Is Veterinary Care Too Expensive?

I've combed the Internet to see what America thinks about the state of their wallet at the vet. What do I find? Anger and frustration. From both sides.

veterinarian checking dachshund
The majority of veterinarians do what we do because we love it, in the face of major frustrations about the state of veterinary medicine.

Wow, I thought this would be a fairly straightforward post to write. Yikes, was I so wrong.

Is veterinary care too expensive? I’ve spent the weekend combing the Internet about what America thinks about the state of their wallet at the vet. What do I mostly find? Anger and frustration. From both sides of the exam table.

Many clients think they’re getting raked over hot coals, like being tortured in an episode of Game of Dog & Cat Thrones. Meanwhile, veterinarians are exhausted trying to do the best job possible for the pet while continually dealing with owners’ financial woes and complaints.

No wonder it’s an angry web of frustration and hostility out there. Both sides have validity. And there is no simple answer.

Anger Management 101

Here’s a brief example of the public’s anger and misconceptions on the Internet:

“…blah, blah…cost $750. Is it too much? It’s way too much for the average person. I know several vet clinic owners who are millionaires…they jack up procedure fees…mark stuff up 400%…they line their pockets and rape customers for whatever they can get. “

And a typical veterinarian’s response:

“Hearing no respect for veterinarians is heartbreaking. I’ve practiced for 30 years, been injured several times…the work is hard and nasty…and everyone thinks we should do it for free. No wonder vets now have the highest suicide rate…”

Eek, we’re getting bleak out there. Can we lighten up a little?

The Truth About Veterinarians

The majority of us do what we do because we love it, in the face of major frustrations about the state of veterinary medicine.

Our salaries are lower than those of comparable professions (Recruiter.com, AVMA, etc.) and our educational loan debt is often much higher than what is financially sound. (Loan debt should not be more than twice your starting salary; ours is often close to triple.) We really do enter vet school because we want to help animals — yet financially, becoming a veterinarian today is a questionable investment. We do it anyway.

The suicide comment refers to a British study in 2010 and an Australian study, which found the suicide rate to be four times as likely in veterinarians as the general public, and double that of other health care professionals. I lost three people in my veterinary class to suicide.

In all health fields, people who are compassionate, responsible and highly intelligent may also be driven to perfection, depression and burnout. Although the suicide rate in American veterinarians has not been carefully studied, compassion burnout among veterinarians is a big problem. Even when we know what the pet needs, our hands may be tied and we feel frustrated we can’t do our job or, worse, we feel we have failed our patients. On some days, being a vet is like being a physician in a third-world country or a war zone.

Salaries and Profit Margin

Median salaries for veterinarians are less than those in similar professions that require advanced training and expensive schooling. Physicians, psychiatrists, dentists, attorneys and even optometrists are all better paid.

If we’re practice owners, average profit is 12 percent compared to 25 to 35 percent for other professions. Overhead is high. Think about your veterinary practice — the building, the staff, the X-ray, the blood machines, the medical supplies, the dental equipment. This list is just the tip of the iceberg. Think about a psychiatrist. There are two chairs in a room.

Profession Median Salary Business Revenues
Veterinarians $92,000 12 percent
Dentists $159,000 23 percent
Physicians $187,000 36 percent
Attorneys $137,000 36 percent
Optometrists $110,000 29 percent

Keep in mind, I said median salary. Of course you may know of a Mercedes-driving veterinary surgeon with the biggest house in town, but most of you visit a hard-working vet driving a Subaru, paying off student loans instead of a mortgage.

We can do a lot more for your pets today than in the past, when vets often handed out death sentences without options and cats lived an average of eight years. But these medical advancements come with a price.

You and your vet have to be on the same page and talk turkey about the price of Turkey’s bladder stones, or Beeswax’s belly and her need for an abdominal ultrasound. Can you afford the surgery and tests? Are there other options? If you don’t feel comfortable about the options or the conversation with your vet, get another opinion.

Voice of reason: There are all kinds of vets out there, all kinds of hospitals and all kinds of owners. Believe me. I’ve been associated with lots of hospitals and have complaints of my own about pricing and excessive treatment. I’ve seen it all. Find the right fit for you and your pet.

So What’s the Answer?

Pet insurance will not solve all veterinary expense problems, but it will help a great deal. The statistics don’t lie. Clients with pet insurance bring their pets to the vet more frequently and go further with diagnostics and treatment.

I look at it this way. Our pets are considered part of our family more than ever before. Veterinary medicine has improved dramatically, and we respect quality-of-life issues in our pets. So we care for them more like family members…without health insurance. If you were unfortunate enough to let your children and teenagers run around without health insurance, could you sleep easily at night?

If more pets were insured, owners would be better equipped, both emotionally and financially, to deal with their illnesses and aging years.

O-Paw-Paw-Care for all pets! Seriously, no matter what your political views of our current health care situation, if everyone could get the health care he or she deserved, the world would be a better place. If most pet owners had even catastrophic insurance for their pet, the anger and frustration felt by owner and veterinarian would be greatly reduced in times of pet health crises.

My Prediction?

I believe pet insurance will become more widely used and many of the “kinks” worked out. I recommend you research some policies now and ask your vet for input. The integrity of the companies vary, as do the policies. Taking the first step is a great thing to do.

Another prediction? Experts think the profession will turn more corporate in the next decade. It already is. Younger vets can’t afford to invest in the current business model, buy existing practices, or put up with the headaches and financial hardship of practice ownership.

Who will lose out? You will — the pet owner. The veterinary corporations are, well, corporations. And in my book, I do not agree with a recent failed presidential candidate who said “corporations are people, my friend.” They are not people. Veterinarians are people. Corporations are faceless entities out to make a profit.

The veterinary corporations are trying to lose the “people” in veterinary medicine, working to improve that bottom line by controlling the market and charging you more. When most veterinarians have no choice but to be employed by Vet-o-Mart Animal Hospital, Inc., the money-grubbing comments about the profession may be based in truth.

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