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: http://abcnews.go.com/2020/video/veterinarian-honest-20987714

 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. 

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About hteyler

I decided in 8th grade that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I never deviated from that goal, and after a ton of studying and hard work I graduated from Colorado State University with my Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine in 2004. I spent the first few years out of vet school in the southern California desert. After a few years I missed the mountains, so I took a job at a small animal practice in Park City, Utah. Somehow, in the middle of all of that the teaching bug bit me. I am now the Resident Veterinarian at Broadview University, West Jordan. Also, I have four cats, Pete, Sally, Tommy and Roger. If I told you much more, you would decide I am a hopeless nerd. For example, I am obsessed with the TV shows LOST and Supernatural.

Posted on November 23, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 119 Comments.

  1. I Love this blog!! I was so excited to see you finally made another entry! I came across your blog when I was struggling with personal statements, and essays for my vet school application this past year. Your words really resonated with me. I found inspiration and motivation just reading your posts…so Thank You!

  2. I appreciate your passion and would likely be very happy to call you the medical care provider for one of my dogs.
    That being said, this is a complicated situation. There really are some very cruel realities in our world. In my own small circle and with my own dogs, there have been many sad stories: abuse (including sexual assault), very poor cares, lack of compassion for the (scared or hurting) pet, seriously questionable ethics, cleanliness issues, out-of-date practices (i.e. denying pain medication), lack of communication, and cases where it certainly seemed the veterinarian was more interested in padding his or her bank account than in doing right by a dying and suffering animal. (Yes, there have been a few truly amazing care givers also and I am beyond grateful to and for them and the love they showed my dogs. Sadly, many are burnt out and are leaving the industry also. Yes, the pay is terrible. Perhaps that is the motivator behind the poor choices some are making? I don’t know and frankly, I don’t care. My first concern is always about the well-being, quality of life, and pain management for our beloved pets and animals. I believe strongly it’s the least we can do for our pets in payment for all that they give us.)
    I think the better lesson to all of us would be in trusting our own instincts. We are the only voice our animals have. There are too many heartbreaking stories of a dear pet who has suffered greatly at the hands of a medical team because the owner “assumed” the team could be trusted or that his or her pet was safe. My dogs and these shared stories have taught me well: if something doesn’t feel right, grab your pet and RUN to another care facility!
    To those of you, working with animals from a place of love: thank you, take care of yourselves, and stay in the industry as long as you can! You have more value than you know or could ever be paid!

  3. I’m just an average pet owner but even I know it’s not a job you could do for just money.

  4. 3 things you must have in life-on-a-farm. A great vet, a great car mechanic and a great shearer!

  5. 40 years ago my local veterinarian charged about 10% of what a “people” doctor charged. Today, it’s only 20-25% of the cost for people. It was expensive long ago and it’s more expensive now. A vet’s education and training costs the same as an M.D. A vet’s start up costs are much higher. Their annual salary is probably about half. They get called out in the middle of the night more often as there are no “hospitalists” (especially in rural areas). And, for some amazing reason–when you make an appointment with your vet, you generally aren’t stuck in a waiting room for hours hoping the doctor will see you. You don’t have to schedule blood tests weeks in advance of your appointment, nor do you have to wait as long for accurate and caring diagnoses. When you are ready to end life, the veterinarian comes to your house and helps. I love my veterinarian. I can’t say enough good things about her and all the other vets with whom I’ve been privileged to have care for my pets over the years. Shame on you 20/20.

  6. Eventually there will be posts on here that continue to denigrate veterinarians and I absolutely predict and guarantee that two things will be inevitable: the posters with gripes will IMMEDIATELY mention—repeatedly—how much the care of their pet cost. They will deny it up and down, but they are complaining about the MONEY and will make it look as though they would do ANYTHING for their pet, but the mean old money grubbing vet just charged too much. There seems to be a belief that veterinarians have no right to charge for services, and veterinary care is worth less and valued less than the same care and costs in human medicine.
    The second complaint will be that no matter what, the pet may not have gotten better. Many will list how many veterinarians they went through to get the most favorable results, and claim it was JUST to get the best care for their pet, but what they really wanted was a perfect outcome at minimal cost. Many will neglect to mention that they often and repeatedly did NOT accept good medical advice as it was given—they will have perhaps refused a referral to a specialist, or opted for the “cheap” path and expected amazing results…and they often waste very critical time by avoiding the best advice from the onset or from trying to get a diagnosis and treatment from the feed store guy, the neighbor who used to raise dogs, the uncle who is an armchair expert, or the dreaded Internet. When none of that works and valuable time has been lost, guess whose fault it will be and guess what?? It will still boil down to the MONEY, despite all the protests to the contrary. God bless the veterinarians out there who are working hard against the odds and do so despite an increasingly uncooperative and ill-informed general public. And the paragraph about “cheap” vets?? That was right on target. I run a non profit mobile veterinary spay and neuter hospital and I see every other veterinarian’s dirty laundry. I absolutely admire and defend those who are doing good medicine and also charge for it. The “cheap” places are either cutting corners, EXACTLY as the writer said, or they are volunteering their time (which is the way WE have to do it.) After 23 years as a doctor, and having CHOSEN to serve the most needy clients and pets, I now make less than I did when I graduated in 1990, and with NO BENEFITS. It is the only way I can keep costs down and still provide the BEST standard of care and not compromise ethics along the way.
    I can also list quite a few “cheap” places that clients just adore, and I grit my teeth knowing that they compromise the life and safety of their pets every time they walk in that door, but to them—again, it is all about COST, and they think they have gotten a “deal.” Trust me when I say they are fooling themselves and risking the life of their pet, and many pay the ultimate cost in the end. Lower fees should never EVER mean lower standards…but if people only knew.
    This writer nailed it all around. And watch the comments for the inevitable.

