The High Costs of Pet Medical Care
Sometimes people express shock about the costs of veterinary medicine but most people are unaware of the costs to operate a veterinary practice and veterinary costs
April 22, 2021
In my March blog, I discussed findings from the February 2021 Modern Pet Parent Report that highlighted the importance pets have played during the pandemic. This report also discussed pet owners' concerns regarding the ability to pay for their pets' medical care. The survey reported, "The thing that stresses pet parents out the most is their pet getting sick (76%), their dog/cat having a chronic/long-term illness (73%), and potential unknown health issues (73%). In addition, 77% of pet parents are concerned about their pet's future health."
The costs of veterinary care have always been a factor to consider regarding pet ownership. Sometimes people express shock about the costs of veterinary medicine and believe veterinarians should discount their services so pet medical costs are more affordable. Expensive diagnostic costs such as x rays and blood tests are sometimes perceived as optional but are needed to ensure quality care is provided. This is especially true in emergency cases, in order to reach a definitive diagnosis and begin the right treatment plan as soon as possible.
Most people are unaware of the costs to operate a veterinary practice and veterinary costs are not subsidized like human medicine. Health insurance companies, local, State, and federal funding, and hospital nonprofit supporting foundations all factor into the costs hospitals for humans bill patients. Human medicine costs are actually significantly higher than what veterinarians charge, but most people never see the actual costs for human hospital services because of the subsidies mentioned above, especially for routine and non-emergency services. This leads to a misconception that veterinary medicine pricing is higher.
Veterinarians should be able to charge appropriately for their services, time, and expertise. They are doctors who have devoted years of study and passed rigorous examinations to become licensed and must be able to maintain a viable business. Many veterinary students graduate with nearly $200,000 in student debt and it can take decades to pay off these loans. Veterinary specialists pursue advanced board certifications requiring more investment in time and educational costs. Veterinary hospitals are businesses that must pay for salaries and benefits, supplies, medical equipment, operating costs, overhead, liability insurance, and more. Veterinary expenses can be regular, like vaccinations and exams, or unexpected and costly. Some low-cost routine services like vaccines and spay/neuter surgeries can be found with local service providers (contact your local animal care center for referrals), but emergency services and long-term illnesses are not offered by these sources.
Isabella in chair
I know firsthand the unexpected medical costs of pet ownership and the need to make a very expensive decision right away. Several years ago, I took one of my routine early morning walks with our four large dogs. Suddenly Isabella, our nine-year-old Great Pyrenees, began having extreme difficulty breathing. We were three blocks from home when she collapsed and couldn't walk anymore. She began gasping for air, her gums were turning blue, and she was in great distress. I was unable to carry her home (she weighed 95 pounds), especially with three other large dogs in tow. Thankfully, a good friend was close by and rushed over so I could put Isabella in her car. She drove Isabella home while I ran back to with the other three dogs, put Isabella in my car, and rushed her to the emergency hospital. On my way to the hospital another friend called them ahead of me so they could be prepared to receive Isabella right away. Two registered veterinary technicians were waiting outside with a gurney and they whisked Isabella into the hospital where the board-certified veterinarian began working on her. He intubated Isabella so she could begin receiving the necessary oxygen and stabilized her condition.
Once my precious dog was out of danger, the veterinarian explained to me what was happening. Isabella had developed a severe onset case of laryngeal paralysis, a condition where the nerves of the laryngeal muscles become weak or paralyzed and the flaps that separate the esophagus from the trachea do not work. In Isabella's case, the flaps had mostly closed and were preventing her from taking in enough oxygen to her lungs.
The only treatment for Isabella was emergency surgery. One flap in her trachea had to be sutured to the tracheal wall to maintain an open airway or she would not survive. I was provided a surgery estimate of $5,000. The veterinarian also told me that dogs that have this surgery are more susceptible to aspiration pneumonia, where food or water could enter her trachea (and into her lungs) instead of her esophagus. Additionally, I learned that laryngeal paralysis is highly associated with myasthenia gravis, a disease where there is a malfunction in the transmission of signals between the nerves and muscles. This is most exhibited in extreme weakness and excessive fatigue and could be a condition she would face later.
My husband and I had to make a quick decision. A nine-year-old Great Pyrenees is a senior dog, and we had to consider the significant and unexpected surgical cost with Isabella's life expectancy and ability to live a good life with the potential problems the veterinarian told us she might have. We agreed that we wanted to make every effort to save her life and proceeded with the surgery. I am happy to say it was successful and she lived another five years without any problems.
However, this was a very large and unexpected expense for us. What can pet owners do in situations like this? Here are a few options:
Purchase pet health insurance. There are many resources on the internet that rank and rate pet insurance companies. Be sure to review each plan carefully and review the insurer's track record, research what is covered and what might affect coverage, choose the coverage that works for you, pick the type of reimbursement that works for you, review the cost and value, ask about discounts, and enroll your pets when they are young and healthy to avoid limited coverage due to pre-existing conditions.
Set aside savings to pay out of pocket when the time comes.
Acquire emergency veterinary financing on credit. Care Credit is a well-known provider of such credit and most veterinary hospitals can tell you how to immediately apply. Make sure you read all the terms and conditions for payments to avoid penalties.
Launch a crowdfunding campaign to get financial help from others. Many times, friends and family will chip in to help offset the costs of care.
I learned the benefit of having animal health insurance when my horse Murphy developed a severe case of cellulitis in his leg and had to be hospitalized for two weeks. His medical treatment came to an overwhelming $14,000, but thanks to his insurance I only had to pay the $350 deductible. The annual premium payments I had paid for years were a good investment and I'm grateful I had the insurance. He is now a happy 22-year-old Shire horse (often mistaken for a Clydesdale), enjoying his easy trail rides and getting petted by many hikers we meet along the way.
Owning a pet is countlessly rewarding, but also comes with the responsibility of being able to pay for appropriate medical care. Veterinarians can save your pet's life in an emergency, but they must be able to recover their costs to stay in business. Planning for high cost emergencies and/or unexpected diagnoses recurring long term care can alleviate worry and allow you to enjoy pet ownership more, knowing that you will be able to care for your pet no matter what comes.