The Cost of Veterinary Care

January 23, 2012 by Jamie Totten
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Why are veterinary fees so high?

I’m biased.  There, I admitted it. I get angry and hurt when I hear people ranting and raving about the “high cost of veterinary care” and “greedy” veterinarians who are “only in it for the money.”

I’m proud to be veterinarian.  We are a caring profession.  The intent of the blog is to shed some light on this common misunderstanding and help to regain public trust in the veterinary profession.

First, I will start with some background explaining cost structure and why it is the way it is.  I will compare human medicine to veterinary medicine.  Then, I will offer solutions (some already are in place) where veterinarians, pet owners and all others involved in the veterinary field can come together with the common goal of getting the best care for their pets at affordable rates.

**Note: I love my physician, have many physician personal friends, and have no problems with the human medical field.  Making this comparison allows me to make my points about the relative cost of veterinary medicine.

Here are facts:

Human medicine:    136 accredited medical schools in the USA

Veterinary medicine:  28 accredited vet schools in the USA, 11 in other countries

There is heated competition for admission to a limited number of vet schools.  One must be an excellent student and take specific classes for admission to veterinary school in addition to going through a rigorous admission process.  Most students complete 4 years undergraduate and an additional 4 years of veterinary school.  The same amount of time to be a human physician.  In my undergraduate course work, I took classes with many of my friends who are now MDs.  Statistically, it would be easier (because of the number of relatively few veterinary schools) to gain admission to medical school then to veterinary school.

**Take home point: Veterinarians intentionally choose their profession when they go through the rigorous admissions requirements.

Human medicine:  Average debt upon graduation $160,000.00.  Average first year salary for primary care physician $180,000.

Veterinary medicine:  Average debt upon graduation $103,000.  First year salary for primary care veterinarian $65,000.

**Take home point: Just by looking at debt load and relative compensation, it is clear that veterinarians do not choose this profession to become rich.   I will be paying back my student loans (which from vet school alone exceeded $100,000.00) for 30 years.  This is a sacrifice I made to live my dream as a veterinarian.  I certainly don’t expect my clients to shoulder those costs (which is a common argument I hear which is illogical).  I pay my debt load from my salary that I receive from my employer. I live in a modest home in a less than ideal neighborhood and still live paycheck to paycheck (partially from personal decisions my husband and I have made regarding child care) and partially from this debt load which is like a second mortgage.

Human medicine:  Hospitals receive funding from outside sources (federal and state funds, endowment funds) to help offset costs of non-paying uninsured and Medicaid patient care.  For example, a large hospital in my area where I live received 2.3 million dollars from the state legislature to help offset the cost of Medicaid care one year.

Veterinary medicine:  No outside funding.  Veterinary hospitals are set up by individual veterinarians.  All start up costs, running costs, and overhead expenses are provided by and covered by these individuals.  Veterinary practice owners take out business loans and take on a major personal risk.  There is no one to bail them out if they are not profitable or if people don’t pay their bills.  Bankruptcy and/or significant personal loss are associated with a hospital that is not profitable.

Human medicine:  Cost of non-complicated labor, delivery, maternal and infant care for 3 days:  $2200.00 out of pocket and with my health care plan I pay 40%.  So that means the hospital received in total about $5100.00.

Veterinary medicine:  Cost of complicated caesarean (mother in labor for 72 hours with dead, rotting puppies in her uterus) about $1200-$1500 (if the owner selects good care—hospitalization, IV fluids for mom).  Veterinarians occasionally offer this service as low as $800.00 to alleviate suffering in pets whose owners had limited financial resources.

Take home point: Similar situation but much worse predicted patient outcome.  Cost does not match severity.  We use the same drugs, sterile technique, and nursing care as the human hospital.  I can only imagine the costs if I had a caesarean.

Human medicine:  Digital chest x-ray costs for radiologist to read, insurance pay plus my co pay $250.00

Veterinary medicine:  Digital chest x-ray costs for immediate veterinary interpretation and patient restraint (they don’t stand still and inhale when asked).  The cost is $80.00.

Take home point: My implication is that veterinary care comparatively is not that expensive when all factors are considered.

