Most vets expect full payment from the pet owner at the time of treatment. This is true even if there is a pet insurance policy in place to cover the vet bills. The exception would be if it has been agreed that pet insurance will be paying the vet directly and pre-approval has been sought and received from the insurer. The situation changes slightly depending on whether or not a pet is insured. We explain below.
If a pet is insured
For vet bills on the lower end of the scale, it's typical for the pet owner to pay the vet at the time of service. Then, a claim would subsequently be made to the pet insurance company. (Sometimes the vet will submit the claims application on the owner's behalf; other times it's up to the owner to initiate the claim with the insurer.) a the claim is valid, the pet insurance company would then reimburse the pet owner directly for the claimable amount (e.g. less any excess).
For large vet bills (e.g. thousands of pounds for a surgery), it may be desired to ask if the pet insurance company will pay the vet directly. This alleviates the need for the pet owner to pay the vet at the time of service. To go this route, it's usually the case that the owner will need to clear this with the vet ahead of time, as well as the insurer. A vet may be reluctant to let a pet and its owner leave the premises without having arranged payment via pre-approval from the insurer.
Most pet insurance companies say they're willing to pay the vet directly. But not all vets will accept payment from the vet; a vet might insist that the pet owner settles the bill at the time of service, then claims the amount back for themselves from the insurer. A vet may be more likely to accept direct payments from some insurers, especially if they've done so before. It's always a good idea to enquire with a vet ahead of time.
If a pet is not insured
In circumstances where a pet is not insured, or the insurance simply doesn't cover a particular treatment, the vet will still likely want payment at the time of treatment. This can be particularly distressing if an owner would face financial stress making an upfront payment, say in the case of a particularly large vet bill (e.g. for surgery).
In these circumstances, the owner can enquire whether or not the vet will accept a spreading out of payments to cover the bill over time. Not all vets will be willing to do so, however. Long-term clients will a good history of paying may find their vet is more amenable to doing so. In fact, a vet might not carry out a procedure if they know the pet is not insured and they are unable to collect payment upfront.
This is yet another reason why it's so important to buy pet insurance. The average cost of a pet insurance policy is around £271 per year in the UK, although costs can be significantly higher for some breeds and for premium policies.