Monthly Archives: November 2013

The hard truths about the costs of veterinary care

I am a veterinarian, and right now I am depressed and disappointed.  I am also angry.  Last night on 20/20 there was a segment aired that basically painted my beloved profession as being full of dishonest charlatans who recommend unnecessary treatments and tests, and who take advantage of the close bond that people have with their pets.

 For those of you who didn’t see the trashy piece of journalism, here is a link:

 I know that I only have a small voice on this blog, and I know that I will never change the minds of people who truly believe that veterinarians are a bunch of crooks.  However, I cannot stay silent right now because I know that thousands of honest, hardworking, compassionate veterinarians have been harmed by this report.

 Let me lay a few things out for you.  First of all, NOBODY, and I mean NOBODY goes into veterinary medicine because of the money.  If someone enters veterinary school dreaming of the fortune they will make when they graduate, they are an idiot.  The fact is, we all chose this profession because we want to help animals and we love science.  That is it.  If we wanted to make money, we would have gone to human medical school, or mechanic school, or school to become a Wal-Mart manager.  Just to give you an idea, the average starting salary of a newly graduated veterinarian is around $45,000-$55,000.  That may sound like a decent living, but we are medical doctors, and often are graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

 Second, when we make recommendations to owners, whether it is to get their pet on Heartworm preventative, or schedule a dental cleaning, or biopsy a suspicious mass, we are doing it because we are advocating for what is best for the pet. I want every single one of my patients to live long and happy lives.  If I see a dog with an incredibly painful mouth, I will strongly recommend a dental cleaning with extractions.  If I see a cat that is older and getting skinny I will recommend blood work to check and make sure that he isn’t developing diabetes, or thyroid disease, or kidney disease. If I see a mass on a dog that could potentially be cancerous, I recommend immediate removal and biopsy, since many skin cancers in animals can be cured by early surgical intervention.   I don’t recommend these things because I see dollar signs.

 In fact, if you were to ask most veterinarians, we would tell you that discussing charges and estimates with owners makes us uncomfortable.  If I know an animal needs treatment, I have my technicians come up with the estimate and discuss it with the owner.  I often stand outside the door hoping that the owner has the ability to do what is best for the pet.  Many technicians encourage their veterinarians to NOT be part of the payment process, because frankly we suck at it.  We get our heartstrings tugged on quite easily, and will start marking off charges that we should account for.

 I have seen countless veterinarians cut charges for struggling clients, search for the most cost effective source of medication, take payments, and care for and adopt out orphaned animals without charging anyone a cent for the care that they have provided.  I have seen veterinarians set up “Angel” funds at their hospitals to help people that don’t have money to pay for the treatment their animal needs. I have seen veterinarians struggle with depression and burnout as they try to navigate dealing with accusations that they are allowing animals to die just because the owner has no money.

 Here’s another hard truth…it is not a right for anyone to own a pet.   If you buy or adopt a pet, you are taking responsibility for its health and life.  You are agreeing that at the very least you will provide basic veterinary care for your new family member.  If you buy a pet that you do not have the money to at least vaccinate, don’t blame us for being cruel and heartless when you can’t come up with the money to treat it when it comes down with Parvovirus.  If you buy or adopt a pet that you do not have the money to spay or neuter, don’t accuse us of being money grubbing thieves when you can’t come up with money to do an emergency spay or to treat your dog that has been hit by a car because he was not neutered and was roaming around the neighborhood.

 Veterinarians have the right to make a living. Our hardworking staff has the right to make a living. The only way this happens is if we charge for our services. The only way we ensure our clinics are stocked with the equipment and medication we need to treat your pet is to charge for our services.

 Let me explain another truth. If you know of a veterinarian who is “super cheap,” I am telling you right now that the vet is super cheap because they cut corners.  They may do things like reusing needles and syringes, not offer pain medication to animals undergoing surgery, not maintain sterility in surgery, or not stay up to date on the best treatments and medications available. Most owners don’t know what goes on behind the scenes of the super cheap clinics, and I have a feeling most of them would be shocked if they knew.

 Now, are there people in my profession who are dishonest?  Of course!  You find them in any profession. Even Men of God are not totally clean in this regard (Remember Jim Baker?). If you have had the misfortune of dealing with one of these vets, I am sorry and shame on them. They don’t deserve to be in this profession. Trust me though, they are few and far between.

 I am proud to be in this profession. I feel honored to be among men and women who are some of the most caring, compassionate people on the planet. I feel blessed to count myself among those who have been called to help the most helpless of patients.

 To any fellow veterinarians that may read this posting…don’t get too down. Have faith that our profession’s compassion and dedication will ring out much louder and clearer than any junk piece of journalism. The vast majority of your clients are grateful for what you do, and the world is a much kinder place with you as part of it.