Debunking myths about “rip off veterinary fees”

“Rip-off veterinary fees” were the subject of a recent poll on a vets-only website.
In answer to the question “How often does your practice receive complaints about the prices it charges?“, the results were:

  • All the time – 16%
  • Fairly often – 53%
  • Hardly ever – 30%
  • Never – 1%

So around 69% of vet clinics get regular complaints about their fees, and given that many people may feel irritated about fees without vocalising their concern to the vet, the true level of discontent is likely to be even higher. This is clearly an aspect of veterinary care that pet owners feel strongly about.

I always find this a difficult topic to discuss: as a vet, I can’t help feeling defensive, and it’s all too easy to write a self-justifying commentary. Sceptical readers may then brush off any of my explanations: “well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”. The challenge is that only vets know about the detailed financial background to running a veterinary practice; we’re the only ones in a position to be able to explain why vets seem to charge so much. So please bear with me while I do my best to address some of the main myths about veterinary fees.

1. “Veterinary fees are so expensive that they must be a rip off”
The reason why vets’ fees are so costly is that vets’ costs are high. For every £10 you give the vet, around £7.50 to £8 goes towards the running costs of the vet clinic, with the remaining £2 to £2.50 going to the vet. For a pie-chart that shows the breakdown of costs in a typical vet clinic, see here. Outgoings include drugs, utilities, building costs, staff wages, office supplies, continuing education, and, of course, VAT. Like any business people, vets try to keep these costs to a minimum, but they do need to be covered, and vet clinics only have one income source: pet owners.
Human medical costs are perhaps the nearest equivalent to veterinary costs, but free medical care in the NHS means that the public in the UK have no appreciation of what’s involved. As an example, a bitch spay may seem pricey at £300, while the standard cost of a human hysterectomy is around £5000 when done by a private human surgeon. Such comparisons make veterinary fees seem like ridiculously good value.

2. “Vets are loaded: you never see a poor vet”
Look at the facts. The most recent survey of vets’ earnings in the UK is carried out by the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons showed that the median salary of vets who have been qualified for a year is £32000. This rises to £41232 after five years of experience in practice, but it doesn’t shift much higher than this subsequently. The median salary of a vet qualified between 10 and 20 years is between £45000 and £52000. The hourly rate for vets ranges from £15 for new graduates to around £25 for vets with many years experience.
So vets are paid well enough, but nobody could call them “loaded”. When you compare these rates of pay with other professions, it’s clear that if a young person is motivated primarily by earning money, the veterinary profession is the wrong one to choose.

3. “Vets clean up with pet insurance. The first question they ask is: do you have your pet insured?”
Why do people presume that vets ask this question with pound signs in their eyes? Yes, we do often ask the question, but people misunderstand the reason for it. If a pet is not insured, the owner will have to cover the costs themselves, and rather than shocking owners afterwards, vets prefer to give a detailed estimate, perhaps with different options, in advance. When a pet is insured, there’s no need to go over such detail beforehand with the owner: the focus can immediately be to attend to the animal, in the knowledge that appropriate costs will be covered without the owner having to worry about them.

4. “When a pet has a serious injury or accident, if you can’t afford to pay for it, vets often suggest that the animal should be put down. A genuine animal loving vet would never do that. If vets cared about animals, they’d do it for free”
The problem here is that there is no such thing as “zero cost” treatment. Given that vets receive 20 to 25% of the fees charged, simple arithmetic shows that 75 – 80% of vets’ fees are needed to cover the non-vet costs of treating an animal. If a vet gave you a 10 – 12.5% discount, they are effectively taking a 50% reduction in their take-home pay. If you are given a 20 – 25% reduction, the vet is doing it for free. And if the vet does the work at no charge, then he or she is actually giving you money for the benefit of treating your pet. Much as vets may feel a desire to do this from time to time, they do need to earn a salary so that they can pay for their own living costs.

Vets operate in an open market: competition means that people are free to shop around to choose the best value vet in their area. If you feel that vets’ fees are still “too expensive”, ask yourself what corners you would like your vet to cut. Do you want less time with your vet? Do you want him to pay his nurses less? Do you want him to use cheaper surgical and medical products? Would you like him to move to a part of town where property is cheaper? Do you want him to decorate his clinic less often? Should he undertake less continuing education so that he isn’t as up to date with treatments?

Please don’t just assume that vets are “ripping you off”: if money was our main motivation in life, we’d all have left our profession many years ago.

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