Complaints about vet charges are common. Are they justified?

 

This article is posted as part of PGAA’s curation efforts. This was originally posted at Boston Terrier Network

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at veterinarians is the high cost of pet care. Pet owners are equally likely to praise veterinarians for delivering high quality treatment as they are to lament the high prices of veterinary care and perceived poor value offered by veterinary practices. Many pet owners feel that some veterinary treatments and procedures are significantly overpriced.

No one should deny vets the right to earn a living. Yet, many pet owners believe that vets may be exploiting the emotional bond between pets and their owners to maximize profit.

C.C. commented, “I think many vets are in it for the almighty dollar, it makes me sad that a lot of them have lost the true meaning of what being a vet is all about.”

Ken McMillan, DVM, a practicing vet of 32 years, responded, “I respectfully disagree. 95% of us (vets) are in our field because of the pets. There are a small percentage of the vets that are in the field for the money. We definitely do not get rich by being a veterinarian. I would say most vets live a normal middle-class life.” Dr. McMillan went on to explain, “We often have new clients that we have never met and they want credit as they have no cash? It’s a horrible way to start a relationship with a veterinary practice, in my opinion.”

Most vets are kind, passionate people who do have a business to run. The reality is that a fair percentage of vets are not great businessmen … and the credit issue for poor people has been abused. In human medicine, we know that most medical procedures, however routine, are extremely expensive. It is therefore not surprising that we find a similar level of cost associated with veterinary procedures, such as surgery.

The veterinary business is just that: a business. In order to pay its staff, maintain its premises, pay its professional indemnity insurance and purchase necessary equipment and supplies, the veterinary practice must collect a yearly amount at least equal to its expenses. However, to be a sustainable business, the practice needs to make a profit. If it fails to at least break even, it will fail like any other business.

Connie Parker remarked, “The animal hospital we use is reasonable. As a foster mom and frequent client of the vet hospital, they cut us some slack on a regular basis by giving us discounts. We have a really good relationship. I can order meds from places like Drs. Foster and Smith and the vet will sign off on it. We rarely have less than 10 dogs here. It really helps to make ends meet. Basically, I love the people at Appalachian Animal Hospital…”

Veterinary surgeons, like lawyers, operate on a time basis. The only product they have to sell is their expertise for which they charge on a time-incurred basis. In order to qualify, vets need to undergo a six year period of study. Given the duration of qualification and the lengthy hours worked they do not equate to the sort of money associated with other similarly qualified professionals.

Dr. McMillan explained one of the problems that vets face, “Well, part of the issue is the cost of education. The average veterinary student comes out of school with $160,000 of debt in student loans. Tuition costs anywhere from $25,000 for in-state tuition to $45,000 for out-of-state tuition (per year). Also, the average starting salary (of a vet) is anywhere from $50,000 to $55,000 per year. You also have to figure many states are raising minimum wage rates to anywhere from $10 to even $15 per hour (which would affect kennel staff, receptionists, and other veterinary hospital support staff). Costs of drugs and overhead are not free for practice owners so they have to run their practice as a business.

On the human side (of medicine), you have insurance companies, Medicare, Medicaid, and state supported programs to pay bills for patients. Not true for veterinarians! Also, if practices weren’t run as businesses, they would go bankrupt. Think about this the next time you have good service and have a veterinary bill! The reality is the vast majority (of vets) do not go into the field to get rich… (All) of the people in my field have bills to pay and families to raise. It isn’t free folks, and veterinary medicine is a bargain compared to our human counterparts who are spiraling out of control. That is why we have a health care crisis in our country.

Apart from staff salaries, there are numerous costs associated with maintaining a modern veterinary practice. Veterinary equipment is not just confined to the things visible to the client. Most surgeries are quasi-hospitals and that means having to make a significant investment in surgical equipment and X-ray machines and the like, many of which cost tens of thousands of dollars; the cost of this sort of investment will ultimately be borne by the client like in any other type of business.”

Several other of our friends on social media also spoke up with their views about the cost of vet care:

Tina Phelps Weyler observed, “…My vet does ongoing training, pays his people decent (sic), is ALWAYS available, does not always buy the latest greatest equipment. He has what’s needed: good x-ray, great surgery and excellent care. I’d pay more if necessary…”

Rob Salter, “Let’s face it – a good Veterinary practice is worth every penny. Animal Hospitals have big overhead, and that financial fact doesn’t always mean they do what is best for the PAYER and the PATIENT!”

