Good News

The good news is that pretty much anything your doctor can do for you; your veterinarian can now do for your pet. The bad news is that you have to pay for it. Even the cost of routine care is on the rise, as a package of stories called “Pets & Vets” in the July issue of Consumer Reports points out. Their tone goes further, even suggesting veterinarians are pretty much ripping off consumers to make a buck.

In my view, the overall premise of the piece is actually valid; costs of veterinary care have been rising. My criticisms are the gaping holes punctuated throughout the story, including misleading and misguided advice to consumers.

For example, the story suggests pet owners shop around for a vet as if they’re buying a washing machine. That’s fine in theory. But I argue sniffing out the best price isn’t always best for your pet. You might be able to compare a regular exam fee, or the cost of clipping your dog’s nails. But how can you possibly do what Consumer Reports suggests and evaluate the price of a routine spay/neuter without being a veterinarian yourself? Here’s what I mean. One vet practice may charge twice as much for a spay or neuter, but use a safe anesthetic, (such as sevoflurane or isoflurane), monitor the heart and vital signs during surgery and provide appropriate pain control and recovering pets are under the watchful eye of experience support staff.

Another practice might offer a cut rate price but in return those vets can’t possibly be offering the kind of quality health care pet owners might really want. No surprise, in veterinary medicine, like the rest of the world, you may simply get what you pay for.

Veterinarians remain ranked among the most trusted professions in America, as the Consumer Reports piece concedes. Although, I’ll admit that trust might be waning. This is America; trust and the pocketbook do go hand in hand. The basic problem is that veterinarians do need to make more money. For one thing, we’ve all been spoiled. Vets have been undercharging clients for years, often plain giving away services. Of course, costs of rent or mortgage, and taxes never go down. Veterinary office support staff must be paid, and in most practices, even certified technicians are underpaid. Receptionists and other assistants frequently don’t eke out $10 an hour. Many vets aren’t able to afford providing benefits.

Meanwhile, consumers increasingly insist on the best care for family members with four legs or feathers, and that means the best people to care for them. If you want trained employees who will stick around, you have to offer a reasonable wage. Vet techs, the unsung hands-on heroes at vet clinics, are especially underpaid.

The Consumer Reports piece doesn’t explain that a significant shift in American culture is demanding veterinarians invest in expensive cutting-edge equipment which affords them the tools to diagnose and treat using technology to full advantage. Most of the equipment you see at your vet’s office is comparable or exactly the same as found in your doctor’s office or hospital. The problem is that some consumers can’t afford to pay the bills when those increased costs are passed on to them.

Vet school is tougher to get into than medical school (mostly because there are only 27 vet schools and colleges), and then after four years of school, graduates are saddled with an educational debt of $72,719 while their average starting salary of just over $46,000 (according to the American Veterinary Medical Association). Meanwhile, vets continue to earn less than any profession in the medical field (though this is starting to change), earning on-average under what podiatrists, chiropractors, physical therapists, dentists and human doctors take home.

What’s happening is that veterinarians must reconcile their needs and ambitions to earn more, while at the same time providing the best possible and often costly care that is increasingly being demanded by the public.

The piece in Consumer Reports complains that pacemakers for dogs cost around $3,000. That may be true. But the article doesn’t point out what a bargain veterinary medicine really is. Think about it, a pacemaker for a person ” the same exact kind of pacemaker ” costs several times that. A cancer treatment for a pet, which may not have been available only a few years ago – can prolong life or even cure cancer, and might also cost $3,000. A similar treatment for a person can cost 50 times that. Still, $3,000 is a lot of money when it comes out of your pocket. That’s because insurance carriers or the government doesn’t pick up the tab for medical care for pets.

I figured, for sure, the Consumer Reports story would welcome pet insurance as a part of the answer. If costs consumers fork over to vets are really high ” especially fees associated with specialty or emergency medicine ” then having someone else pay a substantial portion seems like a good idea. However, Consumer Reports doesn’t like pet insurance. According to their math it’s not a good deal for consumers. While I realize pet insurance isn’t perfect, I think it’s mostly a good thing.

First, let’s assume you choose the right pet insurance carrier – one that offers indemnity insurance, where you and your vet make all the decisions and there is no HMO-type program. Consumer Reports suggests socking away money for a rainy day in a special pet fund. I agree with the theory. The problem is few will do that. Of course, pet insurance companies are businesses, and they’re in business to make a buck. I like the good ones though because consumers and their companion animals can benefit too. Special insurance programs, such as Veterinary Pet Insurance’s, Wellness Program for puppies and kittens, encourages the best possible veterinary care. What matters most is that pet insurance makes modern care possible for many who might otherwise not be able to afford it, and dramatically lessens the chances of what’s called economic euthanasia ” putting a pet down because of the pocketbook.

Consumer Reports should stick to rating washing machines. Yes, there are some real economic issues that both veterinary medicine and pet owners will have to ultimately work through together. I know hundreds of veterinarians and veterinary technicians. I still have not met one who chose the profession to get rich, or to cheat pet owners. You see, if they cheat pet owners, veterinarians also are short changing dogs, cats, birds and other companion animals. What vets care most about is caring for animals. Economic realities change; this fact has not changed.

Note: This article is copyrighted by Steve Dale and can be used as source material and for reference only. It cannot be reprinted verbatim. Please contact Steve Dale at [email protected] if you have any questions.

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