Why You Can't Expect Vets to Cover Pricey Life-and-Death Expenses

Veterinary Invoice

If you follow me on Facebook, you probably know that I got myself into some hot water with one of my recent posts, in which I described how an owner felt compelled to choose one pet over another after both of them got into a bottle of ibuprofen and ended up needing thousands of dollars of care.

Since she had only the money to save one dog, the client decided to euthanize the sicker pet — the one we'd deemed hardest to save.

It was a horrible story, but it seemed all the worse to those of you who took issue with the role of the veterinarians.

Here’s a sampling of your comments on the subject:

“My country vet would never expect you to choose. He would make payments available to save both. If that couldn’t happen, he would lower the cost. I would like to think that most vets would do the same.”

“There would be a way to treat both. If you have a relationship with a decent vet, there would be no issue.”

“How could a veterinarian require an owner to make that choice??”

“I wouldn't have a vet that would make me choose and wouldn't help me.”

That’s pretty harsh stuff to hear when you’re a vet, especially since I was involved in the case. But while I wasn’t the one delivering the multi-thousand-dollar estimates — most general practices are neither equipped nor qualified to treat cases of perforating gastrointestinal lesions — I can’t see how anyone can blame the specialty hospital for requiring payment.

According to a 2011 study conducted by Veterinary Economics and Wutchiett Tumblin and Associates, well-managed animal hospitals generate, on average, an 18 percent profit on their services, which means that a $10,000 estimate (it was just under that for one of the two dogs mentioned above) requires that the hospital effectively pay about $7,200 to save the dog. Even if the veterinarians involved donate their time, we’re still looking at around a $4,200 outlay on the hospital’s part.

That’s a lot of money. But regardless of whether we’re talking about a $1,000, $100 or $10 estimate, I do wonder why a vet should be expected to pay for a service.

When it comes to life-and-death decision making, however, lower sums start to mean a whole lot less, and veterinarians often choose to cover their clients. But, even then, the sacrifice should be considered a gift offered by someone who's electing to help, not an expectation. After all, euthanasia is considered a perfectly moral and ethical decision in these cases.

Allowing an animal to suffer because someone can’t pay for euthanasia? That’s cruel and horrible. Failing to offer to pay for a pet’s care? It’s a terrible position to find yourself in as a veterinarian, but here’s the truth: If I covered all of my life-and-death cases to the extent of my ability with all the equipment, supplies, services and assistance that it entails, I can promise you that I’d be out of business and not helping anyone.

As it is, at least a couple thousand dollars comes directly out of my pocket every year on payment plans for life-and-death situations that only about 50 percent of my clients pay back. I know it's a big risk to offer this option, but what can I do?

I suppose that I could do what many hospitals do and euthanize my patients when their owners can’t pay. Don’t get me wrong — I find myself doing this more often than is psychologically healthy for me. But if I didn’t, it wouldn’t be fair to me or my family.

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