Browsing tag: vet fees

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.

Is Paul O’Grady mad to spend so much money on his terminally ill dog?

Paul O’Grady, the comedian-turned-dog-advocate, hit the news this week when he talked about spending over £8000 in vets’ fees to treat his nine year old Cairn Terrier Olga for cancer of the kidney. The Daily Mail reports that Paul has ignored advice to have her put down, and instead he’s paying for intensive chemotherapy and surgery to keep her alive. The story has ignited a debate about veterinary fees and pet insurance: Judith Woods, a feature writer for the Daily Telegraph, has added her own tale of spending £3600 when her Manchester Terrier, Daisy, developed a rare form of kidney disease. She had her pet insured, so her feature extols the benefits of pet insurance for these unexpected occasions.
Paul and Judith are clear in their opinions, with no doubt that they have made the right decision for their own pets. It’s the online comments on the stories that are interesting, with members of the public sounding off with their own thoughts on expensive treatments for pets, and the pros and cons of pet insurance.

The Daily Mail readers’ comments to Paul’s story are mostly short and positive: “It’s lovely that he’s done this for his beloved dog”, “Good on you, Paul, you are a true dog lover” and “If I was as rich as him, I’d do the same”.
Telegraph readers have responded in a predictably more loquacious way to Judith’s feature.
First, of course, there are many “dog lovers” who are supportive of giving pets all reasonable treatment that can be afforded, accepting that high quality veterinary care can be costly, and agreeing that pet insurance can be a sensible way of budgeting for unexpected health crises. When completing a survey of attitudes to dogs on a recent trip to a slum in Delhi, I found that around 60% of the local population “liked dogs”, with 40% disliking them: I now find myself wondering if a similar proportion of attitudes exists in the UK population. For the 60% who care for their pet dogs, it’s hard to consider withholding treatment.

There are plenty of comments from the opposite side of the spectrum – perhaps the 40% who aren’t so fond of dogs. Some of these “anti-treatment” comments are worth discussing in more detail:
“All pet insurance does is persuade owners to consent to prolonged and possibly invasive treatment of their pet. Unless they own a valuable breeding animal they would be kinder and more sensible if they had a really sick pet put to sleep.”
While it’s true that it may make objective sense to have an ailing animal euthanased, when it’s your own pet, surely it’s wise to analyse the options available? Once a clear diagnosis has been made, vets are often able to give a reasonably accurate estimate of treatment, prognosis and life expectancy. If you are able to pay for the treatment (via insurance or otherwise), and if the vet can reassure you that your pet will not suffer during the process, many people conclude that the correct course of action is to give the animal extra life. Why should anyone else feel that they have the right to tell them otherwise?

“Look at the dog and think, ‘If that was me what would I want?’ Or, ‘Am I keeping the dog alive for the dog’s sake, for my sake or I do I lack the moral fibre to do the right thing?’”
I am sure that most owners look at their pet and ask these questions before making a treatment/euthanasia decision. And most vets take time to guide owners through this process. Most vets and owners would agree that if a pet has no hope of living a good quality life, euthanasia is the kindest option. And treatment for serious disease may not be as uncomfortable as people expect in pets. Treatment modalities like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment are often deliberately used in lower doses in pets compared to humans, so side effects are usually less severe. Nobody want animals to suffer pain or discomfort for the sake of a few more weeks or months of life.

“These poor animals haven’t a clue what is happening to them in the vets’ surgeries, all the pain, trauma and strange smells….. people aren’t doing it in the interests of the animals they are most of the time doing it for themselves. Better IMO to let the animal have a peaceful end – a right denied to humans. And don’t get me started on animals with limb amputations.”
Anyone who has owned an amputee dog will know at once that the person who made this opinionated comment has not known any animals with limb amputations (they often have marvellous lives, with no discomfort or visible disability). I suspect he’s also had a similar lack of experience of vets’ surgeries and sick animals recovering from illness.

“I have come to the conclusion that Veterinary Surgeons generally, are individuals who parasitically feed off pet-owners emotions. The fees they charge can bear no resemblance to costs incurred. Have their charges ever been investigated? I suspect this is yet another bunch of rip-off artists. They know you will pay to save a soulmate… So they take you for an expensive ride.”

I’m sorry that this person has such a negative view of my profession: what else can I say?

“As for vets, I told my son to be either a vet or a lawyer. They make the fees up as they go along, nobody really questions the amounts and they get paid even if the client dies.”

