I received this question via email a few weeks ago. It’s a tough one to answer convincingly for one obvious reason: Anyone who has priced pet sterilization procedures knows that spays and neuters can be really inexpensive if you’re willing to access public services. In my part of south Florida, between $30 and $50 seems about average for a “public” spay, but I've seen them go for nothing in some municipalities.

This is mostly because we’ve learned that offering low-cost (or no-cost) sterilization leads to lower levels of pet overpopulation, so lots of donations and tax dollars go toward making pet ownership more affordable for those who can’t manage vet prices for all their pets’ healthcare needs.

So it’s hardly surprising that pet owners would wonder why vets charge so much. $200 for a cat spay? $400 to spay a dog? Really?

Small Dog vs. Big Dog Price Differences

The thing is that spays can be impressively expensive when they're not heavily subsidized by tax dollars or foundations. At private practices, the procedure typically ranges from $100 to $600. The rule of thumb: Spays for smaller, younger, leaner pets require less time and fewer resources, so they cost less than they would for larger, older, fatter pets.

Indeed, the tremendous variation within our pet population — from the daintiest Chihuahua to the most obese Rottweiler ever — means there’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to private-practice spay pricing.

But here's some insight: We wouldn’t expect a human doctor or hospital to quote one rigid fee for every patient, right? In human medicine, we’d never question the need for higher prices for higher-risk patients when extra precautions are necessary.

Consider one notable case of mine, a 10-year-old Lab who was diabetic and overweight. This high-risk case was anything but routine: She needed extra lab work in advance, extra hands in the operating room, extra time in recovery and extra drugs. Hence the $750 bill.

Questions Pet Owners Should Consider

Nonetheless, pet owners still have a way of getting worked up when the estimate hits their hands: Why is it that X hospital can do a spay for $100, and you want to charge me $500?

Here’s what smart owners have to ask themselves:

Am I comparing apples to apples? In other words, is hospital A offering the exact same service as hospital B? Do both facilities have the same kind of anesthetic monitoring equipment? Do both have additional higher-quality services available, such as pain control meds, intravenous catheter placement, intravenous fluid administration, pre-anesthetic lab work and other so-called “frills”?

Unlike most shelters, private veterinary hospitals are dedicated to the care of individual pets. And while we may find ways to price things more affordably, we’re far less likely to skimp on the “frills” we’ve come to consider fundamental.

That said, some hospitals deliberately charge less for spays and neuters to attract comparison shoppers — and make up for it in other ways by increasing prices on drugs and food.

Does the vet exceed the standard of care that I expect for my pet? This question usually trumps all else. When there’s trust, there’s no need to question the bill unless there’s an obvious error.

Given the specialized skill, modern equipment, high-quality materials and expensive drugs attached to pet sterilization, it’s no stretch to say that spays are probably underpriced by most veterinary hospitals. But most veterinarians are highly motivated to stem the tide of animal overpopulation, and if it means making spays and neuters cheaper, we’ll go there.

To read more opinion pieces on Vetstreet, click here.