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Why Your Vet Visit Costs So Much

By Jennifer Coates    June 27, 2016 at 11:00AM / (26) comments

It’s a never-ending refrain, “Why does veterinary care cost so much?”

 

I get it. I’m not just a veterinarian but also an animal owner. Sure, I can take care of some of my own pets’ needs, but not all of them. Did I flinch at the $2,000 bill for treating my cat’s hyperthyroidism with radioactive iodine? You bet I did, but I didn’t complain because I recognize what a bargain veterinary care usually is.

 

The best way to avoid sticker shock is being prepared, so let’s take a look at what’s involved in a veterinary visit and the typical costs that you should expect.

 

The first thing to understand is that geography plays a big role. Imagine the cost of running a veterinary practice in New York City versus West Podunk. Rent, salaries, property taxes, property insurance, etc. would all be much higher in NYC, and those costs simply have to be passed on to clients if a veterinary practice is to remain a going concern. The best we can do here is look at averages and acknowledge that a lot of variability exists.

 

A veterinary visit should always start with a complete health history, physical exam, and the acquisition of some basic data, like body weight, body temperature, pulse rate, and respiratory rate. The cost of all of this should be included in the office visit/physical exam charges. This is the absolute minimum you need to be willing to pay to see a veterinarian.

 

At this point, the doctor can provide you with an estimate for recommended diagnostic testing and/or treatment. This is when you can start talking about options. Very often, there are several ways to approach veterinary care. When appropriate, the doctor should be able to give you an idea of the risks, benefits, and costs associated with gold standard, moderate, and minimalist care.

 

The American Kennel Club reports these estimates for routine veterinary care during a puppy’s first year of life.

 

Annual Physical Exam    $58

Vaccinations    $268

Heartworm Test and Prevention    $127

Flea and Tick Prevention    $190

Fecal Exam    $60

Dental Cleaning    $125

Spay or Neuter    $175

 

Some of these expenses will recur approximately annually (e.g., physical exam, parasite testing/prevention, possibly a dental cleaning), others less frequently (some vaccinations). The costs associated with routine veterinary care for a cat would be similar if the cat goes outside and perhaps slightly lower for an indoor-only individual.

 

Remember, talk to your veterinarian if finances are tight. Depending on your pet’s circumstances, it might be possible to avoid certain expenses, at least for a while. For example, I live in a part of the country where heartworm disease is infrequently diagnosed. Although it is not ideal, if an owner had kept their dog on heartworm prevention per my recommendations over the past year and needed to cut somewhere, I’d be willing to postpone a heartworm test.

 

To ensure that you can always provide your pets with the veterinary care they need, either routinely set aside money in a special pet care savings account or purchase a reputable pet health insurance policy. 

Comments  26

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  • VET COSTS
    07/08/2016 12:08pm

    We have 8 rescued cats and a rescued dog. The vet bills add up quickly. I'm not made of money, but I readily hand over my credit card to make sure my pets have what they need. I pay what I can when I can. There is a company that offers another choice. There are brochures about it in my vet's office. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the company, but they allow you to borrow the money to pay your bill. Then you make interest free payments to the company to pay it back. You have 6 months to pay it back. After that you do have to pay interest. You can also use it for medical bills for yourself. The name may be Care Credit, but I'm not sure. I hope this can help anyone out there that wants the best for their pet, has difficulty with the cost.

  • This is all BS
    07/08/2016 12:31pm

    After owning many animals throughout my life and dealing with many vets throughout my life, I understand the cost of caring for your pets and it is totally insane!

    All vets want to give dogs and cats often unnecessary vaccinations, for example, a distempter shot for older dogs. Most of the vaccinations (with the exception of rabies) are not necessary. Titers can be done to ascertain the level of antibodies before any vaccinations. What costs a vet $4 to administer, you get charged $55. There's even a fee for throwing away the syringe!! (a 'waste' fee).