This person should really do some proper research before making recommendations to his son. Vets’ salaries are not as high as people may expect. In the USA,  $80460 (£50824) is the median pay, with veterinary graduates struggling to pay off huge university debts. In the UK , according to this website, “the average starting salary is between £21,800 to £33,500 a year, depending on experience. Further training and experience can increase salary to £36,500 per annum. Senior vets can earn around £44,000 to £53,000+” .
So while vets may earn a substantial salary, it’s nothing special compared to doctors (Salaried GPs earn between £54,319 and £81,969). solicitors (between £25,000 and £75,000)  or dentists (between £50,000 and £110,000). And did he tell his son about the high suicide rate in vets – higher than any other profession, and around four times the national average? The job of a vet is not the easy, money-spinning dream career that some people seem to believe.

“I have heard that vets in England charge more if you have insurance, but it wasn’t made clear if this is because they run every test necessary when the insurers are paying but stick to the bare minimum for hard up punters.” 
This person probably is closer to the truth than they realise. The reason why vets “stick to the minimum for hard up punters” is that these clients are unable to afford anything else. Is there anything wrong with this?

Something else needs to be explained: this odd statement in Judith Wood’s feature. ” Vet fees have doubled in a decade, and are rising at an annual rate of 12 per cent.”
Vets’ fees per item have certainly not “doubled in a decade”, nor are they rising at 12% per year. But more advanced tests and treatments are now available to those who can pay for them, which is why the amount spent on pets may indeed have “doubled in a decade” and may be continuing to increase.
The key truth that seems to have been missed by everyone writing on the subject is this: diagnostic tests are amongst the most expensive items on the veterinary menu. The specialised machinery needed to carry out laboratory tests, ultrasound scans, x-rays, MRI scans and other work-ups can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. Yet these pricey investigations are often the only way to achieve an accurate diagnosis, which is the key fact that’s needed to decide on treatment and to predict the prognosis.

Do you want to be able to do the best for your pet if he or she falls ill? If you do, get your pet insured so that you can give your vet the go-ahead to carry out the tests needed to give you the best advice possible. And don’t listen to the “objective” scoffers who tell you that you would be better to have your pet euthanased: talk to your vet and make the decision for yourself, based on facts, not opinions.

 

 

Cost of Vets – A sad story but an important message

This week I was in a situation which made me feel angry, sad, frustrated and powerless all at once. I wanted to share it because I think it highlights a really important issue about vets, pet care and cost. However, I will warn you it doesn’t have a happy ending.
There was an appointment in evening consults for a euthanasia, which in itself isn’t unusual, but this one was for a Staffie who was only six and who hadn’t been seen for a year. The history we had was brief, she had last been seen for an ear infection but not since. So, I didn’t know why her owner’s had decided to put her to sleep; I was thinking that maybe she had been under the care of another vet for a problem which had become terminal or that this was a behavioural problem like aggression.

However, when she arrived it was quite clear what the issue was. The poor dog had a terrible skin problem; she had sore and swollen feet, a nasty infection in both ears and in places has scratched herself red raw. Despite this she was lovely, happy, friendly girl, desperate for a good fuss. It transpired that she had been like this since she last came to see us, over a year ago, but her owner hadn’t brought her back or taken her to another vet because ‘the treatment hadn’t worked’ and it was ‘too expensive’, meaning that the poor creature had been itchy and painful for all this time.

I did try to speak to the man about her condition and how we might help her. Itchy skin is a common problem in dogs and although it can be difficult to find the underlying cause, most cases will respond to treatment, which is usually inexpensive. Like many illnesses we can offer different options for investigation and treatment depending on what an owner wants and the funds available but the outcome is generally an itch-free happy dog who can go on to lead a normal life. However, in this case the owner wasn’t interested in any treatment at all. He had decided he wanted her euthanased and nothing would persuade him to change his mind.

What made me so upset about this situation was not really the fact the owner of this dog wanted her put to sleep, (although I did find this difficult when I knew I could do so much to help her), she was his dog and so it was his choice but the fact that he had allowed her to suffer for such a long time before deciding to do something about it. I completely understand that the costs of veterinary care can be a worry for some people but that is no excuse for leaving a pet to struggle for any length of time. We are quite used to working within people’s budgets and we can always explore the option of finding charitable help or arranging payment plans. However, we can’t do anything unless owners get in touch, are open with us and let us know their concerns.

So, the message of this article is; if you have a pet who is poorly but you are worried about the vet fees; please speak to your vet, be open and honest about your concerns and work with them to come to a solution which you can afford but that helps your pet. This is far, far better than leaving them to suffer, which is not only unnecessary, it is also cruel. Yes any treatment will require payment but as a pet owner it is your responsibility to provide this for your animals and we are animal lovers too and will do what we can to help!

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