by Marcy LaHart, J.D.

By sheer coincidence, I had my twice yearly dental cleaning on Tuesday-the same day that I took my 12 year old cat to the vet to have his teeth cleaned. The bill for my cleaning was $115.00. Karma’s was $598.01. This is not really a fair comparison because, unlike me, who white knuckled it through the scraping and polishing, Karma had to be anesthetized. For Karma there was pre –surgery blood work, an electrocardiogram, cardiac monitoring, and pain control. And he had goopy ears-my vet determined the nature of the goop and cleaned them- as service that Vicki, my dental hygienist, did not undertake in regards to my own ears. And to be fair, Karma’s teeth were much worse than mine-I brush and floss-he refuses.

While many of my friends and family would be aghast that I shelled out almost $600.00 to have my cat’s teeth cleaned on the not so lucrative salary of a public interest lawyer, let me be clear that I do not begrudge the animal hospital a penny. Karma is a fine little pussy cat that has been a part of my life for a long time, I would not want any corners cut that would jeopardize his well being.  But I find it incredibly hypocritical that when I am in the unenviable position of taking on a veterinarian for malpractice, which occurs far more often than I wish, the lawyers for those same veterinarians that collect $600 for a kitty dental, or $3,000 for a hip replacement will argue that “like it or not your honor, animals are property under the law and even if my client was negligent, poor Mrs. Jones is only entitled to the fair market value of Boots.” Vets charge like our pets are “members of the family” but when their own negligence causes their non-human patient’s death, they insist that your beloved companion should be valued like a sofa or toaster oven and that the grieving pet owner should be entitled to replacement value only.

Karma is a rather unremarkable looking solid black cat. Sadly, thousands of similarly unremarkable looking black cats await new homes in shelters nationwide. The average adoption fee for an adult neutered domestic shorthair cat is about $65.00.  Obviously it would have been much more cost effective to replace Karma with a new cat than to have his teeth cleaned.  But of course I did not even consider that option, because Karma is a unique individual with a personality of his own. There will never be another cat quite like Karma, a once feral kitten flushed out from under an abandoned house by my husky, and who now sleeps on my chest most nights.   My emotional attachment to Karma motivates me to provide whatever veterinary care he needs at a price far in excess of his “fair market value.”

Veterinarian associations and their insurers are vehemently opposed to any legislation that would explicitly allow a pet owner to collect more than the fair market value of a negligently killed companion animal. When the topic is considered, they rhetorically spout a parade of future horribles that paralyzes even the most well intentioned and animal friendly of law makers. They claim malpractice premiums will soar, which of course vets must pass on to their clients, thereby pricing the average Joe right out of pet ownership. According to the veterinary medical associations’ lobbyists, vets will have to do all sorts of currently unneeded diagnostic tests just to cover their asses, and the courthouse steps will be clogged with greedy attorneys anxious to file frivolous suits on behalf of supposedly grieving pet owners. It will be the end of the world as we know it. 

For a little reality in response to “the sky is gonna fall” scenario, I would point to the well measured work of a Harvard Law School graduate named Christopher Green, who has carefully scrutinized the veterinary community’s repeated assertion that valuing pets as more than a sofa will cause insurance premiums to “skyrocket.”

According to Green, while companion animal veterinarians’ average salaries have doubled in the last 10 years to a healthy $107,071 (putting them in the top 5% of U.S. wage earners), the majority still only pay a paltry $191 for their malpractice insurance!   BY dividing this liability coverage cost among the average number of clients per veterinarian (1755 according to the AAHA), Green points out that each pet owning household is currently paying only 11¢ per year for their share of veterinary malpractice insurance ($191 annual premium ÷ 1755 clients per veterinarian = 11¢ per client).  Even if a veterinarian purchases the maximum $1 million/$3 million coverage for a cost of $246, that still comes out to only 14¢ per client––mere pennies per pet owner each year.  Notably, in flat dollars this level of malpractice insurance costs only $4 more than it did in 1989.  Adjusting for inflation, Green concludes that veterinarians are actually paying 39% LESS for these malpractice policies than they were 19 years ago. This price decrease was verified by the country’s largest veterinary liability insurer the AVMA-PLIT.

Veterinary malpractice premiums are cheap because the handful of awards in veterinary malpractice cases have been nowhere near the available policy liability limits, and therefore insurance companies have little or no risk when issuing policies, no matter how incompetent their insured. The largest verdict in a veterinary malpractice case ever was $39,000; most are only a small fraction of that.

ABD Insurance and the California VMA calculated exactly how much they would have to increase veterinary liability premiums if emotional damages for companion animal loss were allowed, and capped at $25,000. The results published in DVM Magazine found that each veterinarian’s annual premiums would just about double, rising by $212. Dividing the predicted price increase by the average number of clients per veterinarian, each pet owner’s annual veterinary costs would increase by less than 13¢, going from less that 12¢ a year to almost a whole quarter a year. This 13¢ rise in the cost of annual veterinary care is hardly enough to price anyone out of pet ownership.

Unfortunately, regardless of the truth, groups like the FVMA and AVMA have powerful lobbyists that have made the “premiums will skyrocket” rhetoric their mantra, and our legislators fall for it hook line and sinker. Holding veterinarians accountable for their mistakes, not matter how egregious the circumstances, is as popular a notion as making nun-beating an Olympic event.

Veterinarians make their living only because of the emotional attachment that exists between a companion animal and his or her guardian. But for that bond, people would go get a new cat or dog rather than pay for a dental or a hip replacement or even an annual wellness exam with vaccines.  Seems to me if you are going to make a living off that bond you’ve got a lot of damn nerve to turn around and trivialize it the moment something goes wrong.