    Once I had a very old sick cat that I had to have euthanized. Calling the vet before showing up, I was told $125. Afterwards, standing at the front desk, the clerk presented me with a bill for over $300!!!! Of course, I had a fit and a 'loud' fit at that! One shot and the cat was gone and the tech administered the shot. The only time I SAW a vet was when she came in to check to see if the cat was dead - walked in, listened for a heartbeat and left. The bill listed that 'in and out' at a price of $55.

    Additionally, with vets literally gouging people to care for their pets, do the vets have any idea how they are hurting many more animals by charging so much, that the majority of people cannot afford care? It's so bad, in fact, that there are several sites on the web where people can apply for 'grant monies' to help with vet bills. Even human doctors do better!! Vets are in a money-making business and they know it. There are no legal limitations on what they can charge and they take total advantage of an owner's love for their pets, while making it nearly impossible for lots of people to care for their pets. Do they understand how heartbreaking that is for someone who loves their pet but can't afford thousands of dollars for it's care or even $300 for that matter?

    Personally, I have no respect nor liking for vets. I put them in the same class as plumbers and dentists, This group of "professionals" have become total parasites. I see no 'free or low-cost' clinics being made available for the old, the poor. Once in awhile, you hear of a vet doing it but mostly it's for publicity, not for caring. Just like plumbers and dentists, it's a money-making business with very little caring for either the owner or the animals. Imagine -- charging $45-$50 for a 'shot' that costs the vet's business about a couple of bucks.

  • 07/09/2016 12:49pm

    I agree 100%...Walmart and Publix sells some of the same antibiotics that my vet wanted to charge me 42.00 for and I got it at publix supermarket for free....

  • 07/09/2016 01:45pm

    Arthritis medicine is another vet 'rip off.' You can buy the same stuff as supplements for less than half the price. And, how about flea medicine? Ever see the price of that at the vet's? But, to be fair, places like 'Pet Co' and other pet stores have taken their lead from vets and raised the cost of flea medicine to the point it's now stored behind glass doors than need to be unlocked by a clerk, like cigarettes. It's Flea stuff, for God's sake!! Hmmm, I wonder where the pet stores got the idea to hike up the prices??

  • 07/26/2016 02:26pm

    I, too was paying over $25 for Advantage flea treatment for my cats through my vet's office. I discovered, through my boyfriend, that PAWS charged me only $4 for the exact same thing and there wasn't any tax added on. Please, check our your local PAWS for low-cost flea treatments.

  • 07/09/2016 06:41pm

    If they charged you 300 to euthanize an animal, you got ripped off. We just had to have our dog put down due to a massive stroke, she weighed 17 lbs, it cost a total of 94.00 which included community cremation and burial.

  • 07/09/2016 06:18pm

    No, I raised hell at the front desk when they attempted to charge me $300. I had called ahead because the animal was dying and they quoted $125. After it was over, was when they attempted to charge the $300 at the front desk. There were other people in the large waiting room, so I don't think they wanted a commotion. Still, I had to pay $125.

  • 07/26/2016 02:33pm

    I took one of my cats to the vet because she was lying in one spot on the floor when I went to work, and when I got home, I found her in the exact same spot. I called the vet and got her in right away (even though I called, they still said it was an emergency visit). They did an X-ray on her and they discovered that she had congestive heart failure. She had to be euthanized, because I was told by the vet that cats rarely respond favorably to the treatment. For me to have my little Peanut euthanized cost me $264 - they did an X-ray and gave her the shot to put her to sleep.

