutterstock

Does Pet Insurance Cover Stray Cats?

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that pet insurance will cover a stray cat unless you’re adopting the cat. If you want the cat to remain a stray, you’ll need to list it as your own pet. So, you may end up paying monthly for pet insurance on a cat you might not see again. However, it never hurts to check with your pet insurance company to see what they offer. You never know what can happen!

What to Do for a Stray Cat’s Health

So, you want to help the stray cats in your community. What do you do? There are some small steps to take that make a big difference.

  • Determine if the cat is actually homeless
  • Offer fresh water and kibble
  • Build a relationship with vet clinics that practice TNR
  • Offer healthy treats like dental chews
  • Provide shelter
  • Take feral cats to animal shelters
  • Find a community in your area that helps stray cats

Conclusion

Helping a stray cat is rewarding, but it doesn’t come without costs. Nothing is ever truly free. Even if you’re not spending money, you will need to invest time in caring for a pet that isn’t yours. Still, it doesn’t need to cost an arm and a leg to treat a stray kitty.

Build relationships with your local shelters, vet clinics, and community members responsible for helping stray animals. If you can’t find a community, you might be inspired to start your own. Getting people involved in helping homeless animals is an excellent way to make the world a better place.


Featured Image Credit: dimitrisvetsikas1969, Pixabay

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