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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13 comments

  1. Donna Reply

    I think the problem stems with people’s perception of worth. They think that because it is a cat or dog or hamster, etc they should not be charged high fees to treat them. After all they are NOT humans. And therein lies the rub. I personally know people who have racked up thousands of dollars, even tens of thousands in vet bills for their animals, horses, cats, dogs,etc. and put it on their charge card. Taking years to pay it off at an obscene interest rate. But if you love your furry kids, you will do anything you can to ease their pain, make them well, no matter what. And true not all owners have that kind of money and will opt to put their animal down. It is heart wrenching. I think Pet Insurance is a great first step to help with the expense of pet health care.

    i am a graphic designer, and I cannot tell you how many people think what I do (for over 30 years) should be free or at a ridiculous low fee. It is all about worth perception.

    Vets have overhead, diagnostic machines, medical supplies, all of which cost money. To expect pet care for free is ludicrous.

    i just recently brought my two fur babies in to Dr. Deb and received the best care I could ever have asked for, ever! Was it expensive, to me yes, only because I am unemployed (LOL) but totally reasonable. And I KNOW that when I have to bring them in, they will get quality care and work with me on paying an unexpected vet bill.

    You cannot put a price tag on compassion. If the “squeak” has gone from your Vet’s “toy” then it is time for them to retire and for you to find one who is compassionate.

    1. Running Sideways Reply

      “You cannot put a price tag on compassion.”

      I hate that expression. You absolutely can put a price on compassion.

      It’s completely out of touch with reality to think otherwise, Disney-like if you will. Live within your means and don’t jeopardize your own current or future financial health.

  2. Andrea Szabo Reply

    I have been looking at articles about this topic because I am in a situation with a high estimate for my dog’s surgery and still in shock. I am trying to understand why it is so high and still not convinced. I am not trying to argue the points in the article, just trying to make sense of this. I never expected any type of care for my dog(s) to be free. Just not as high as it is to become a question of “all we can afford is to put her down?” Is there nothing in between top treatment or good bye? I think these articles are very one sided. Yes I understand that “some people don’t WANT to pay the price”, I bet most can’t afford it, and if “the vet takes what the pet owner can afford, how is that fair to the next customer”? I think what would be fair is to not put every customer into the same proverbial hat and decide on a case by case basis. One of my dogs passed away 2 years ago at the tender age of 17. In his 10 years of his life with us, he cost us about 40K. There were times when we thought we would collapse under the bills in the last few years of his life, but we always somehow managed with insurance, taking out RRSP, cancelling my cell phone service, getting a second job, anything to save the bucks. In our 10 years of history with the same vet, she recognized that we had the will and always found the way but pretty much lost that elusive car that we needed, or vacations we didn’t have for years. She did give us payment plans, and options that could take us over the hump until finances improved, because we were faithful returning customers. Now our other dog is closely behind our first with the price tag at 14 (?) years old (not sure how old she is) and requiring surgery that could potentially cure her. I feel judged when I say we can’t cough up $7000 so she can start the pre-op work up and get the surgery 5 days later, because I don’t WANT to pay or will NEVER pay if a payment plan is offered. I never expected anything for free and always paid when I said I would and when. We used up most of the insurance and the adjustor won’t tell me how much of the coverage is left in what illness categories. As if I could change her diagnosis to something totally unrelated. We will come up with the money somehow, minus prostituting myself at the corner. We rented out all of our bedrooms and we sleep in an unfinished basement with 2 small kids and our sick dog without a bathroom. I am not saying this to feel sorry for us. We will be OK one way or another. I hope our payment history with his colleague will somehow reassure the vet that he is not in danger of not getting paid, we just need a little help to be able climb out of a financial hole with DIGNITY. I appreciate what vets do, but I will never understand why having pets has to be so expensive that it literally breaks us. I am sorry if vets feel unappreciated. I know the feeling, we have a business to run too. Our clients’ businesses had a crash recently due to a change in government policy. We had to adjust our prices or get out of business. We chose to go with the current times and reduced prices, gave credit and time to pay where it was needed. Those clients’ businesses will turn around and will pay what they owe and our finances will turn for the better too. We know they are not leaving us, we know why they are in the shoes they are in at the moment. Perception of worth? No. Things are worth different $ at different times. Especially services. Even for different people at the same time. A 5K bill may be nothing for one and $500 could break another, leaving the pet to be put down. And the vet would send the owner away, because he doesn’t want to put a pet down? House prices go up and down. Interest rates go up and down. Health care salaries get frozen, health care costs and coverages go up and down. Some people get subsidies when they need it. Others don’t get any help based on their incomes.
    I didn’t feel compassion, I didn’t get alternative advice, I was wondering what next, when the people who had to talk to me walked out of the office. Call us when you are ready (i.e. when you have the money) to make the appointment. Is this a wonder why people think it’s all about the money? Maybe they felt bad. Trust me I felt worse. It’s my dog, our history and bond, my bank account, and my kids are not getting their supplements this month and eat chilly most of the days because that’s the only food that’s gluten free egg free dairy free and soy free and all the other stuff they are not allowed to eat. But we manage somehow and my kids have to have priority over my dog even if it kills me. This is not my regular veterinary clinic since there they don’t have the facilities to do surgery. The appointment was a waste of time that required us to drive for hours to the clinic and then home with nothing accomplished but leaving us stressed. If I had known the price tag I would have been prepared differently. I have to say for the record, I think my dog will get top treatment when she does, I even think it will be better than a person would get. The specimen will be sent to another country because that’s where the best pathologist is. Seriously? I think that’s over the top.

