Why Veterinary Care Is So Expensive

The pandemic era saw a surge in pet ownership and with it, a demand for veterinary services. With pet ownerships comes great bills. Many Americans discovered that just as Americans face a health care system that seems to punish people for getting sick, pet care is also ridiculously expensive. As much as we love our pets, the costs of taking care of them can be depressingly high. Expenses can and often do run into the thousands of dollars. Things like nail trimmings, medical treatment and flea-and-tick prevention pills add up to enough to make a dent in your wallet. This is not just a pandemic-era response to rising demand for veterinary services. Costs have been rising for a long time. According to the AMerican Pet Products Association, Americans are expected to spend $32.3 billion by the end of the year on veterinary care and products, compared to just $13 billion spent in 2010. The question is, why is veterinary care so expensive?

Although the overall economy has witnessed a period of deflation, the cost of drugs and pharmaceutical products has been on the rise. Added to that, the need to embrace new technologies and equipment has driven up costs. Those costs have been passed on to consumers. The cost-side is not the only pressure on prices. A  number of factors, such as a rising pet population and the effects of extended pet lives, have increased the demand for veterinary care. 

Another reason is that certain procedures have become more accessible and more accepted by pet owners, so that pet owners are spending more. In other words, some of the rising costs are because pet owners are electing to provide more care options for their pets than before. Their expenditure is to cover more than the typical pet owners paid for a decade or more ago.

For instance, 20 years ago, few pet owners would have gotten an MRI for their pet. One obvious reason is that they were not easily accessible. If you did not live near a veterinary teaching hospital, getting an MRI was virtually impossible. Now, MRIs are easily accessible, opening the door for pet owners to elect to have their pets undergo an MRI. Despite the greater accessibility, MRIs remain expensive, with the starting fee being something like $2000.

Many veterinary practices have seen a rise in cancer diagnoses, often thanks to MRIs. The cost of treatment, including chemotherapy and surgery, is as much as $8,000 and $10,000 for a pet cat or dog. For many people, that is a bridge too far, especially considering that one survey found that only 39% of Americans could fund a $1,000 emergency expense from their savings. Hospitals have to treat anyone with a medical emergency, regardless of whether they have insurance or not. This is, though, a cost which adds to the indebtedness of Americans. For veterinary care, the situation is different. Veterinarians are not reimbursed for any Medicare expenses incurred.

In fact, veterinarians are obliged to pay for any medication and medical supplies without the prospect of reimbursement. So, they are forced to raise prices. 

Another reason why costs are rising is the consolidation of the veterinary market as clinics are being acquired by corporations. For instance, Mars Inc., makers of the world-famous Mars bar, has bought Banfield Pet Hospitals, BluePearl and VCA, which happen to be the three biggest veterinary clinics in the country. 

Veterinarians operating under a corporate umbrella have to accept the prices set by the corporation and these prices are often higher than those of independent veterinary clinics.

For instance, a corporate-owned veterinary clinic in Northern California prices an ultrasound at $1000, compared to an independently owned veterinary clinic in the same area which charges just $200. Often, pet owners assume that prices will be fairly uniform. Shopping around and looking into whether a clinic is independently owned or not, can result in you finding much lower charges than you at first found.

The system, sadly, is broken. As much as healthcare for humans is more expensive in the United States compared to Europe, the same is true for pet healthcare. Part of the reason for this is due to differing insurance ownership rates. Just 2 to 3% of pet owners in the United States have pet insurance, compared to 25% in Europe. Insurance ownership is low because the first pet insurance products were found wanting and so the idea never really took off.

Insurance products have improved but there are significant barriers to ownership, meaning that large swathes of people simply can’t get any. This is because many people have low credit scores or incomes so they just don’t qualify.

In Europe, the government generally provides universal healthcare for residents, freeing up income for pet owners to spend on pet insurance. In the United States, that is not the case. One survey found that 72% of pet owners cannot afford veterinary care at least once a year.

Many people do not have the funds to set aside $50-$100 per month for pet care. That’s what pet owners need to provide the most rudimentary pet care. It is also an amount that is beyond many pet owners. In the absence of an animal version of Medicare, pet owners have to dig deep into their pockets. Nonprofits have, in general, been unable to help pet owners give their pets better care. Access becomes a question of income, so that patterns of inequality that exist in human healthcare are perpetuated in veterinary care. 

Another reason why veterinary care is so expensive is because of staffing costs. A veterinary clinic’s wage bill is a big chunk of its overall expenses. Veterinarians want the best care possible for pets and this means shelling out for the veterinary staff that can deliver that care. This includes technicians who assist with radiology, anesthesia, and caring for pets, among other tasks. Staff members are more credentialled, more experienced, more talented and harder to find than before. To hire them, a veterinarian has to be prepared to pay top dollar, provide quality health insurance, assist with continuing education and ensure that even the lowest staff member earns a living wage. Veterinarians themselves need to earn a good wage, especially considering the massive demands placed upon them. 

Costs can be expected to stay high for the foreseeable future. Without extensive reforms, everything points to rising costs.