  • 07/26/2016 01:36pm

    This unfortunately is the truth! I know people who had to get their pets euthanized because they couldn't afford the high cost of saving their pet. Pets are like children to most and when you are given little choice if you want to save your fur baby it is heartbreaking, some won't get another pet because of how devastated they are after losing their very beloved pet knowing they probably could've saved the pet if they had more money. it should not be that way. There is a place here in htx called petcare express, they charge a flat rate of $9 for an exam. I brought both my cats there when they got a uti and it wasn't too outrageous considering how much i have been charged in the past for the same type of visit. I have yet to take them in for much more than that,and the thought scares me to bits, but cats, like people get sick. I have read glowing reviews on their yelp page where people have brought their pets to P.E after being quoted something ridiculous at their vet, they got a second opinion at P.E, it was low enough and they saved their pet's life. that's the kind of care we should be reading more about. not being price gouged in such a fragile situation. Vets could charge less but they don't, I don't know how someone who supposedly gets into the business because they love animals could do that to pet parents. :(

  • Understanding cost
    07/08/2016 01:48pm

    $125 for a dental cleaning?? Are you kidding? Treble that! The pre-dental blood work alone is going to set you back going on $100. And why would a puppy need a dental cleaning in his first year of life, anyway?
    Worth pointing out that a lot of the cost is not determined by the vet hospital - I work at one and I can tell you that a) we don't just pay $4 for a vaccine and b) we don't charge $55. There is a mark-up - obviously! - but it's nowhere near as much as that! We also have to pass on the lab costs etc.
    Honestly, I know there are some bad apples, but most vets are NOT out to get you and nickle-and-dime you. My boss is in his mid-70ies, still works, does not drive a fancy car and does not go on any luxurious trips, despite having worked hard all his life! You don't go into veterinary medicine to make the big bucks, believe me!

  • 07/08/2016 01:34pm

    Well, that may be the situation where you are but in the larger cities, there are no 'old time' country vets -- there are only 'big business vets.' $125 for a dental cleaning -- when I checked how much for a dental cleaning for my older dog several years ago, the price tag was $400+ -- blood work, anesthesia testing, this 'shot', that 'shot', this x-ray, etc., etc.

    I remember an old country vet several miles away from where I live now and he used to be as you describe but he has retired. And please, don't tell me that vets don't get in this to make money -- they certainly do. And, furthermore, I HAVE had the experience of paying $45 for a vaccination and then looking up the cost of both the syringe and one dose and the total was $4 plus shipping which, of course, I couldn't do because it was by prescription only.

    Yes, vet medicine IS 'big business.' There are no small single practice vets nowadays -- their all 'corporations.' LLPs and still 'gouging' people who love their animals. There may be the exception (as you note), but that would definitely be an exception, not the rule.

    BTW, my post stated that I was quoted $125 to euthanize an old cat -- not to have a puppy's teeth cleaned!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • 07/08/2016 02:23pm

    Barbat - The $125 I was referring to was what it said in the original post, not yours! I was saying that I felt the price given in the original post for a dental cleaning was way too low, that's why I said "treble that".
    My vet is not a country vet, we are in a rather large metropolitan area (between BAltimore and DC). And with respect, I think I probably know a little more about vet hospitals than you do, having worked in four different ones, none of which was a corporate place - they were all privately owned. I wouldn't want to work at one of those corporate places where there is a lot of pressure on the doctors to reach certain quotas as I don't consider that Best Practice!
    You have obviously had some very bad experiences and I am very sorry about that - and I can totally understand that you are disillusioned, esp. since you are obviously very committed and I do think it's a shame that there aren't a lot more places that give people like you, who are involved in rescue, a much better deal!! And of course you should have never been charged so much more for the euthanasia than you had been quoted - the only thing I can imagine is that a) they hadn't told you about an exam fee (when a pet is brought in for euthanasia and has never been seen before or not for a long time, there is inevitably going to be an exam fee at most places!) and that maybe they did a private cremation?? Otherwise, I can think of no explanation as to why they would have charged you $300!! As for vaccines, you can actually buy a lot of them at feed stores - rabies is the only one that needs to be administered by a veterinarian by law. Not sure how easily obtainable cat vaccines are at feed stores, but I know quite a few people who get their dogs' shots at feed stores because yes, of course it is much cheaper, and if someone is comfortable administering shots to their pets, by all means do it! Even though of course we think it's always a good thing for our pets to get regular check-ups, which a lot of the time doesn't happen, esp. for cats - we often get cat patients that haven't been seen by a vet for years and years because there is nothing obviously wrong with them - or so the owner thinks....that can be a problem because as you probably know, cats are very good at hiding things and a lot of the time, there is something wrong which should have been addresses much earlier!!
    And once again, let me tell you - I have several very good friends who are vets, and NONE of them are in it to make the big bucks - because you don't! One of my best friends is an ER vet who works crazy hours day and night; her husband, who is a contractor for the government, makes more than her - despite not having gone to university for so many years and having a cushy office job!!!
    Please don't think that all vets are greedy and heartless because they're NOT. The majority of them are very decent, hard-working, caring people!!