    1. Debora lichtenberg Reply

      It’s difficult for me to follow the story, but it sounds like you are in a bind with a referral practice. Unforunately, I must agree with you that many of the estimates are shocking.
      Having absolutely no idea what your pet’s circumstances are, could you seek yet another opinion? Some “general” practices, for example, do a lot of high quality surgeries or diagnostics and are not as expensive as specialty practices.

      1. Andrea Szabo Reply

        Yes I couldn’t help keeping it to myself and my message got really long winded. We won’t be looking for a second opinion. I don’t have the time and energy left. We got all our questions answered and every answer we had so far was to satisfaction and we understand. Minus the insurance; they didn’t give any useful information. We got over the initial shock and we were able to discuss payment options which helps a lot. As much as I felt left alone last week, I am more comfortable with the decisions today, and the fact that they really tried to understand where we were coming from and that helped a lot to calm us down. As I said I am sure she will get the best treatment. We also discussed options when surgery will not be advisable but we won’t know for another few weeks. It all depends on the test results and it’s true no one really knows how much it will cost at the end, it can go either way. No surgery and little cost with a short life left, or the expense of surgery but a longer healthy life. We will have to find ways to cope either way. Well, close to end of life decisions are never easy and simple and for me mixing it with $ signs can almost always end with frustration. We hope for no more emergencies for a while in the near future. If my first impression was to just get the money, my second impressions is the opposite. You could be right about the fact that they were feeling bad about the situation and didn’t know how to deal with my feelings on the spot. The shock wore off and I am more rational about it today. Thank you for your response.

        1. Daisy Reply

          I am saddened by your situation, but I don’t advise anyone to allow their standard of living to change for a dog, especially when raising children. I hope your dog is well.

          1. Andrea Szabo Reply

            Thank you. My dog passed away. We couldn’t afford the surgeries she needed. Both my dogs came before we had kids. We got them because we were told we couldn’t have kids so we gave it a lot of thought and consideration. I got lucky and ended up with twins. We made a commitment to these dogs and we were not going to give them back. If we had known I was going to have any kids, especially twins, we would not have gotten any dog before. In fact we specifically wanted an old dog (and then another) knowing that they were not going to last long. Well the first one lived with us for 10 years instead of the few that were predicted due to his health issues. I totally agree about your comment about not changing standard of living – if you have control over it.

  3. Running Sideways Reply

    This is really disheartening. Have we reached the stage where those of lower economic means, simply cannot or should not have a pet dog or cat? That only those whom are well off, should take on pet responsibility? Perhaps…

    Pet Insurance – $20 – $50 / month, depending on coverage, deductible, and % reimbursement. This rate increases on a yearly basis, as Fluffy or Fido get older, at an alarming minimum 7%. Routine expenses of course, are not covered. It’s meant as protection in the event of an unexpected accident or illness such that surgery or non-routine treatment is required.
    It’s not unheard of to have a $1,500 to $5,000 or more, procedure.
    Putting money under your mattress or in a Fluffy savings account simply doesn’t cut it anymore. It may very well not be enough.