BUT, I know that $80.00 plus the cost of other diagnostics in a sick pet quickly adds up. What can be done?

Veterinarians choose this profession for their love for animals and their people.  The human-animal bond that we have experienced in our personal lives often is the nidus for making the choice to enter the veterinary profession.  All veterinarians I know strongly dislike the daily task where we have to make a decision for our patients based on financial concerns instead of medical need.  We would welcome a system (with arms wide open) that would allow us to be able to do more for the patients belonging to those who have financial difficulties.

I did some research.  The Humane Society of the US has some great suggestions on their website for alleviating the cost of veterinary care.

Here are my thoughts (some of them reflect what is on the HS website) on what we can do together to make this very difficult situation better:

1.  Private individuals or corporations who have extra money can donate to a national fund set up for sick/injured animals for veterinary care. The pet emergency fund is available for this very reason.  Please see their website if you would like to donate:

2.  After creating your own emergency fund create a pet emergency fund, if possible, to help care for your pet when the unexpected occurs.  Even when you take great care of your pet, there is still risk for an abscessed tooth or urinary blockage.

3.  If you need help with financing because #2 is not yet available, veterinary care credit is a service that allows for funding unexpected pet emergencies and paying them over time.  Most clinics I have worked for used to allow owners to finance the unexpected with the hospital but then they stopped for two reasons.  Veterinary hospitals can get fined for “lending” to clients since they are not recognized as lending institutions.   In addition, too many non-payments of funds for people who promised they were good for their money and that they could be trusted subsequently leads to an unfortunate generalized mistrust.  If we don’t know you, and your family won’t lend you money, why would we take on that risk?

4.  I’m desperate for other solutions.  My day in heaven on Earth would be the day I never have to put a puppy to sleep because the owner couldn’t afford care.

Can you help me think of other ways to make vet care more affordable that are in line with what you now know?






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34 Responses to “The Cost of Veterinary Care”

  1. JenNo Gravatar says:

    I am also a vet. Dd you mean to say that statistically it is easier to gain admission to vet school than medical school? Because that is not what we’ve always been told. Instead the opposite. It is easier to get into medical school than vet school. If this is really what you meant to say, I wish you would change it in your blog post.

  2. Annamary–each hospital is its own business, and each one sets its own prices according to their own philosophy (for example, many do spay and neuter surgeries at a loss. Others do not) It is illegal for veterinarians to get together and set fees for a location. Its also not really possible to compare just based on prices as some may include extra services for free and others charge for them.

  3. Terrific points. Being in the field as a Tech and having to go over estimates and explain to clients the reason for the costs and then listening to them either complain or flat out not having the money is a difficult and sad situation. I totally agree with Gary on his proposal for fees and laws. However getting a group together to submit these proposals and getting Legislation to even consider would probably be nearly impossible considering human health care issues, in my opinion, are not the best. We are fortunate to even have health insurance for our pets now. I hope pet owners will read your blog and consider your advice. Thank you for compassion and professionalism. Truly outstanding.

  4. Julie StormNo Gravatar says:

    @annamary: good question! Costs can vary widely between hospitals in both human and veterinary medicine. There is no one easy answer, but a few differences are:
    – prices vary based on the laboratories and equipment a clinic chooses to buy, so if one vet chooses to purchase a state-of-the-art x-ray machine, they will most likely charge more for radiographs than a vet who is using a 20 year old machine.
    2. The depth of diagnostics: one vet may check your animal’s ear and declare an ear infection and send home a medication, while another may do the same but also perform an ear cytology to see if it is primarily bacterial or yeast to guide the treatment.

    Just to again compare human vs vet med and follow up on the original author’s example: I had a routine birth with no medication and stayed in the hospital the same amount of time and my bill was $10,000 before insurance! Every advil I took after delivery cost $30! I was never informed of any of the costs, whereas I go out of my way to ensure every client has a treatment estimate for their pet.
    Dr. Storm

  5. TiaNo Gravatar says:

    Hi! Interesting article. I am a pet owner, not a vet. I am dealing with a situation with my dog though that I desperately would like to get another vet’s unbiased opinion on. Is there any way you could email me so I could discuss my dog’s situation? Thanks!