  • 07/09/2016 01:58pm

    You are correct, undoubtedly, in many things. As I mentioned, I once-upon-a-time knew a vet like you speak of, but he's long retired and gone. I live in a major metro area of upstate NY and all the vet practices I know of are in it for the money. Now, that's not to say they do not have dedicated people who love animals working there, but the bottom line is 'profit.' I've had too many bad experiences, I will agree. However, when a vet charges $65 to come in a check for a heartbeat after the tech has euthanized the animal, well, that's a 'rip off' -- just the same as a doctor could do by sticking his head in the door and asking how you are and then charging you for a visit. Spaying and neutering is another problem. In my area, it was the conglomerate of vet hospitals and associations who 'drummed out' the low-cost spaying and neutering clinics because it cut into their 'bread-and-butter,' as I was aggressively reminded. I have had the unfortunate experience of working with vets to get hospitals established, promising low-cost access to animal care only to have that practice 'devolve' into a strictly high-cost, selective, money-making operation. In this major metro area, there is only ONE vet practice that will work with a local rescue agency -- all the rest refused because it wasn't "profitable." As I said before, I put vets in the same category as plumbers and dentists who also 'profiteer' and overcharge for their services because they know people NEED their services. However, in a vet's case, they prey upon people's love for their pets. Too many times I have seen people who love their animals and want to give them good care be unable to do so because of the exorbitant costs, so they wait until the animal is very sick and then euthanize them -- for them, there is no other choice. But to see an organization of vet hospitals deliberately 'stamp out' any attempt at providing affordable care to pets, was the last straw for me! And, incidentally, the same holds for human medicine. Affordable care is needed for people as well.

  • Agree, with exception
    07/08/2016 02:20pm

    As a long-time pet owner of cats, dogs, chickens, horses, mini-donkeys, and more, I know the cost of good veterinary care. However, I do take exception to the "mark-up" on medications. Many veterinarians mark up the medications that your pet needs (i.e., vaccinations, heartworm, flea and tick treatments as well as medications for sickness or disease) as much as 50%! I feel that is ridiculous. Sorry, but that is my opinion. I am very fortunate that I have a veterinarian that will either write me prescriptions for common medications and preventatives. Those prescriptions are filled by VIPPS pharmacies. Even though I get many of my medications this way, I still pay the vet's office thousands of dollars each year for well-care for my pets.

  • Teeth Cleaning
    07/08/2016 09:09pm

    When I lived in NJ the vet wanted 350.00 for my dogs teeth cleaning, so of course I could not afford to do that. That was about 7 yrs ago.
    I live in TN the vet charges 100.00 dollars so that I can handle.

    It is profitable being a Vet, no one to regulate what they can charge. Its a shame it limits people to what they can do for the care of their animals. All because of expense.

  • 07/09/2016 04:15am

    You should see the fuss they make at my Vet's office when I ask to purchase worming pills rather than have them administer them. They don't like it one bit. Unfortunately, I'm a bit concerned about doing my own shots, otherwise I sure would. In Canada though, we can take our pets to the SPCA vet (there is one in each municipality). They charge far less than private vets but there's a much longer wait.

