Here’s a double-post offering for your pets. This is the first of two entries on the canine and feline “oil change,"––AKA, the indispensable annual visit. The kitty version will arrive later this week so stay tuned.

Every year, we veterinarians recommend you brighten our lives with your loyal presence. Sure, it means you trust us and want to support our businesses, but more importantly, it says to us that you truly value your pets’ lives. 

See, not everyone makes it in for the annual––especially not this year. 

While our normal compliance rate for canine annual exams is about 85-95%, this year it’s down to about 75-80% from January and February of last year. That means about a quarter of our dogs aren’t making it back around for the basics. 

That’s largely because of the economy, of course, but it’s also the result of our change in vaccination protocols. When you know your dog no longer needs annual vaccines and the economy is in the toilet, our less-inspired pet owners (and those who are seriously financially challenged) are much less likely to make it in. 

Though I explain ad nauseum to every client (and have forever, it seems) that vaccines are NOT the primary reason for any visit beyond puppyhood, some pet owners are still stuck on the “shots” issue.

I don’t know how this came to be the veterinarian’s primary claim to fame when checking out your pet, but it seems this concept is still alive and well. This, despite the fact that...

1. ...after the initial puppy shots, most core vaccines should only be administered every three years (this, according to a wide range of moderate-leaning veterinary organizations),

2. ...vaccines should never be administered to a dog who is ill (and many times, our patients are ill when they present for their annual),

3. ...not all dogs require all vaccines (Lyme, leptospirosis and bordetella, for example, are not necessary for all dogs in all parts of the country),

4. ...a complete physical examination is at the core of every annual visit

5. ...basic labwork is critical (heartworm tests and fecal tests are standard, with some areas requiring tick disease testing, too) and if possible, CBC, Chemistry, thyroid testing and urinalysis are great, especially for older pets and mandatory for those who have anesthetic procedures upcoming (OK, you can get away without thyroid testing and urinalysis for most pre-anesthetic cases)

Physicals and testing are at the top of my list––always. Explaining this to my clients (even when yearly vaccinations were more the norm) has helped our hospital generate a high compliance rate despite the reduced vaccine protocol. But it’s still an uphill battle I fight with every new client and especially with cat owners (more on this later this week). 

So back to the point of the post: What does an annual exam cost? 

Truly, it differs from hospital to hospital based on the following:

1. ”Fanciness” of hospital (e.g., high lease rates and affluence of the clientele). A more willing-to-pay clientele in a major metropolitan area (for example) tends to mean higher prices for every service, not just the annual

2. Hospitals in areas where higher standards of care are more the norm. If you’re in or around major metro areas and/or closer to veterinary schools, you’ll notice that the standard of care tends to be higher. This means more certified technicians (for example) and a higher percentage of veterinarians unwilling to cut corners on the kind of care they provide. That’s always more expensive.

3. Hospitals that do not do “shots-and-tests-only” annual visits. Yes, you’ll pay less for frequenting a “vaccine clinic” with your loved ones. But consider that vaccine-and-test-only places typically offer all annual vaccines with little customization and less preventative medicine––which will usually cost you more in the long run.

4. Whether the hospitals offer “package deals” or not. It may sound cheesy, but package deals help reduce a hospital’s costs by standardizing services by categories of pets (puppies, young, seniors, etc.). It may mean less medicine, as in #3 above, but it might mean you pay less for more extensive testing (as is the case with our hospital). As long as the hospital treats your dog as an individual, exempting vaccines when necessary and upgrading the package’s offerings for certain conditions or ages, this is often a good thing and can mean you pay less for more comprehensive annual visits. 

5. Hospitals that stress preventative medicine. Is your hospital a heavy recommender of annual dentistry and super-comprehensive annual visits? In some cases you’ll pay more (see #1 and #2), but generally, these services are priced lower based on the higher volume of basic services provided and the veterinarians’ commitment to your access to these. 

6. Hospitals that rely on annuals as their primary source of income are out there. And they’re not necessarily shot-clinic style places as in #3. Lower-volume hospitals that cater to simple issues may charge more for their bread-and butter service. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here are the nuts and bolts: I’ve seen a seriously thorough annual for a dog range from $100 with all the bells and whistles to $500 for the same exact offerings elsewhere. Again, it’s going to depend on the above factors, as well as which services of these you’ll require (along with their typical, á la carte prices:

  • physical exam ($20-$75)
  • heartworm test ($10-$40)
  • test for tick-borne diseases (depends on your area and/or your dog’s tick status) ($15-$50)
  • fecal check ($10-$30)
  • vaccines ($10-$40, each)
  • CBC ($15-$40)
  • Chemistry (small panel or large, depending on age, illnesses, anesthesia, etc.) ($20-$120, depending on number of tests on the panel)
  • Thyroid hormone level (older, aggressive, overweight, or skin disease patients) ($25-$75)
  • Urinalysis ($10-$60, depending on whether sediment is checked as well)

The first four tend to be basics for a complete annual. The rest depend on your individual dog’s needs and/or your veterinarian’s protocols. 

Expect to pay more if your pet has many issues that need to be discussed and medication that needs to be dispensed. Expect to pay more if you’re receiving more services/labwork. Expect to pay more if your veterinarian spends more time with your pet than in customary (20 minutes is typical). 

Keeping costs down in a downward-spiraling economy may mean you’ll prefer to have just the basics performed. But always keep in mind my favorite Cuban saying: “lo que cuesta barato sale caro,” meaning “what costs cheap comes out expensive.” In other words, preventative medicine via complete annual exams is always cost effective.