    • RobinNo Gravatar says:

      wow Tia–did you read the same piece I did? So you want a vet to email you, go over your pets medical condition and give you an opinion on a patient they have never examined and can’t ask any questions to—-for FREE??
      Yes MD’s, lawyers, other professionals do consults, but guess what-they get paid for it. Just try to call a lawyer for an advice on a DWI charge and see how far that gets you.
      You want a professional second dr’s advice- take your pet to one.

      • Patti LawsonNo Gravatar says:

        Almost all attorneys I know offer free consultations including me. My article says that I wanted to voice COMPLAINTS to the vet and he attempted to charge me $50 to listen to the mistakes his staff had made. As for Tia…there a lot of kind vets whos motive is not money…those that work with PETS OF THE HOMELESS for example and there are many vets on line that will corresponde with you. Getting a second opinion should not be expensive. Take your records and make the appointment just for a consult….which is very different from wanting to voice complaints about service, prices, and care.

  6. RobinNo Gravatar says:

    I have been married to a vet for 12 years, worked in the field as a vet tech, and hospital director before that.

    So….I hate to say it people but pets are a luxury item. The cost of care needs to be factored into each pet you chose to make a new family member. Including medical ER care.
    As far as vets charging different fees for services–some vets charge what they are worth-some do not. Some feel that if they charge what they need to, to make a living-pay rent, pay staff- they will have no clients-
    however these placed tend to fail anyway because they can not make any profit.
    I currently have no health care insurance for my family, because the place that my husband works as a Dr. can’t afford to offer it to us.
    So I pay out of pocket approx $600 a month for my meds.
    Vets are one of the most caring group of people you will ever encounter, they are not doing what they do to get rich, in fact many of us can’t afford pets of our own, since we know the true costs.

  7. MelNo Gravatar says:

    Pet Insurance can greatly lower unexpected out of pocket pet expenses.

  8. Dog LoverNo Gravatar says:

    The author of this article is very defensive. I’ve never EVER heard anyone blame “greedy” vets for the high cost of vet care.

    Fact: vet care is expensive. Now that is not a personall attack on vets but the reality is that owning a pet nowadays is far more expensive than it was fifteen years ago when I got my first dog. In fact, if vet care had been as high in those days, I would not have been able to afford to have a pet.

    Fact: the cost of vet care either scares off potential pet owners or it squeezes out low income pet owners from seeking the proper care for their animals.

    My neighbor took in an abused dog but he can’t afford to have it neutered. He’s an example.

    Fact: vets have to make a living and they have to be compensated for their schooling. They deserve it and they’ve earned it.

    I personally think anyone who spent as much time and money going to school as vets and MDs should be compensated accordingly.

    My vet actually reduces the price on rescue dogs as a way to compensate and reward owners. I can’t complain. He’s wonderful and my vet care is very reasonable. I don’t ask him, he just adjusts my bill because he knows my dogs are rescues.

    But it’s unfair to attack people who “complain” about the high cost of vet care.

    I personally live in fear of having to make a life or death decision on one of my dog’s lives based purely on money.

    And that is nobody’s fault, especially not the vets’.

  9. DebNo Gravatar says:

    I am all for vets!!! I have 4 cats and they get excellent care. My veterinarian specializes in preventive care, has plans that you enroll your pet on to, and the cost is spread out over 12 months. That makes it much easier to afford the care your pet needs to stay healthy. Of course, you must plan for emergencies, and even though I work only part-time, I have a small fund that builds on a monthly basis should one of my cats get sick. Great veterinarians are out there! They’re in this business because they LOVE animals, support the human-animal bond, and treat your pets as if they were their own. Isn’t your furry friend worth saving? The cost of a couple of lattes a week put into a fund grows quickly. You’ll be glad you thought ahead.

  10. DebNo Gravatar says:

    By the way, with regard to neutering, there are many low cost spay and neuter clinics around. Your county shelter could be a good resource to start looking into it. I live in a small city, but there are plenty of low cost clinics for neutering and for vaccines. By the way, I do work for a veterinary hospital. That doesn’t mean I get my pet care for free, of course!! Even when I didn’t work in the field, I made sure my pets kept up their vaccinations, were neutered, and were kept in good health. It saddens and sickens me to see so many pets in shelters because of over population when it just takes a little time and effort to save up enough to get your pet altered. And if you want your children to witness the “miracle” of birth, get them a dvd. Don’t make a litter of puppies or kittens pay for it!

