How much is that spay in the window?
Spaying and neutering should not be cost prohibitive, and in fact, they're not. If you call your local shelter and ask, you'll find that they can be really inexpensive. I’ve seen them go for nothing in some municipalities (as in $0) and seldom for more than a hundred bucks when the shelter does charge ($30 to $50 seems about average for South Florida). But that's never a reflection of the true cost.
Sterilization procedures (spay, ovariectomy, or ovariohysterectomy for females, and neuter or castration for boys) can also be darn pricey when they're not heavily subsidized by your tax dollars or by private foundations.
Dog spays? In private veterinary practices they typically range from $100 to $500, though I’ve seen spays go for as high as $1,500 in specialty hospitals (where they’re considered anything but routine).
Though our practice is not considered an especially pricey one, one notable case (an older, obese yellow Lab with a variety of complex underlying medical issues) left the hospital at just under $750!
Cat spays are priced more uniformly, since there’s not a big divide between the smallest and largest patients. Most are spayed quite young, too, which helps support this uniformity: $75 to $350 is typical.
Cat neuters adhere to an even smaller range: $50 to $150, typically.
And dog neuters usually go for anywhere from $100 to $500, depending more on the size of the patient than anything else, though complications may drive it up further in some exceptional cases.
"What’s up with that?" you may have asked yourself when presented with a $350 estimate for your dog’s neuter. "If I can get it for less than the price of a toaster oven at the shelter, then how can it cost this much at my regular vet’s place?"
Never fret––that’s why I’m here. I planned this post to help demystify the expense of spays and neuters so that you can make an informed decision the next time you elect to "alter" your pet’s reproductive system.
For starters, spays and neuters are vastly different procedures. Though both remove your pets’ gonads (the organs that produce the sperm or eggs), they differ in complexity, risk, pain, and the time required to accomplish them.
Because a spay is an intra-abdominal procedure (we have to go inside the delicate abdomen), it’s more complicated. We must remove the ovaries, and typically the uterus too (though less commonly undertaken in the U.S., it’s considered equally acceptable to remove the ovaries alone). More preparation, materials, anesthetic time, risk of infection, and pain relievers are needed for this procedure than for a neuter.
Most pet owners consider the spay a simple procedure, but it’s not. Much of this misconception has to do with the importance we veterinarians have historically attached to the issue of population control.
Because we do so many spays (especially in young animals) we vets have also become desensitized to the complexity of the procedure. It’s only when an older, larger, fatter pet presents for the same "simple" spay that we become re-attuned to the difficulties it entails.
In the case of males, the gonads (the testicles) are on the outside of the body (unless a congenital malformation called cryptorchidism––a retained testicle––is the case). For dogs, testicles are easily removed with one teeny incision on the outside and four simple snips on the inside. Voilá! Bigger dogs have bigger vessels and thus pose a greater risk, but this procedure is always easier than any spay (that’s my take, anyway).
Cat neuters are the easiest of ‘em all. You just make two external incisions, pop out the goods and tie ‘em off. No resuturing even need take place. You’re done.
In general, the larger and/or older the pet, the more discomfort, time, and expense involved––whether it be a spay or a neuter. That’s why most pricing of these procedures is based on size. For an older and/or fatter pet, I’ll typically tack on additional fees for the extra time, materials, and pain medication required to do it right. That’s why we tend to provide more individualized estimates for these procedures. We refuse to provide exact estimates over the phone unless we’ve seen the pet before.
And while that may annoy those of you calling around to get the best price, it should also give you some insight. We wouldn’t expect a human doc or hospital to quote one rigid fee for every patient, right? Sure, insurance companies may set physician and hospital reimbursement limits, but we all know that’s no reflection on the individualized attention we expect from our healthcare providers.
It’s my opinion that veterinarians should be no different from human physicians in this regard. We should allow differences in pets’ needs to dictate our prices, but they don’t always.
Which brings me to my next point: Some veterinary facilities apply an economic philosophy when it comes to spays and neuters. As is also common for the pricing of vaccines and other routine procedures, some hospitals and clinics deliberately charge less for spays and neuters than for other items. They know we humans like to shop around by asking about prices for routine things, so they often keep these low to attract comparison shoppers.
That means some vets may not make as much on spays and neuters, but it also means they make up for it in other ways once you’ve walked in the door, met the vets and staff, and decided you like what you see. Just as shelters subsidize their spays and neuters with tax dollars, some hospitals do it by increasing prices in other areas (like their pharmacy). No, there’s nothing sinister about this––though it might sound strange. This practice is the legacy of a history of pet medicine as a retail service akin to oil changes on your SUV. Sure, our view has changed along with our growing attachment to our pets, but price shopping for pet healthcare, as for brake repairs, is still a common practice.
Consumer Reports even urges you to call around and get the price of a basket of vet basics, though in my experience some of the highest priced veterinary hospitals still under-price their spays, neuters, and other routine procedures in this way.
Then there’s the issue of quality to contend with. Some hospitals can make spays and neuters more affordable by cutting costs in certain areas. Less expensive anesthetics, cheaper (or nonexistent) pain protocols, no monitoring equipment, no pranesthetic bloodwork, no IV catheters, no dedicated anesthesia, surgical or recovery technicians.
It’s true. Most pets don’t need some of these bells and whistles––until there’s a problem ... and then they do.
Some shelters and low-cost spay and neuter clinics (where young pets are the norm) often live without the so-called frills. After all, they’re looking out for the entire population of pets and MUST cut corners if they’re to spay and neuter as many pets as possible with the limited funds they’ve got. (I used to neuter ferals on my kitchen table, so I should know).
Private veterinary hospitals, however, are dedicated to the care of individual pets. And while they might find ways to price themselves more affordably, we’re far less likely to skimp on the frills we’ve come to consider fundamental.
Given the specialized skill, modern equipment, high-quality materials, expensive drugs and multi-tech attention to our patients, it’s no stretch to say that spays and neuters are probably under-priced by most veterinary hospitals to some extent. How can some of us charge that much more than others for a procedure most of us consider necessary?
In years to come, it’s clear to me the price for these procedures will rise disproportionate to other veterinary services. As we vets continue to lose income from our pharmacies to online outlets and we begin to function less like retail stores, you can bet my range of fees for spays and neuters will creep beyond their higher limits. The question is: Will you be able to afford it?
Dr. Patty Khuly