The lowdown on the high cost of veterinary care

You may have seen a recent post on Fox-12 News social media where they asked viewers to submit their veterinary bills to expose the variability of costs in our area. We felt it was important to address this issue with our clients because the expense of medical care for animal companions is something all veterinary practices hear about from clients regularly.

It is true that there’s no state agency that regulates veterinary prices, and that’s because the Federal Trade Commission restricts veterinary practices in the same community from collaborating on prices. To do so would violate federal price-fixing laws.

That said, it’s no secret that the cost of veterinary care has been on the rise in our area and nationwide in the past several decades. Much of this can be attributed to increased overhead to run a small business, and those costs can vary greatly even in the same metropolitan area due to rent/mortgage, taxes, utilities, and other fixed expenses.

Another primary reason for these costs increases is the good news that there have been significant advances in veterinary medicine. These advances enable us to prevent and successfully treat many of the diseases that killed our pets 20 years ago. Our patients are living longer, healthier lives, and yes—that costs more.

Whether your veterinarian is privately-owned like Hillsboro Veterinary Clinic or a corporate-owned facility, they regularly survey and evaluate prices for the communities they serve and base their prices on their own costs to provide care. In fact, many veterinary hospitals offer exams, spays, neuters, and preventative dental care at a loss because they must set prices at what the market will bear. This necessitates that other services be priced to make up the losses from those other procedures.

Also, what many people don’t realize is that a veterinary facility typically must offer a “complete” hospital under one roof—including anesthesia, surgery, pharmacy, radiology, medical equipment, and the trained staff to offer those services. This pushes overhead costs even higher.

Any straight across comparison of veterinary prices on their own ends up being a comparison of apples to oranges because veterinary facilities differ greatly in terms of culture, service, and business strategy. Hospital A may offer 40-minute appointment times, use a slower, fear-free patient approach with lots of personalized care including follow-up calls, have all their x-rays and ultrasounds read by a board-certified radiologist and require Certified Veterinary Technicians (CVTs) to monitor anesthesia patients. Hospital B specializes in high-volume, low-cost care, 10-minute appointments, and may not even have any CVTs or veterinary technicians on staff. While the invoice items might be identical, the services provided are dramatically different. Not all clients are in the market for the same level of care for their pets.

Staffing is another reason why veterinary costs differ so greatly in the same area. CVTs, veterinary assistants, and client care team members are the backbone of any veterinary practice. The cost of hiring skilled, well-trained people for these positions is a significant factor in the cost of care for your pet. Although many people think that the bulk of what they pay for their veterinary visit ends up in the veterinarian’s pocket, that simply isn’t true. Many veterinary hospitals’ net profit is less than 10 cents on each dollar earned.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the average student loan debt of a vet student upon graduation is nearly $144,000, with some students having debt burdens $200,000 – $300,000. With an average starting salary of $73,000/year, the debt-to-income ratio is often over 2:1. This debt load is one contributing factor to the sad statistic that veterinary medicine is the profession with the highest rate of suicide—a recent American Veterinary Medical Association study reported that 1 in 6 veterinarians has considered suicide, which is 3 times the national average.

Another contributing factor is compassion fatigue and the heartbreaking difficulty of end-of-life decisions for their patients, especially those due to financial restrictions. This is truly a profession of compassion and service. Every veterinary professional enters this field because of a fundamental love for animals, with a mission to advocate and care for animals, and serve the community in which we work and live.

One of the best ways to help make veterinary care more affordable is through pet insurance. Pet insurance can help clients be prepared for unexpected veterinary expenses due to illness and injury. Some plans will even pay veterinary hospitals directly—which means pet owners aren’t waiting for reimbursement, and lack of funds doesn’t delay immediate treatment.

We’d like to encourage our clients to consider health insurance for their pets. If you have questions about insurance options or costs of care, please don’t hesitate to send us a message or give us a call at 503-505-7577