    Then, there’s the routine costs each and every year on top of that insurance. It adds up.

    I highly suspect many whom have pets are doing the bare minimal – buying the least expensive food they can find – that unfortunately include high carbs, grains, gluten loaded goodies etc. Ignoring or postponing vet.visits. Then become shocked when their pet comes in suffering from all manner of ailments. At that point – many very likely walk away. You’re right, they should have never owned a pet. Or, the flip side – they’re incredibly lucky to have a cat that had great genetics and never needed a visit. It’s quite a gamble.

    So, how do those women or men with dozens upon dozens of cats afford care? I guess they probably hope there’s enough mice running around for the cats to feed on. They likely have very short lives as well.

  4. River56 Reply

    It used to be that people with fairly low incomes could afford to have animals and keep pets. I will get a lot of grief for this but I believe that veterinary costs are so high because standards of care have risen to be close to that of humans and pet owners and vets alike think pets should have this care. If we can’t afford healthcare for people, it makes sense pet care, using these advanced technologies, is going to be unaffordable as well.

    I was recently told my 18 yr old cat ($300 in bloodwork) with a grade 4/6 heart murmur needed a heart ultrasound and consult with a cardiologist ($450) if he was to undergo dental surgery ($850+). Really? Whatever happened to clinical judgement? Or a chest xray and an EKG done in the office? When asked about the option of palliative chronic pain management for dental pain, I was told that wasn’t done. Why not? This is a very common dilemma–bad heart/kidneys and bad teeth. A $60 bottle of tramadol that will last over half the year is going to be my old cat’s treatment, along with pureed, warm food and low stress.

  5. celtblood Reply

    No doubt, part of the problem is education itself. Based on the direction I’ve seen our “education system” take in the last two or three decades, I wonder how many completely unnecessary studies are being required to obtain a vet license. If it’s anything like many other areas of study I’m aware of, it’s probably a lot. And how much are these “educational institutions” charging now? That, too, seems to be a big problem for modern Americans. Yes, quite a bit of these skyrocketing costs may be due to vets who insist on having more expensive equipment, or who charge more than they need to, or require visits by the pet itself when all that’s really necessary is to sell the medicine to the owner. But my opinion is that the requirements and expenses of veterinary school have increased by a large margin when they shouldn’t have. In the end, as usual, it’s the consumer who gets hurt, and tragically the pets themselves when their owners can no longer afford even basic healthcare.

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      I will say that the advent of pet health insurance has helped a lot of people – I just wish there was a way to make it more widely known that it’s available. Had I had this when my dog was ill, it would have made a huge difference.

      My vet was great with my dog, and very transparent with me when it came to her medical costs. They gave me a lot of stuff for “free” to try and help offset her medical expenses, including x-rays and sample medication. Not being in the field of veterinary medicine, it’s hard for me to say why some things cost so much. I know when my dog was tested for myasthenia gravis, the test itself was $200. I asked my vet why and he said that is close to what the lab charged the office to run the test, if I recall correctly. (It was several years ago.)

  6. nativecutie Reply

    Its a fine line. As a medical professional myself that is underpaid based on education its tough. Colleges pad the coursework so much that its dragged out for years. In theory, without the extra humanities and basic classes, we could get a degree in much less time. That affects their bottom line. I think medical programs need to be streamlined and only include what is necessary for that career.
    I have probably visited about 7 Vets in my life. The best? The Dr. Pol kind. Down to Earth, small clinic without the state of the art everything. Sure there is a place for that, but when 6 of the 7 charge $1200 for removing 2 skin tags or cysts and the other $200, you really have to wonder. I went to a teaching school here in AZ for just that. The bill was 2 pages long if I chose surgery (mind you as a teaching school rates are supposed to be better). They padded it with every fee you could think of. It would be much better for the Clinicians to teach fast, effective and affordable care. Seriously, 1 skin tag and one cyst the size of a pencil eraser would be $1250. My old vet would be under $200 and would take 15 minutes. So much of it just sounds unethical. It angers me and they are teaching those students a great disservice.

    1. Melissa Smith Reply

      Fantastic post – thank you so much for sharing your perspective!