Updated November 29, 2020
This article aims to save pets lives and improve owners’ awareness of their rights. While I believe it is a discussion we need to have, it includes topics which may be upsetting to some. It in no way is intended to be read as criticism of the business practices of any veterinarian and is not referring to any specific surgery, clinic or hospital. At the end is a series of recommendations for what to do when faced with the need to make a quick decision.
Over the past five years or so I have seen an increase in clients being unable to afford veterinary care. These stories are told to me much later and by then it is too late to to help. The situation usually results from a sudden need for an expensive procedure, and often results in either taking on debt, or tragically, surrendering their pet or even euthanasia. Although some procedures are always going to cost more than some owners can afford, these cases have been remarkable because the fees required were significantly higher than at their usual vet, and they did not realise this.
We as vets tend to avoid talking about our fees. After all, we didn’t become vets to get rich, and we are often embarrassed to have to charge for what we do. But vet practices are expensive to equip and maintain, and vets and nurses need a wage. Without adequate fees we can’t be here.
Vet Fees Are Not The Same
However, the thing we don’t like to mention is that those fees vary widely between vets. And clients need to understand this if we want more pets to receive treatment. That’s why I feel we need to talk about our fees and your rights as pet owners.
So by how much do vets differ? Honestly I do not know but I regularly hear of cost estimates and actual bills in excess of double the fees many other vets would have charged for a similar procedure. But of course it is impossible to say if the procedures are truly the same and therefore comparisons are at best unreliable.
Some of the differences will be due to different opinions on what is necessary to be done or included in the procedures. Despite our similar aims, we often arrive at the solution from different approaches, based on our varied learning and experience. But it is also important to remember that vets can and do have the right to choose the fee structure that best suits their practice. Every practice will have different costs, overheads and wage structures, and it is very difficult to accuse these vets of overcharging.
How Vet Bills Have Changed
It seems to me that fee structures now broadly fall into two camps. I would estimate that it is still the majority of vets who charge fees which are roughly the same as 20 years ago (once adjusted for inflation). There seems to be a smaller group who charge significantly more, often both by added services and by higher base fees. These higher fees are usually not evident in the areas such as vaccination, desexing, microchips or consultations, but instead are usually on anaesthetic, dental, diagnostic and surgery fees for example. Of course, fee structure does not necessarily reflect service quality.
I am not writing this to promote our practice as somehow cheaper and indeed I do not think we are especially cheap. I am acutely aware that our fees are higher than some pet owners can afford, and we do our best for these clients. We try to treat animals to the best available standards regardless of any discussion about fees. Furthermore, if there is a treatment we consider is likely to give a better outcome we will offer it, including referral to other vets.
It is also important to mention that in many cases, at any vet, it is OK for costs to be a part of the decision as to how to treat. Read here about the five different cost options to treat one dog’s illness.
If You Can’t Afford Vet Fees
So what should you do if you are in the position of being at a vet and unable to afford the estimated fees? You may feel you have no choice but most of the time you do have real rights and choices. Here are some tips:
- As long as your pet can be safely transported you can ask to transfer your pet to a clinic of your choice. You will likely need to do this yourself, but even if they have an intravenous drip this can be temporarily plugged, and wounds or fractured legs can be dressed and immobilised.
- If you intend to stay, it is your right to ask for a realistic estimate of costs and to be kept updated as these costs increase. Most vets these days offer finance schemes such as VetPay.
- If unsure what to do, call your usual vet for advice. Most vets would gladly offer their support even if it is just to reassure you that you are in the best place.
- If the vets or nurses seem concerned about your pet being treated if you leave, they may mention calling the RSPCA. Even if this occurs, once the RSPCA discover you have only transferred your pet to another clinic they will be perfectly satisfied.
- If calling another vet it is very difficult to compare prices as so much is unknown. A good tip is to ask what the last procedure of a similar type ended up costing. This may not be exactly what your pet’s work will cost but it should give a ballpark estimate.
- Once your pet is transferred the second vets can easily request a full treatment history from the first vet. Indeed, vets are required to do this and will always send the file quickly when asked. Many times, you can also ask for a printed copy for yourself.
I hope you find this information will help you in these stressful times. In no way do I want to put you off using some of the excellent vet services available in Adelaide. For many people, cost is not a major concern and they find the services are exactly what they want. And its always worth mentioning that costs of equivalent work in humans are usually still much higher. It’s just that there are many other pet owners whom I fear when faced with unaffordable fees will decide to surrender or euthanase their pet, and either not have pets again or avoid veterinary care altogether.
The final and best advice I can give is to avoid at all costs leaving problems to the last minute. Many complex and expensive cases start out as ‘perhaps it’s just something he ate’ and can often be avoided with prompt attention. Researching a second vet in case your preferred vet is unavailable is also a good idea. See our emergency vet page for example. A good pet insurance policy for your beloved pet is another sensible way to prepare for the unforeseen.
Related reading: Who owns the vet clinics & hospitals in Adelaide?
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!