Autumn Boga, “It isn’t just a service, it IS a business. These highly trained professionals have mortgages to pay and children to pay for just like everyone else. There is so much overhead people don’t realize. Most vets donate a lot of time and often funds saving animals less fortunate than ours. Do your homework on vets like you would any doctor or so called “service”.

Patricia Wade-Strickland shared, “My boys have been going to the same Animal Hospital since they were tiny babies. Yes, they have increased prices over the past 11 years… That being said, they HAVE cut me a few breaks over the years when most needed. When my two boys need prescriptions called in, they promptly do so… They have NEVER withheld advice, information or availability when needed. They’re not the cheapest in town, but they’re not the most expensive either. I trust all three vets there, and I am not willing to change even if I found a place closer to home and less expensive. The staff and vets truly care about their clients. When an owner loses their baby, they feel grief also. I’ve had two of the vets almost cry WITH me…”

Some areas of veterinary medicine are more expensive due to the equipment and/or amount of staff required. Surgeries are always expensive because anesthesia is involved and numerous machines that monitor blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen level are required as well as oxygen masks, IVs, heating pads, intubation kits and many other things in the sterile environment of the surgery room. Emergency services are always expensive because you have to pay extra to veterinarians, veterinary technicians and veterinary assistants to work overnight shifts. Also, a lot of expensive equipment is needed. One type of surgery that can be expensive and may or may not require emergency services is the C-section for dogs.

As Catherine Woodman explains, “They… have to take into consideration the amount of staff on standby: the tech and Dr performing the surgery and monitoring the pet, the amount (sic) of techs and staff on standby waiting for the puppies and kittens to come, to ensure we give each and every one of them our (sic) 100% attention so they have the best chance of survival for the whole litter. Pretty much 1 staff member per (puppy or kitten).”

Lisa Kongsvik Keith bemoans, “I am sick and tired of people complaining about the price of vet care. Many people have unrealistic expectations for how much vet care should cost. You need to consider that most people don’t have pet insurance compared to having health insurance for doctors. So, while a doctor’s appointment may cost $25 or $30, because insurance pays the rest, a vet appointment may cost $200, because there’s no insurance to help with the cost. Human doctors charge much more for medical care but we don’t typically see those costs, because we pay our co-pay and are done with it. We need our vets to keep our pets healthy, heal them from illnesses and fix them up when they get hurt!”

Pet owners may be paying more because more vets are incorporating a holistic approach by looking at the overall health of the animal and by offering complementary treatments such as acupuncture, laser therapy, physical therapy, water therapy, Reiki, canine massage therapy and other effective treatments that work well with traditional medicine. Vets have been encouraging preventative care for a number of years with varying degrees of success.

The foundation of preventative care is the yearly physical exam and vaccinations. This gives the vet the opportunity to examine the pet by checking all of the body systems. Many times illnesses or diseases can be caught early this way. In addition, vaccinations that need to be updated can be administered. However, many people balk at bringing their pets in yearly for an exam and vaccinations. They think it’s unnecessary and is the vet’s way of making more money. Many people don’t take their pets to the vet unless it’s absolutely necessary – the pet is really sick or badly injured.

Going corporate

The nature of the vet practice has been changing over the past 10 years or so as fewer are owned by veterinarians or hospital practice managers and they are increasingly ‘going corporate.’ The culture and business model of a corporate veterinary hospital is vastly different from that of a veterinarian and/or hospital practice manager owned hospital.

Dr. McMillan discussed his experience, “I have worked corporate medicine before and it is good and bad. The bad is there is an emphasis on money and pressure on vets to produce. The positive is better equipped hospitals. With that said, as a vet, you can still practice with personal ethics. I always practice with a good foundation of ethics and if you do things correctly, money takes care of itself.”

Some veterinary practices have had to increase and diversify their services in order to shore up their revenue streams. New services offered may include some of the following: complementary treatments (acupuncture, physical therapy, Reiki, water therapy, later therapy, canine massage therapy), Grooming, Boarding, Doggie Daycare, Veterinary Behavioral consults, MRI and CT scans, Oncology, Neurology, Internal Medicine, Orthopedics, Exotic Pets, Avians (birds), Reptiles, Ophthalmology, Dermatology, Cardiology, Specialty Surgery (advanced surgery).

Be sure to ask questions and, where appropriate, get a second opinion before agreeing to any expensive products or invasive procedures for your pet. We’ve identified a few common areas of upselling that you should generally question before approving: Unnecessary diagnostic tests that don’t affect treatment decisions (MRI, CT), surgeries on geriatric pets, oncology services – weigh benefit vs. risk.

