5 Reasons Veterinary Care Is So Expensive

Cat Getting Ultrasound
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Equipment that many vet clinics use often comes from the same companies human hospitals buy from — which can mean it's just as expensive.

A year ago, I did what fewer and fewer veterinarians are choosing to do: I became a veterinary practice owner. In doing so, I learned a lot of predictable things. For example, why my colleagues are increasingly electing to leave the owning and managing of a practice to those more temperamentally suited to the frustrations inherent to boss-dom. But I’ve learned lots more unexpected things, too. Like why veterinary care is so darn expensive.

First, let me state the obvious (obvious to me, anyway): I’m like you. I have pets (many of them). I love them, and I work hard to keep them healthy. I also, believe it or not, struggle to pay their vet bills. After all, the price of veterinary care isn’t confined to the cost of the veterinarian.

That said, I never completely understood why veterinary care was as expensive as it was. It wasn’t until I started analyzing my own practice's monthly expenses that I realized just how much it costs to provide the level of veterinary care you've come to expect.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. Veterinary staff is expensive. By far, the biggest chunk of my budget goes to paying my employees. Which is as it should be. After all, veterinary expertise is no longer the domain of the veterinarian alone. Veterinary staff, including the technicians who help with anesthesia, radiology and caring for hospitalized patients, to name a few things, is now more a) educated (and increasingly credentialed), b) experienced, c) talented and d) hard to find.

All of which means that if you want great veterinary care, you have to pay for great veterinary staff, too. And that means providing high-quality health insurance, continuing education (including paths to certification) and a living wage for all staff members, not just those in the upper ranks.

Then there are the veterinarians themselves to consider: Because if I want to hire experienced veterinarians who can communicate well with my trilingual clientele, I’d better be willing to pay them as much as I pay myself (or more). And if I want to hire young veterinarians, I need to be aware that a) they’ll need a lot of time-intensive mentorship on my part and b) they may have up to $300,000 in student loan debt to shoulder. To some extent, any fair income will have to take that enormous burden into consideration.

2. Veterinarians outsource a lot of specialty services. Used to be your veterinarian would make all her own medical decisions. Today, you might be surprised to learn the degree to which modern veterinary practices rely on veterinary expertise outside their walls.

Consider that X-rays get sent to veterinary radiologists, tissue and blood samples go to veterinary pathologists, and phone calls are placed to nutritionists and toxicologists (among other resources). Even specialists get shipped in on occasion (for example, we have an internal medicine specialist who comes in weekly for consultations).

All this consulting and outsourcing means that your veterinarian is relying on the expertise of specialists to help raise the level of care your pet receives. Great stuff for sure. But it also makes your vet care pricier than it used to be.

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