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The High Cost of Veterinary Care

Are Veterinarians Only in it for the Money?

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Photo of Veterinarian & Assistant Examining Cat

Photo of Veterinarian & Assistant Examining Cat

Photo Credit: © iStockPhoto_Dennis Guyitt

In the Economic Euthanasia section of my site, Guest Lila posted:

It seems to me that veterinary doctors are only interested in money. They take advantage of our heartache and charge WAY TOO MUCH, just so THEY can drive fancy cars, live in big houses and go on great vacations! Emergency vets are the worst! Shame on all of you who do that to animal lovers! What a sad world we live in.
Lila, this is not the first time I've seen this type of remark posted about veterinarians, and though I share your angst over the increasing cost of veterinary care, I feel compelled to submit "the other side of the story," as I see it, not only for you, but for all the other people who have expressed the same opinion, or who feel the same way as you.

Are Veterinarians Only In It for the Money?

In my 50+ years of experience with veterinary care, I have found little evidence to support this claim. The veterinarians I have worked with have shown that they care about the pets they treat. I have seen tears in the eyes of a veterinarian after he euthanized my 18 year old cat, who he had treated for several years. There have been several occasions when veterinarians donated in the memory of a euthanized cat, to the U.C.Davis Veterinary College, for research projects to help future sick cats.

Yes, the costs of veterinary care have increased over the years, but not without valid reasons. As an example the U.S. inflation rate rose 15.48% from January 2005 through January 2011. Veterinarians and their staffs pay the same prices we do for housing, food, gasoline, and cars (and my last two vets have driven modest cars). In addition, most they have to repay large student loans, making it unlikely that they can afford big houses and expensive vacations.

Cost of Veterinary School in the U.S.

Schools (Colleges) of veterinary medicine often have a two-tier pricing, with residents of the state where the school is located getting preferential pricing. According to Wikipedia, "In the United States, the average tuition was US$15,676 for residents in the 2006-2007 school year, and $28,861 a year for non-residents. Average cost during the same period of fees was $3,482 (residents) and $4,452 (non-residents), room and board $8,964 (residents and non-residents), and books and equipment $2,043 (residents and non-residents)." That is annual cost, so a resident could have paid $120,660 for a four-year course of study. A non-resident would have paid $177,280. This would, of course been in addition to college studies leading to a Bachelor of Science degree, or its equivalent. Most veterinary student will have to rely on outside funding to pay for this, and are obligated to repay student loans once they have entered practice.

Cost of Establishing a Veterinary Practice

Many new veterinarians can't afford to start their own practices, as their student loans leave them little cash nor credit for financing a practice. The consensus of The Student Doctor Network forum members seems to be that for newly licensed veterinarians to own an independent practice would require a minimum of $500,000 to buy an existing practice or $1 - $2,000,000 to have one built from the ground up. A common comment is that "It costs a lot more in California."

Many recent graduates choose to work as an employee in an established veterinary clinic. After several years, they may want to establish their own practice, partner with another veterinarian, or make arrangements with the owner of the practice employing them for some sort of a gradual buyout.

According to this dvm360 article, "Today's average first-time practice buyer is out of school three years to 10 years and has excellent credit without much net worth, Gerber explains."

Start-up costs aside, veterinarians have the same sort of operating costs as many businesses:

  • Equipment and Supplies
  • Office and Veterinarian/Tech Staff Salaries and Benefits
  • Janitorial & Cleaning Costs
  • Insurance
  • Equipment Loan and/or Lease Payments
In addition, unless the owner veterinarian is independently wealthy, he or she will need a monthly draw for personal expenditures, include rent or real estate loan payments, utilities, transportation, family medical care, insurance, clothing, and the full myriad of expenses all of us must shoulder.

If a practice can't support these costs, with an adequate safety margin it won't stay in business for long.

On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing wrong for us to "comparison shop" veterinarian, nor to switch to other veterinarians if we feel a vet clinic is too highly priced, or the staff seem unfeeling, or not attuned to our cats' needs. Those are the rights of any consumers.

Veterinarians are Human Like You and Me

Your vet is not an unfeeling automaton. He or she carries the same emotions as we do, including sorrow when treatment fails, or a pet has to be euthanized because of financial consideration. However, some hide their feelings better than others. Many professions require a façade of detachment in public, including law enforcement and human medicine. They do their grieving in private, even while appearing uncaring in public.

It is entirely normal for grieving cat caregivers to feel angry at the veterinarian. Part of it may be transferance because of our own inner feelings of helplessness or guilt. Although I didn't feel angry, I evaded the veterinarian who had euthanized one of my aged cats. He had been kind enough to meet me in his clinic after hours, and he was one of the vets who donated to the veterinary college in the cat's honor. But seeing him in the clinic was too much of a reminder, so when the opportunity presented, I switched to another veterinarian employed in his practice.

What I'd like to convey here is that I completely understand. But I also understand enough of the veterinarians' side of the story to feel equal compassion for them.

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