More thoughts from Veterinary professionals:

Dr. McMillan stated, “I definitely did not become a vet for the money. I have been in practice for 32 years and still love what I do. I am not rich by any means and live an average middle-class life.

What really aggravates me is when a client comes in smelling of cigarettes or alcohol and then complains that they have no money. They can afford cigarettes or alcohol that destroys their health, but they can’t afford health care for their pet, with overweight children stuffing their mouths with McDonalds. Sound far-fetched? We see it routinely. Most people never think about this, but a pet is a luxury, not a necessity. Personally, I wish people would have to prove that they can afford to even feed a pet and provide basic medical care for a pet before they can own one. Nothing more aggravating than a person coming in with a pet with parvo and the excuse is that they could not afford vaccines as prevention and then the vet is “ucaring” because they will not extend credit or treat the pet for “Free”. It is a fairly common scenario.”

Lisa Kongsvik Keith replies, “…This is my exact feeling about people who cry poverty about not being able to afford vet care and yet they smoke (and second-hand smoke, by the way, is very dangerous to all pets – birds can drop dead from it, and other pets, especially cats, dogs, and rabbits that have been studied the most can develop lung cancer, asthma, and other lung and heart diseases) and drink and have a big screen TV’s in every room. They haven’t prioritized their pet in their life. They spend their money on frivolous, unnecessary things, and then either have their hand out or post GoFundMe’s, because the “mean vet” wouldn’t let them pay in installments or bill them. Of course, they are always denied for Care Credit because they have horrible credit. And everyone bashes the vet. I don’t want anything bad to happen to their pet, but I refuse to contribute to these people. Yet, they almost always get contributions. And the cycle of blaming the vet and enabling the irresponsible pet owner continues. I too wish that people had to pass a test on pet care knowledge and prove they had money enough to care for their pet(s). People who say that vets are in it for the money need a big dose of reality. They have no idea how a vet practice works and the financials of the vet business. It is outrageous to me that (the 2 myths) “vets are only in it for the money” and “the vet doesn’t care if my dog/cat dies because he won’t give me credit or bill me” just keep going.”

What can we as pet owners do to reduce the cost of veterinary treatment?

  1. First, you can purchase pet insurance. There are many choices now, so make sure you research the various options to find the one that best fits your needs, your pet’s needs, and your budget. As with most things in life, you tend to get what you pay for.
  2. Put vet care in your budget. Lisa Kongsvik Keith remarked, “…when people (say they can’t afford) vet care, I wonder if they have three big screen TV’s in their house and cable. Do they smoke and drink? Do they go out to dinner a lot? Do they have fancy cars and expensive vacations? Because, I sure don’t. I plan for yearly vet care for all of my pets, plus emergencies. So, don’t go blaming vets when they aren’t giving away services for free (no one does that!!). Blame the pet owner who didn’t think their pet was important enough to give up something frivolous in their budget and prioritize vet care. And if they can’t give up anything and are truly destitute then they can’t afford to care for a pet.”
  3. Be proactive – prevention is better than cure! Take your pet in for a yearly physical and vaccinations.
  4. Feed high quality pet food (certain cheap brands such as Wal-Mart, Ol’ Roy, store brands, and Beneful are not nutritious at all). There are a number of good choices. Your vet can help you decide what to feed your pet.
  5. Keep your pet fit and healthy with regular exercise. Don’t overfeed your pet treats and don’t feed your pet people food. Obesity in pets is the cause of many illnesses, as well as a shorter lifespan.
  6. Act quickly if your pet is sick, injured or seems ‘off’ – you are usually the best judge of your pet’s well-being. So if you are concerned, do not wait until the condition has worsened.
  7. Remember to give your pets a monthly heartworm preventative, as well as a monthly flea and tick preventative. These parasites can cause significant disease.
  8. Apply for Care Credit. This is a credit card just for human medical care, human dental care and pet vet care. Like a regular credit card, you are assigned a limit. You can charge up to that limit. You have either 6, 12 or 18 months to pay it off. The interest rate is reasonable. If you have this ahead of time, you won’t be scrambling for money in an emergency.
  9. Shop around for the best veterinary practice. The veterinary industry is hugely competitive. If you do not like the pricing or standard of care at your current veterinary practice, find another one.

Article provided by: Lisa Kongsvik Keith

Edited by: Julie Bradford

Final edit adapted by: Jan Mitchel

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Re-positing is done with the permission of Donna Curtin of the Boston Terrier Network — full of Boston Terrier and canine information, news, and adoptables. Copyright © 2017. Boston Terrier Network.