  11. tutu skirtNo Gravatar says:

    Hmm it looks like your blog ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything. Do you have any tips and hints for beginner blog writers? I’d really appreciate it.

    • Patti LawsonNo Gravatar says:

      Yes! Write about what you not only know…but what you are passionate about. Your reader audience will find you if your work touches them and it will if it is something you just HAVE to write…something you feel deeply about. Good Luck!

  12. I would tend to agree in the past. Today, not so much.
    For years and years vet charges were much much less.
    My animals received quality care based on the vet’s experience more so than on expensive machines that told me information that I couldn’t pay to fix/change even if it were possible (which in many cases it is not). I recently maxed out every CC I had because the vet clinic kept convincing me to properly care for my 20 yr old cat I had to do this or that. Long story short $10K& 7 months later (when I ran out of $) they refused to even treat my cat when I took her in-she was diabetic, hadn’t eaten in 2 days.
    Instead, they suggested surgery to remove a lump on her skin that they said might be causing her “symptoms”. 2nd opinion (same clinic, different vet) wanted us to consider kidney transplant. When I refused & said even if I wanted to, I could no longer afford to, they told me to take her home (ZERO treatment) and did nothing, except charge me another $400 for their consultation. When I pointed out she’s BLEEDING, they said, “No she isn’t” until the towel I had her on had blood on it, when I put her back in her carrier they refused to admit she was bleeding & told me to just take her home.

    While I loved her as much as anyone can love another living being -was like my child, I feel they not only put me through a hardship I can’t get out of & as a result can’t properly tend to the other animals I have, but more importantly, they put my old hurting sweetheart through HELL. (Not to mention the stress of all the visits which I feel added to her agony)

    I’m so disgusted I’ve decided to see vets ONLY to euthanize my animals when time comes. All I did for my above mentioned cat was to extend her life for 7 months of 2″ needles 2x daily, daily ear washings, daily insulin, pills for this and that, etc. The poor cat would hide if she saw me coming because I became the face of pain to her, not comfort. PLUS for these things they wanted me to bring her IN rather than doing it at home.(daily for fluids, medicating,injections,ear flushing…) NOW, that I’m over the grief of her death I can see with clarity that I literally consented to 7 months of torture for that poor animal.

    I miss my old “country” vet who might run a detailed bloodwork, but would tell you that if the cat was 16+ and had serious conditions, it was best to keep them comfortable until that no longer worked, then to euthanize them.

    I’m disgusted. And in 19 months of time (includes the $7K & 1yr I’d spent trying to help her 18yr old sister who passed) I’d seen 9 vets (4 different places)…
    they all did the same thing – wanted to run every possible test and try every possible treatment regardless of the discomfort it caused my animals, saying it can’t cure, but might stabilize the condition so it would be bearable at some point

    So today, my 2 litlle ones are gone &I can’t take my remaining animals in for care. I myself can’t get care. I’m in so much debt I live in fear of my 21 yr old car breaking down, an expensive home repair, etc. I don’t even take MY medicine except the ones I absolutely NEED to stay alive another day. Just can’t afford it. Some days can’t even afford gas to drive to the store if I need something(Have to plan every trip& consolidate several into one). This is 3 yrs later. My salary has been cut to 1/3 what it was, thanks to the current economic situation and it’s a living agony which I probably deserve for being conned into putting that poor baby through so much.

    Every single vet we sawmade us feel guilty if we didn’t just “go along” with whatever treatment witn NO regard for price or quality of life. They treated my concerns in that area as if I were uncaring to not want to do everything possible for my animals. (Dismissing the 3 remaining ones I had at home to care for) I never left anyone’s office (even on followup visits without a $400-$1200 bill and my animals were never left overnight so this was just for the office time.

