Every so often (at least a couple of times a week or more), prospective clients call with a few choice questions: How much is an office visit? A spay? Vaccines?

It tends to stop there. The caller typically acts horrified and hangs up in a disgusted huff: “How dare they?!,” I can almost hear them say (though I am on the other side of the room working on my charts and trying hard not to pay attention).

In case you needed to be told (and you guys never do), a veterinary practice is not like a Wal-Mart—we don’t match our competitor’s prices. We each do our own thing.

“Collusion” is what they call the other approach—the one where all the vet hospitals get together to artificially inflate prices. Somewhere back in the age of the robber-barons our society began trying to stop this consumer-unfriendly practice (and have been managing with middling success ever since).

While I believe strongly in the consumer’s right (and responsibility) to make intelligent, informed choices in every aspect of their financial lives, it does grate a bit to have your services decried on the basis of price alone—even before the client walks in the door.

I can tell by your interest in your pets’ well being that few (if any) of this blog’s readers found their vet by price shopping and coupon clipping. Most of you were either very fortunate and clicked with the first place you found, relied on the kindness of like-minded friends for referrals, or hopped around a bit until you settled on a great practice. In my opinion, there’s really no other sane way—that is, if you value healthcare.

The worst part of price-shopping? It generally doesn’t get you far in terms of finding the least expensive place to take your pets. All vets know about this consumer practice. So as not to scare away potential clients, many vets price their most “shoppable” services low (often well below market prices) and hope the pet owner doesn’t notice the up-charge on everything else. Perhaps by the time they notice they’re already madly in love with the practice or (more likely) their innate human laziness forestalls defection.

A good rule of thumb for price-shoppers (lifted from a traditional Cuban saying): You can buy something good, something pretty and something cheap but you can’t get all three in one purchase. Sure, sometimes you get lucky but, more often than not, looking for cheap above all else sacrifices the other two in ways you might not even imagine.

To add a little more confusion, there’s also the problem of believing that paying the most will get you the best. That approach, like price-shopping in reverse, tends to be ineffective as well, in my experience. Whether in Philadelphia, Miami, New York or Boston (four places I’ve spent significant time with pets), the highest priced emergency, specialty or general practice was typically the place in business the longest, not the one with the highest quality services. Unless they’re hampered by a seriously expensive location or a huge investment in extra-fancy equipment, most upstart practices (the ones with hungry, young minds) tend to be the most cost-effective in the high-quality arena.

I thoroughly dislike price-shopping so much that should I ever own a practice I’ll be sure to go the way of my current employer and price even my spays, neuters and vaccines at what I think they’re worth, not at numbers designed to “bring ‘em in.” God forbid I should have to deal with the penny-pinchers in every aspect of what I do. Smart consumerism is one thing, but pet owners looking to challenge my prices across the board?—that’s quite another…and they’ll just have to go elsewhere (I hope).