  • 07/09/2016 12:31pm

    Well of course they are trying to be profitable! They are businesses, and if they weren't profitable, there wouldn't be any vets around. Do you think your primary care physician works out of the goodness of her heart?? Do you work for free??
    Frankly, this vet bashing is rather annoying - I feel bad for everyone who has had a bad experience, esp. when their pets weren't doing well - I know how very stressful that can be! But unless you live in the sticks, there are going to be several vet hospitals and if you're not happy with one, shop around, visit the hospitals, talk to the people at the desk - you should be able to find a place you trust. And yes, you can get at least the rabies shots at any Animal Control in the country, plus there are a lot of low cost vaccination places around for those who just want shots and no exam.
    Did you all know, by the way, that going to vet school costs and arm and a leg and every single vet is going to be heavily indebted for years and years after they finish school?

  • Pet Care
    07/09/2016 02:00pm

    You are correct, undoubtedly, in many things. As I mentioned, I once-upon-a-time knew a vet like you speak of, but he's long retired and gone. I live in a major metro area of upstate NY and all the vet practices I know of are in it for the money. Now, that's not to say they do not have dedicated people who love animals working there, but the bottom line is 'profit.' I've had too many bad experiences, I will agree. However, when a vet charges $65 to come in a check for a heartbeat after the tech has euthanized the animal, well, that's a 'rip off' -- just the same as a doctor could do by sticking his head in the door and asking how you are and then charging you for a visit. Spaying and neutering is another problem. In my area, it was the conglomerate of vet hospitals and associations who 'drummed out' the low-cost spaying and neutering clinics because it cut into their 'bread-and-butter,' as I was aggressively reminded. I have had the unfortunate experience of working with vets to get hospitals established, promising low-cost access to animal care only to have that practice 'devolve' into a strictly high-cost, selective, money-making operation. In this major metro area, there is only ONE vet practice that will work with a local rescue agency -- all the rest refused because it wasn't "profitable." As I said before, I put vets in the same category as plumbers and dentists who also 'profiteer' and overcharge for their services because they know people NEED their services. However, in a vet's case, they prey upon people's love for their pets. Too many times I have seen people who love their animals and want to give them good care be unable to do so because of the exorbitant costs, so they wait until the animal is very sick and then euthanize them -- for them, there is no other choice. But to see an organization of vet hospitals deliberately 'stamp out' any attempt at providing affordable care to pets, was the last straw for me! And, incidentally, the same holds for human medicine. Affordable care is needed for people as well.

  • 07/09/2016 02:14pm

    And think about this, why do you think vets have in their offices, all those pamphlets about how to 'finance pet care?' Because it's affordable? Have you ever really, really investigated 'pet health care insurance?' Many of those companies are owned by vets --no surprise there! However, before anyone buys 'pet health insurance,' read the material carefully -- what they cover, what percentage of cost it will cover and, more importantly, what the insurance DOESN'T cover. Incidentally, 'shopping around' for vet care doesn't work. All the vets in my area have a 'meeting' once or twice a week, not only to discuss cases that either puzzle them or with which they need help, but also to set prices for standard care such as spaying and neutering, vaccinations, etc. There is no competition; there is only a conglomerate of vets fixing prices. What does that tell you? In rural areas and in some rare instances, it may be different, but in larger metropolitan areas, this is the way it is -- regardless of "of course vets need to make money" or "vet education costs an arm-and-a-leg." Yes, people go into business to earn a living but there is a line that is crossed in many businesses, and pet care is one of them. Noticed the increases in pet food lately? Everyone seems to be getting on the 'bandwagon' that was started by vets.