    I love animals, but may never take in another simply because of this.
    I tell myself if I can only provide them food, warmth, shelter and love, it’s better than being a stray, but then I hear I’m horrible unless I can follow the vets every suggestion and end up barely able to provide the basics for the life of my family.

    Old fashioned vets deserved respect. Todays – most of them-not so much; at least not in my experience. Everyone loves their vet when the animal has a single conditon that they CAN POSSIBLY fully recover from. When you have elderly animals with 2,3 or many more serious conditions, that is when you see the ugly side of vets.

    BTW, with BOTH animals I emphasized I wanted only MINIMUM care, preferred to simply make them comfortable until they no longer could enjoy life. I never waivered in that, only they continued to hold out hope that all these conditions may stabilize under treatment and they could have another 2 or more years of quality life ONCE the treatments worked. And then after my 17K credit limit was maxed, they refused to even HELP my cat and left her to suffer horribly the last days of her life. I FINALLY called my old vet out of retirement who told me she was in so much pain that she should have been put down days ago, and did it for me.
    Sadly I spent 20 yrs loving vets and now with all the new clinical approaches, feel very very differently.

  13. Last, in my opinion, the goal should not be to keep an animal ALIVE, but to end suffering. (Be that painkillers or euthanasia) IF the owner INSISTS on more, then pursue other avenues. Just give people OPTIONS without JUDGEMENT. It’s often the ones who love the most that will chose euthanasia rather than prolonging the suffering in HOPES something might stabilize the condition. And ESPECIALLY in elderly animals.

    OK….I’ll go away now. Thank you for reading this. Share it with your vet friends.
    If you choose to not post it, that’s OK. I just wanted vets to know another side of the story.

  14. Ethan MeubleNo Gravatar says:

    The author in this article clearly states the different problems placed by vets right form acquiring the right kind of education to the time they earn. I would always wonder why animal care is so costly and now i realize the reasons after reading this article. But some of you have asked for free consultation, which I don’t think is really practical. This article is surely an eye opener for everyone of us.

  15. xellilNo Gravatar says:

    Well, it depends. I’ve been to alot of vets in my life. Some are caring, careful vets who work with me to treat my animals and keep them healthy. I love those vets.

    Others want to force unnecessary tests, sell me the disgusting Rx foods that many vets make quite a tidy profit on, shill vaccines and flea treatments etc etc. I once had a dog who swallowed a popsicle stick and the ER vet forced me to pay for a radiologist in New York city to read it to determine if he had stomach cancer. OR, they would not give me the x-ray in the first place. THOSE vets are why some people get a little jaded.

    I am all for vets making an honest living – even a fat profit! They deserve it and they do a great service. But profit should never be at the expense of the animals’ health, nor should it be based on scaring owners into doing things that aren’t necessary just to pad the bill.

  16. Lauren BlogNo Gravatar says:

    I don’t know why people afraid of spending money for caring their pets that they love as a family member. So according to me its worth spending little money for my family member(pet). For the great services vets deserve at least that much.

  17. Miller AvaNo Gravatar says:

    If we try to read this blog more carefully then we will easily realize that the cost mentioned here by author is really worth to spend for our pets. After all pets are our family members.
    Veterinarian doesn’t have aim to be rich even have goal to become our pets healthy.

  18. Hello Jamie,
    I respect all the vets because you all are doing a great job of keeping our pets healthy. Before reading this blog was not aware of the competition and cost involved in becoming a veterinarian. Keep up the good work of keeping our pets healthy after all they are our family members and we can spend that much to keep them healthy.

  19. Hello,
    I always wanted to be veterinarian but because of cost involve in it I was not able to became a veterinarian. But I like your job very much as I love pets very much I am keeping lots of dogs and cats with me and they means a family to me. I want to than people like Jamie for keeping my for keeping my family members healthy.

  20. You have pointed out good points but, it can vary person to person. I have four dogs and I had to visit couple of Vet for their treatment and I was lucky enough that none of them ware money sucker and I’ve seen their love for animals and respect for that profession.

  21. ThompsonNo Gravatar says:

    @Mason- If you try to identify Vet then 7 out 10 would be respectful to their profession , lovers to animal , so I think people in this profession are of good heart. I am also following a Vet for my dog and really she is a genuine, caring and loving person, not money oriented.

