Google “free vaccines for life” and you will see page after page of veterinary practices that engage in this very type of program — free vaccines annually for dogs who are patients at these clinics. They all operate a bit differently, but here’s the gist. If you take your dog to the clinic once a year for her wellness visit, vaccines deemed necessary at that time will be given at no cost.
Virtually all of the plans have a one-time enrollment fee. At the Little Critters Veterinary Hospital in Gilbert, Arizona, for instance, it’s $95, while at the Animal Medical Center of Morgantown, West Virginia, it’s $99. Prices can be a little higher on the coasts. In New York City’s Whitestone Veterinary Clinic it’s $209, and in the Boston suburb of Athol,
Massachusetts, the Adams Animal Hospital charges $149.
The other requirement, besides the enrollment fee, is that you cannot back out of bringing your dog to the clinic once a year for an annual wellness visit. Many clinics offer a 30-day grace period, so you have 13 months to remain in the program and continue to get free vaccines. If you go past the grace period, you have to re-enroll, and the clinics do not guarantee that the program will still be available — or be available for the same price. In addition, a sick visit doesn’t count. That is, if between wellness visits your dog falls ill and you have to bring her in, it can’t be considered your once-a-year visit. The annual wellness exam is the only year-to-year visit that allows your pet to remain in the free-vaccine program.
Some clinics have requirements on top of those. For instance, we came across one that insists your pet be microchipped to enroll in the program — not a bad idea whether your dog is in a free vaccine program or not.
Is it a gimmick?
You might think, gee, I have to pay an enrollment fee, and I have to pay for an annual wellness visit even if I don’t want to take my dog in because she’s fine and running around as healthy as ever. And truth be told, yes, by offering this program, veterinary clinics are trying to cultivate an ongoing relationship that insures you continue to bring your dog to them. Putting the most cynical spin on it possible, the free vaccines are a kind of loss leader, if you will — the way a supermarket might sell one product for less than it paid wholesale in order to get you walking up and down the store aisles in general.
But here’s the thing. Dogs need one or another vaccine often enough that enrollment fees for the free-for-life programs tend to pay for themselves within two or three annual visits. If you start bringing your dog to a clinic when she’s young, you could save more than $1,000 in vaccine bills over the course of your pet’s lifetime.
Then, too, while veterinary clinics are making sure they get an annual visit out of you when you enroll in the program, your dog needs an annual visit, no matter what shape she seems in. So many health conditions, just as with people, start out without any noticeable signs and can be picked up only on blood tests and clinical exams. If you wait until such conditions are interfering with your dog’s quality of life, you usually end up paying much more to fix them, if they are even fixable at that point. Get a dog to the doctor’s office early in the game, on the other hand, and whatever might be wrong but not yet noticed by you will be simpler and less costly to tend to — and more likely correctable without irrevocable damage.
So yes, the doctor does get something out of it, but so do you and your dog. If it turns out your pet is perfectly healthy and doesn’t need any medical intervention, you get piece of mind, which you can’t put a price on.
Which vaccinations are covered?
Most practices cover what are considered the core vaccines that all dogs should get: those for rabies, distemper, adenovirus-2, and parvovirus. Not all dogs get boosters for all these diseases at every annual visit. In some states, for instance, rabies shots are required only once every three years. Booster shots to inoculate against the other illnesses are also thought appropriate once every three years for most adult dogs, according to the American Animal Hospital Association.
But on top of the core vaccines, many veterinary practices that participate in free-for-life programs also offer certain of the non-core vaccines for free — or at a steep discount. These include the one against the Bordetella bacteria that can cause a highly contagious cough (which is why it is sometimes called kennel cough, although dogs rarely develop it in kennels because those facilities tend to have strict vaccination requirements). Other non-core vaccines offered in some free-for-life programs include those against the parainfluenza virus and also Leptospira — a pathogen that can cause a life-threatening infection affecting the liver and kidneys. Some clinics also cover the shot that protects against Lyme disease. Those that don’t cover the non-core shots outright often offer discounts ranging from 10 to 50 percent off.
In many instances, even though these are called non-core vaccines, they should be considered core for your particular pet. If your dog walks where wildlife could have urinated, for instance, or hangs around ponds and other standing water, a vaccine against leptospirosis becomes important. Your dog’s doctor can also discuss why the other non-core vaccines may or may not be important for your dog.
All the core vaccines and, in most cases, at least some of the non-core ones will go a long way to keep your dog safe from debilitating, and sometimes deadly, diseases. The bottom line: if the veterinary practice you have chosen for your dog offers a free-for-life program, it makes sense to consider joining. Free and discounted vaccines when necessary; money saved over the long run; an annual visit that your dog should be having, anyway — there’s really no downside.