Vet costs rising – with good reason

Health care costs for pets seem to have run wild over the past decade. Dr. Nigel Skinner explains why. Photo: Beach Metro News file photo

I was asked on Facebook to explain why the cost of veterinary care had risen so much in the past five to 10 years. The person who asked stated that in her experience, the cost of some surgical procedures had more than doubled and that overall vet bills were considerably higher than they were less than a decade ago.

I asked the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association if they had any actual data on how veterinary costs to pet owners had changed over the years. Although they were not able to tell me how much costs have gone up, they were able to tell me that the OVMA fee guide, used by many clinics to set their fees, has increased an average of 2.4 per cent annually over the past five years. (Most business owners will know that the cost of operating a business in Toronto has risen by considerably more than 2.4 per cent a year over that time).

Usually I will write this column from the perspective of the veterinary profession as a whole, but in this case I can only speak for myself and my own experience as a clinic owner. Most clinics I know operate at or below the fee guide, so it would seem that increasing fees have not been a major factor in rising vet bills. Personally, I think that in the past 10 years there have been some significant changes both within the profession and in society in general that have contributed to bigger vet bills.

In the early 2000s a significant shift in the attitudes of pet owners was noted. There was a real movement toward a pet being viewed as a true part of the family. At the same time it was recognized that many younger couples where foregoing having children and spending their “kid” money on their pets. Thus was born the explosion of specialty pet stores, day cares etc.

This didn’t change anything about veterinary medicine per se, but it did mark the start of rapidly growing expectations from pet owners for all elements of the care of their pet.

Add to this cultural change the expansion of the internet and social media over the same period, and the result is a much more aware and informed pet owner, with much higher expectations of those trusted with the care of their pets.

This is a good thing, and in my opinion has greatly improved the quality of all elements of pet care. It has certainly had a huge impact on rapidly advancing the quality of veterinary care we can now offer, but everything comes with a cost.

From the perspective of the profession itself, over this time period there have been many remarkable advancements in protocols and equipment, and new surgical techniques that reduce complications and speed recovery. Equipment typically only seen in human hospitals has become more commonplace in veterinary clinics, especially in the areas of patient monitoring, pain management and surgery.

With this rapid progression, veterinarians must decide if they are going to continuously upgrade their equipment and protocols to keep up with many, some or just a few of the advances that are happening.

Speaking for myself, I feel that this community is best served by a vet who can offer a very high level of medical and surgical care for pet owners who are willing and able to follow the best medical care guidelines.

That said, I also feel very strongly that as professionals we should be prepared and able to always do “the next best thing” in those situations where the best guidelines cannot be followed, usually because of financial strain. I often will tell clients that my job is to be able to explain to them all of their options (including, but never limited to the “if there was OHIP for cats and dogs” option), so they can make their own educated decision, then support them in whatever decision they make. I would never make someone feel guilty for not being able to afford the highest level of care, just as I would not want to be made to feel guilty for having to charge for it.

At my clinic we follow many of the protocols developed by the American Animal Hospital Association. By electing to follow these guidelines we know we are holding ourselves to the profession’s highest current standard, but there is a real cost to doing so.

For example, the minimum standards as set out by the College of Veterinarians of Ontario for performing a dental cleaning in a pet do not require pre-anesthetic blood testing, a dedicated person monitoring anesthesia – or more than a stethoscope to do so – nor do they require dental x-ray capability. Following current best medical practices requires reviewing blood tests, taking x-rays, and a person dedicated to monitoring and recording everything from blood pressure to expired CO2.  It would more than halve my cost to perform a dental cleaning following only the minimum standards, but I genuinely believe that this is not what the pet owners I see want.

So while just about everything has increased in cost in the last five to 10 years, it is true that the average vet bill has increased more significantly. Like every business as certain things get more expensive we have to charge more to cover our costs, but more than that, I believe, the average bill has increased mostly because the value has increased even more.

When I explain my definition of value to a new staff member I’ll pose a question like this: Say you have two perfectly healthy cats that go to different vets for a checkup. The owners both tell their vet they think their cat may be drinking more water. Vet 1 says “she looks fine, it’s probably nothing, keep an eye on it,” and charges $80 for the checkup. Vet 2 says “she seems fine on her checkup, but we should run some tests to make sure her kidneys are okay and that she’s not diabetic.” They do the tests and it turns out she is fine, but he charges $200. Then I ask which client just got better value: the one who paid $200 to know her cat was okay, or the one who paid $80 to have someone hope she was probably okay?

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