  7. Here’s the cold, hard truth.

    You must be reasonably well off to afford a pet these days. Especially if you wish to provide proper care with the current going rates charged by Veterinarians. There is no darn way – Suzy the cat lady down the street is properly taking care of her 6 cats. She’d be in the poor house faster than you could call the humane society.
    It’s a real catch 22 – there are so many people out there with cats/dogs that just can’t afford modern veterinary care. That advanced care is wonderful, if you can afford it.

    You may say – well, get pet insurance. That’s fine, except for one issue – Routine items are not covered (nor should they be). These routine items can be very expensive these days. Routine items that weren’t available years ago.
    Times have changed that’s for sure.

    • No one is saying that in order to have a pet you should be able to afford “advanced care,” which to me means chemotherapy, visits to specialists, etc. But if you haven’t done enough research to determine that you can afford at LEAST the basic spay/neuter and vaccines, and have some way to pay for a minor illness or injury that comes up, you probably shouldn’t own an animal. And if a major/expensive problem DOES come up, you shouldn’t get angry when someone tells you that they can’t treat your pet without adequate compensation. It doesn’t bother me (or at least not as much) when someone comes in with a sick animal and they are upfront with me about their money concerns and are appreciative of whatever I can do for their pet (even if that means euthanasia). What DOES bother me is the people who complain about prices, ESPECIALLY if the animal’s problem is one they could have prevented (i.e. pyometra, parvovirus, dog off leash and hit by car, etc.); or when they don’t allow us to do the proper diagnostics and treatments, or don’t follow our instructions, and then complain that the problem isn’t fixed. Besides, we do stuff at rock-bottom bargain prices compared to human medicine; it’s just that insurance pays most of that, so people don’t know the true cost.

  8. What veterinary clients may not consider is that Vets have bought and paid for every one of the hundreds of instrument, q-tips, pills, syringes, medical machines, cleaning products, pieces of furniture, staff salaries, the office coffee maker, the electric bills, the copy machines ad infinitum. The fact that it may cost $200. to do a Dental under anesthesia speaks more to their generosity than anything. Human medical doctors do NOT incur these expenses especially if they’re with a large medical conglomerate that makes 10’s of millions of dollars per year. MD’s charge egregious prices that are subsidized by the billion dollar insurance industry. Veterinarians continue to be the lowest paid of the medical professionals. period. Also, the 20/20 report made it seem as though preventative dentistry is a scam and only animals with periodontal disease require veterinary dentistry. Very irresponsible 20/20. If you brought a teen into a Dentist with tarter forming on his teeth but the Dentist said, “Well lets wait ’til this advances to periodontal disease before we address it”, he would be liable for a malpractice suit.

  9. As a solo practitioner in rural southeastern arizona who works 10+ hours a day and is on call 365, I dont do this for the money!!! There is no amount of money that can compensate for the hours that I put in. I am a veterinarian because it is who I am! I knew in 2nd grade that this is what I wanted to do and I never looked back. For me it isnt a job, it is what I am. I do not know who I would be without animals! Our prices are very reasonable because we live in a rural area. We have an “angel” fund, two in fact. I do a lot of emergency surgeries knowing I will never get paid but doing it because the animal doesnt deserve to die just because its owner doesnt have money. I love my profession! Yes, there are those who are in it to get the most money from each client that walks in the door. That is the way the consultant companies tell you to do it. But I think those are by far the minority in the profession! Most of us just want to help your animal live the best and most comfortable life it can! As in all areas of life, there are bad apples but dont cut down the whole tree because a of a few rotten apples that have fallen by the wayside.

    Well written article! Thanks.

  10. I am a vet and I have worked for 5 years in England. I did locum work so I worked in around 40 different clinics during that time! So I have worked with many different vets and I have only come across 1 that was unethical and doing exactly what happened in that video – ie recommending procedures that was not necessary, telling all his employees that they have to charge a minimum fee pr client even in a healthy animal, and some of the vets were worried about losing their jobs if they did not give that animal a full course of antibiotics when it was unnecessary. These are bad weeds but FEW and FAR between. Very good blogpost, I agree with everything in it!

  11. I think the problem is the feminization of the industry. Women are too emotional and overly compassionate. So many blogs by vets are full of tears and knotted ovaries. Whilst I won’t allow an animal to suffer, I realise that this is, first and foremost, a business. We are not a charity and owning a pet is not a God-given right. When dross clients bitch about the cost, I happily give them both barrels (being British, I have no problem being rude to cretins who deserve being put in their place). Personally, I will only bother with high end clients; there are plenty of idiots who will do discounted work for the peasants and never see the money they are owed. If you’re one of those vets, best of luck to you. But my clients get the best service and the best level of care and, by God, they pay for it. In the end, you get what you pay for. And, incidentally, the reason men get paid more is we make more money for the clinic by charging properly and spending less time blubbing in the corner.

  12. Well said, I didn’t see that report but I know most vets are. Honest and hardworking. I have rescued many cats and spend a fortune taking care of them but you won’t hear a single complaint from me. As you said, we take on the responsibility, we have to be prepared to take on the cost. I have seen so many animals suffer or lose their lives because of owners neglect and/ or ignorance but the ones who suffer or die because the owners refused to pay vet costs are the saddest. I admire my vets and I admire and applaud you for speaking out. Good on you.

  13. Thank you for addressing this so eloquently, our pets are family and therefore deserve world class care. You are correct that most people appreciate your sacrifices, I certainly an one. As an oncology nurse, I am in awe of your profession; and am inspired

  14. Oh, so he prefers to leave a lump so it can spread and cause more harm and grow until it’s too big to remove… Such a wise man. Good job he left the profession!!!

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