  22. As mentioned in one of the posts, i don’t understand why people hesitate so much for caring their pets. After all we take care of our pets just as another family member. Then we shouldn’t hesitate to spend money for them. I also have two pets, whom I love dearly. I take care to see that they are provided with all the requirements.

  23. I agree and understand that veterinary doctors charge a lot of money for even minor treatments. It is really difficult for middle class people to spend so much money for their pets. I understand that pets also should be considered as a family member, but vets also should try to sound reasonable.

  24. The cost of vets is increasing day by day. Sometimes I am really scared to take my pet to the vet. This is so because when I take my pet, the vet just examines him externally not to mention that he never even touches my pet, but charges a exuberant amount.

  25. Moore IsabelNo Gravatar says:

    Last week I had taken my pet dog to the vet. It was just a routine visit to the vet, but I don’t know why he charged such a huge amount. I hope the vets see the world from others’ view also.

  26. fantastic issue you are taking in the post.I like The discussion too.I am a veterinarian,and appreciate your writing skill as well as the way you differentiate the Human medicine and Veterinary medicine.

  27. Paris DentNo Gravatar says:

    Veterinary care is a luxury for alot of people this is why the SPA are for low income. I myself makes me …

  28. AndreaNo Gravatar says:

    As Paris as mentioned, veterinary care is a luxury for a lot of people. I too find veterinary care a bit costly. I too have a pet dog and cat, but as the cost of caring them is mounting day by day, I am considering of placing them in a home.

  29. ShellieNo Gravatar says:

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and
    wished to say that I’ve truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  30. whitenoise4uNo Gravatar says:

    It’s interesting to read the article above. While I appreciate Vets I wasn’t born yesterday. Vet care today is a racket for 80% of clinics. When it cost three times (minimum…usually much more than that) the amount to have a pet treated over the weekend than it does for me or a member of my family…then there is a problem that the entire industry of providers must confront. Our normal clinic refers us to the only emergency vet clinic after hours, yet the quality of care given and the quality of vet that is available is very substandard. When it costs over $1200 to treat a pet that had nothing more than a bad case of indegestion, it’s a problem. When a pet is taken in to a clinic and no one will touch it until a credit card with at least a $1000 limit is given, there is a problem. When pet group spokespersons tout the great work of vets in general without mentioning the problem areas….it’s a problem. Once again, I appreciate vets and vet techs and what they do for us. But NOW there has come a crossroads that require decisions by the whole group. You must be willing to address the failure, fraud, corruptions and inept care that some of your colleagues are part of. You MUST address the fact that there are those who can afford your high charges and those who can afford some charges and of course those who can’t afford any charges. Yet, are you the voice that decides that poor people should not have the advantage of loving a pet. Are the poor not qualified or able to show love to a pet and to provide reasonable care? Neglect of pets is not just a poor person problem. Many cases of abuse of pets are involving people who have more than enough assets to provide reasonable care. However for those who lack the financial means to be able to run to the local vet clinic for the slighest issue, where is the industry? Poor people love pets just as much but I fail to see alternative options for them. Vets are cognizant that there are plentiful options to the care of many issues with pets that don’t require the expenditure of large sums of money which they do not have. The only way poor people find these options is through word of mouth. I am able to afford reasonable care. However, I know many good pet owners that love their pets with all their hearts but simply can’t afford the overly high cost of vet care. The overly high cost of vet care that most times DOES NOT meet the level of cost. Yet the industry, which claims to love pets……ignores their own dirty secrets. This must stop. Vets must step up and do the right thing and develope alternative care practices that insure that all pets, not just those owned by people with money, are given reasonable care. I don’t mean superior care….. but simply reasonable care.
    While we are making strides in many areas of our society, we continue to ignore this area. Pets mean so much to so many, yet those who are in a position to help refuse to do so and I can only believe it is because of financial gain. If that is so…..SHAME ON YOU. If not…..prove me wrong…. do the right thing and become part of a solution instead of part of the problem. It isn’t that hard to do. Most of those you will be helping are not people who can afford your care anyway. Do the right thing. Set an example and say ..” I am part of the solution…..not the problem” thanks…

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