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When the cost of veterinary care comes up, it doesn’t matter if I’m talking to a single pet owner or a group of veterinarians, the look is always the same: a combination of dread, fear and sadness.
The sadness is the easiest to understand. That’s because when the pet owner and the veterinarian cannot together stretch their resources to provide care, the animal is the one who will suffer (and possibly die). This situation happens every day, at every veterinary practice. And it’s no easier to be on the veterinarian’s side of these conversations than the pet owner’s side, I assure you.
We can’t give our services away, and we often can’t discount them very much either. We work very hard to price veterinary care as competitively as we can, bearing in mind that we have salaries and benefits to pay, as well as insurance, utilities, mortgages and all the other costs of doing business. It’s good to see more people preparing for the cost of good care by purchasing pet health insurance, but the majority of pet owners still figure they’ll deal with problems as they come up — and hope nothing ever does.
It’s a rare pet (or person) who gets through life without seeing the doctor. In human medicine, we’ve come to understand that preventive and wellness care saves money and limits misery, and the same attitude toward preventive care in pets is also slowly finding a place in the minds of pet owners as well. Too often, though, veterinary care is reactive, not proactive. And yes, I know that’s often because of money, and the fear that the cost of care will be too much, even for preventive strategies that save in the long run.
The result? When those pets finally see a vet, there’s more wrong (sometimes a lot more) than what the owner brought the pet in for. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve flipped a lip and seen gums that looked as if a blowtorch had passed over them, accompanied by breath that would stop an elephant in his tracks. Usually that animal is in my office for something else, typically an urgent matter, but the chronic pain of broken teeth and gums is something I can’t ignore.
Nor is the chronic pain of osteoarthritis, especially in a pet who is overweight or obese. These animals hurt every day, all the time, and I can help. Why would you want your veterinarian to say nothing when saying something can improve your pet’s quality of life, often a great deal and sometimes at little cost?
That’s why I never bite my tongue when it comes to advocating for a pet.
That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the worry about expenses. We’ve all tightened our belts these past few years, and that includes those of us in the veterinary profession. Sometimes that means veterinarians don’t speak up about what they see, because they fear that they’ll be turned down when they suggest treatment for things other than what brought a pet into the office that day.
I suggest another route. I work with pet owners to set priorities. I advocate for taking care of everything a pet needs, even if it takes time. By working together with the pet’s owner, I can advise on home care that will help a great deal, such as losing weight and the “good, better, best” care of a pet’s teeth and gums. And with an open and honest discussion, we can work together to address each problem in order of urgency — and to handle each pet's health issues over time, rather than all at once, to ease any budgetary strain.
You want what’s best for your pet and so does your veterinarian. That means working together to turn “no” into “when.” As the months pass, your pet will get healthier and happier, and will be on the path to wellness that is at the heart of proactive care. The elephant in the exam room is always money, and how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
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