Cat Getting Ultrasound
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.

3. Drug prices are steep. If you think you spend a lot of money on pet drugs, you should check out my clinic’s drug bills. I pay more than $20,000 a month to a drug manufacturer and a drug distributor alone. These companies deserve their slice, because, as in the case of the manufacturer, they often invest years on research and development, as well as testing to make sure the drugs can be used as safely as possible in animals. So in pricing the drugs, they need to recoup some of these expenses.

Still, the prices for all drugs have climbed so steeply in recent years it’s proved something of a shock to the veterinary status quo. How do we pass these prices on to you without shocking you as well?

This process has been especially stressful for veterinary hospitals seeing as many of our clients are now choosing to purchase their drugs and products online. Not that we object to your doing so, mind you. But when you consider that we still need to stock them, regardless of where you ultimately buy them, drugs can prove expensive in ways you might not realize.

It also costs lots of manpower to manage the fiddly details of keeping enough on hand (but not too much!), storing it right, administering it to your pets or packaging it for you, and making sure you get excellent customer service along the way. Anyone who’s worked in a retail setting can identify with how much time and energy this takes. And none of this even begins to address the vet-specific challenges of selecting the right drugs and their doses!

4. Equipment and supplies often come from the same companies human hospitals use. Which, unfortunately, means they share the same price tags, too.

Whether the syringes, catheters, gauze sponges, endotracheal tubes and surgical equipment will be used on a Labrador Retriever, street cat, human adult or pediatric patient, the price is the same. Which explains why my “new” CO2 monitor is a refurbished item, why I have to include a daily fee for the use of infusion pumps and why every surgical estimate has an extra “materials and supplies” fee tacked on.

5. It costs a lot to rent or build and maintain a veterinary facility. Veterinarians are triply unlucky when it comes to location. Not only do we have to a) abide by all the rules that govern most human hospitals when it comes to environmental impact and public safety and b) satisfy stringent local zoning ordinances that tell us where we can and cannot operate a pet business, but we also have to c) locate ourselves in convenient places with high visibility (if we want to attract your business).

If you think about it, these three restrictions are hard enough to satisfy in almost any locale. Add that to the fact that retail storefronts are expensive (no matter how you slice it), and you’ve got a recipe for expensive property fees, whether they arrive in the form of a lease or mortgage.

Moreover, as I’ve learned over the past 12 months, remodeling any veterinary facility in my municipality has gotten much tougher than it used to be. In particular, pet hospitals in my area now require all the same fire safety niceties as human facilities do. Which means sprinklers, new fire walls and lots of new fire doors. All of which is wonderful for my patients. But it makes my 40-year-old practice’s much-needed remodel extremely expensive, too.

As pets become increasingly important to pet owners, it makes sense they’d require higher-quality care in all kinds of ways, whether it be via certified technicians’ salaries or human-grade fire safety protocols. Which is a great thing. Unfortunately, it also means paying more.

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