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Cost of Pet Care Part II

Veterinarians Speak Out on Fees

What do pet parents do when they can’t afford veterinary bills? On Monday, I posted e-mails from readers who shared stories about their pets’ health care bills. For many of us, this is a highly emotional issue.

I have the utmost respect for veterinarians. We adore our cat’s veterinarian and when times have been tough, he let us pay the bill in installments. Except for a badly broken leg when we first found Earl Gray (our cat), and a tooth that had to be pulled last year, Earl has been quite healthy.

When I spoke and e-mailed veterinarians for this post, most of them objected to my term “the high cost of pet care.”  They preferred “the cost of quality care.” They also pointed out how far veterinary medicine has come.

“Twenty years ago pet owners did not have access (in most areas) to MRI and CT machines for pets, and the number of board certified specialists in an area was very limited,” says Cary M. Waterhouse, DVM and owner of Lake Union Veterinary Clinic in Seattle. “Pet owners can now get care that rivals what they receive themselves. Even general practitioners (like myself) are expanding beyond the stereotypical exam and shots role and becoming more specialized within their practice (with advanced training and equipment). This level of training and experience comes with a cost, but it is still a bargain as far as medicine is concerned (look at your own medical bills before insurance kicks in to see what I am talking about).”

Veterinarians Speak Out
Jennie Rubenstein, DVM, at Jockey Hollow Veterinary Practice in New Milford, NY, agrees. “Veterinarians are very sympathetic to pet owners and often give away our time and experience. Most veterinary hospitals work out payment plans with clients, offer credit card options from companies like Care Credit, or discuss other options to pet care.”

“Pets are considered property in the eye of the law. Until fairly recently, pets were not considered part of the family. Veterinary care did not involve the same level of sophistication that is considered the standard of care today. In fact, sickly pets were readily destroyed rather than treated for many of the conditions that are now considered routine to treat. Since pets are increasingly considered family members, veterinarians are performing more sophisticated medicine, surgery, and intervention. Unfortunately, this comes with a price. Veterinary medicine is not a high money making profession. We do it because we love people and their pets. We do it while working long hours with a high degree of client contact and incredible expense (drug inventory, laboratory costs, insurance protection, and labor for example).”

Comparing Vet and Medical Bills
Regarding Monday’s post where a reader wrote about a $12,000 bill to pay for a dog’s (Rufus’) hip replacement, Dr. Rubenstein said, “The example you cited is for a pet that has severe developmental problems. The option to destroy this pet would have seemed normal even 10 years ago. Now we can fix these problems. But trust me, the surgery requires expertise (3 years of additional veterinary training, continuing education wet labs, expensive orthopedic equipment, state of the art surgery rooms and post-operative rehabilitation and pain management). The $12,000 price tag is tame compared to an equivalent fee charged by a human orthopedic surgeon. Yet there is no difference in the surgery. In fact, a veterinarian must stock more sizes of bone plates and pins to accommodate the extreme variation in pet size and conformation seen in veterinary medicine.”

Payment Plans
“For clients who are faced with a costly invoice for an unexpected emergency or devastating illness, our clinics would work with clients as best as we could, but there needs to be responsibility and recourse on both sides of the equation,” says Thomas Dock, Certified Veterinary Journalist, Reporter Relations Manager at the Veterinary News Network,  and a veterinary technician.

“Fortunately, your experience worked out well for you (my vet let us pay the $2,500 bill for Earl Gray’s broken leg in installments) and you made the responsible choice to pay the veterinarian in a timely manner. Again, in my experience, the more common case is that the veterinarian performs the services and then sees only a portion, if any, of the money.”

“Although it’s impossible to predict accidents or emergency situations, pet owners can help themselves and their pets by following wellness guidelines given by their veterinarian and by maintaining a good relationship with the veterinarian.  Too often, pet owners are scrambling to even find a veterinarian because they have neglected to keep up with their pet’s routine care, like vaccines or heartworm prevention.”

When All Else Fails
Dr. Waterhouse advises people to plan for the worst. “Take out a savings plan for your pet,” he says. “Or stash some money away so that if or when something happens, you are prepared. Get an insurance plan right away and keep it current. (Most won’t cover a pre-existing condition). Unfortunately (especially today), economic constraints can make an unexpected bill quite the burden.  For clients that I have a good relationship with I will take payments and post-dated checks, but this is the exception rather than the rule.”

These grant organizations are often inundated with requests. Still, it’s worth a try. Check out AAHA’s Helping Pets Fund or In Memory of Magic.

9 comments to Cost of Pet Care Part II

  • The biggest problems we see with high fees and client dissatisfaction arise from poor communication. Clients often want their veterinarian to do everything for their pet to make it well. I tell my clients that the current state of veterinary medicine is that we can do almost everything for your pet that your physician can do for you. However, we educate the client so that they know that this will come at a cost. Once they know what their treatment options are and the relative costs of each option as well as the likelihood of success with each option, they can make an informed choice. It is not reasonable for clients to expect state of the art care at bargain basement prices. It is not ethical (in my opinion) for a veterinarian to only offer only one option and then leave a pet and an owner high and dry if that option is not affordable.

  • I think the best advice in this post came from Mr. Dock: “Although it’s impossible to predict accidents or emergency situations, pet owners can help themselves and their pets by following wellness guidelines given by their veterinarian and by maintaining a good relationship with the veterinarian. Too often, pet owners are scrambling to even find a veterinarian because they have neglected to keep up with their pet’s routine care, like vaccines or heartworm prevention.”

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kevin Myers, Michele Hollow, Michele Hollow, Michele Hollow, Michele Hollow and others. Michele Hollow said: @Scottsdale_Vet Thanks for the RTs about parts i and Ii on the cost of pet care. http://bit.ly/bRq4i4 […]

  • Rod…thanks for the compliment…I appreciate that.

    Dr. Niesenbaum…awesome comment. Poor communications is often a leading cause of these types of disputes. Had a case once (bull mastiff pup, severe pyoderma, elbow dysplasia, possibly some type of immune suppression) where the owner convinced our front office staff that the pet insurance would pay us instead of reimbursing her. Her total invoice was in excess of $2500 and, due to her policy choice, she ended up receiving a check for less than $600. We never did recover the rest of the bill.

    We also linked this blog at our VNN Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/PetDocsOnCall?ref=ts#!/VeterinaryNewsNetwork?ref=ts

  • Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by dogloversdigest: RT @doggybytes Cost of Pet Care Part II http://bit.ly/bRq4i4 via @michelechollow…

  • Iris Zinck

    It is great to see this issue getting so much attention!

    I touched on some other strategies that pet owners may want to consider in an article I wrote some time ago. . . since they haven’t all been echoed here yet, you may want to read it. Here is a link:

    http://nhpetsonline.com/articles/practical-financial-and-estate-planning-for-pets/

  • I have read and heard from several sources that veterinary medicine is the fastest advancing medical field out there. Whether this is driven by pet owners demanding more for their pets or just the greater focus on research I am not sure. To me its no surprise that the costs are going to rise. I have been very impressed by the vets I know balancing what is possible with what is fiscally responsible. It is a tough position to be in when you are talking about a member of the family but I think it would be negligent to avoid the topic of costs when advising a pet owner.