  • 07/09/2016 09:35pm

    Well you hit the nail on the head - pet health care seems outrageous to us because we see all the charges and have to pay for them out of pocket (unless we have pet insurance, which very few people have here!). If you didn't have health insurance for yourself, you would see how ridiculously expensive that is!! So, if you complain about the cost of pet health care, you also have to complain about the cost of human health care, and if veterinarians are greedy money fiends, then so are doctors for humans. OF COURSE it is a disgrace that so many people cannot afford the appropriate care for their pets but I also know a lot of people who cannot afford health care for themselves and don't get the treatment they need - that's why other countries do things differently, but that is being defamed as being "communist" in this country!!

  • Vet visits
    07/09/2016 06:53pm

    You should Always find a vet that has their OWN lab in house, its much cheaper for labs to be done. EXAMPLE: Went to 1 vet my dog had a previous high liver enzyme and it needed to be checked again, well she wanted 280.00 for a liver panel. (which is outrageous) So I decided to go to another vet not even a 1/2 mile down the road, they have an in-house lab and it cost me a total of 129.00 for all my labs, liver, pancreas, heartworm, cbc...all of it (that included a IDEXX sdma) Plus the Vet always gives an estimate before they treat, and if I don't agree with something they want to do, then I just say no to it! Some vets will give antibiotics or pain meds, anti nausea meds for no reason. You have to be an advocate for your animal just as you are for your own health care needs.

    Really the best thing to do is invest in VPI (pet insurance)

  • 07/09/2016 07:14pm

    I do not give my dog or cats heartworm meds or flea and tick meds (well cats are indoor only) and my dog only goes out on a leash and to run around in the yard. I use apple cider vinegar for fleas, ticks and mosquitos. My dogs gets rabies vaccine and DAPP vaccine (3 yr booster now). And I am a firm believer of taking animals once a year and having blood drawn and a check up, to make sure they are ok, that way you know what's going on with your pets. Also feeding cats grain free canned food and my dog is on grain free limited ingredient diet (canned) due to food allergies.

  • 07/09/2016 09:28pm

    I agree with you on most things - I also don't believe in overvaccinating, and I do think antibiotics are given out a little too liberally; however, I am totally in favour of pain meds and anti-nausea meds; whatever makes them feel better! I also don't think all pets necessarily need flea & tick prevention, but I do give my cats heartworm prevention because they go into the yard and on the deck and patio, so there is real risk of them being stung by mosquitoes.
    I disagree with in-house blood work being cheaper - I know that it sounds like that should be the case, but in all four vet hospitals I have worked at so far, the opposite was the case; it was/is always cheaper to send it out to the lab; plus, the lab testing is more accurate and a lot of tests are not available for in-house (for example, I am 99% certain that the SDMA is only available at the lab; when they first introduced it a little while ago, they were offering a deal where if we did in-house blood tests, they would do the SDMA for free - but at the lab)

  • 07/09/2016 11:45pm

    Like I said It was WAY cheaper at the vet office with the in house lab. And as far as the IDEXX SDMA test it was drawn @ 430 pm on a Thursday and I got the results the next morning. I really do not care if it was sent out or the did it at their lab. Maybe its not like that in every vets office but it is here! And as far as anti nausea meds I was speaking of a vet I went to that wanted to give it to my dog and he only vomited once the day before and the price for it is outrageous so I didn't think he needed it. And if a dog is not acting like he is in distress or pain then why should you take the risk of giving the pain meds is my point.

  • 07/10/2016 04:16pm

    Why should you give pain or anti-nausea meds?? Because you don't know if your dog is in pain or nauseous, that's why...it's an even bigger issue with cats as they are extremely good at hiding pain

  • 07/11/2016 02:42am

    I was speaking about MY dog and experience with vets and meds. My dog vomited ONE time the day before and they wanted to give him an expensive shot of anti-nausea meds and I didn't agree with it, as he was not vomiting anymore and he had an appetite! We all know our pets and how they act, if my dog was acting like he was in distress then I would have given him the pain meds, but he was not. She wanted to give it to him "just in case".


 
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