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Debunking myths about “rip off veterinary fees”

"Rip-off veterinary fees" were the subject of a recent poll on a vets-only website. In answer to the question "How often does your practice receive complaints about the prices it charges?", the results were:
  • All the time - 16%
  • Fairly often - 53%
  • Hardly ever - 30%
  • Never - 1%
So around 69% of vet clinics get regular complaints about their fees, and given that many people may feel irritated about fees without vocalising their concern to the vet, the true level of discontent is likely to be even higher. This is clearly an aspect of veterinary care that pet owners feel strongly about. I always find this a difficult topic to discuss: as a vet, I can't help feeling defensive, and it's all too easy to write a self-justifying commentary. Sceptical readers may then brush off any of my explanations: "well, he would say that, wouldn't he?". The challenge is that only vets know about the detailed financial background to running a veterinary practice; we're the only ones in a position to be able to explain why vets seem to charge so much. So please bear with me while I do my best to address some of the main myths about veterinary fees. 1. "Veterinary fees are so expensive that they must be a rip off" The reason why vets' fees are so costly is that vets' costs are high. For every £10 you give the vet, around £7.50 to £8 goes towards the running costs of the vet clinic, with the remaining £2 to £2.50 going to the vet. For a pie-chart that shows the breakdown of costs in a typical vet clinic, see here. Outgoings include drugs, utilities, building costs, staff wages, office supplies, continuing education, and, of course, VAT. Like any business people, vets try to keep these costs to a minimum, but they do need to be covered, and vet clinics only have one income source: pet owners. Human medical costs are perhaps the nearest equivalent to veterinary costs, but free medical care in the NHS means that the public in the UK have no appreciation of what's involved. As an example, a bitch spay may seem pricey at £300, while the standard cost of a human hysterectomy is around £5000 when done by a private human surgeon. Such comparisons make veterinary fees seem like ridiculously good value. 2. "Vets are loaded: you never see a poor vet" Look at the facts. The most recent survey of vets' earnings in the UK is carried out by the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons showed that the median salary of vets who have been qualified for a year is £32000. This rises to £41232 after five years of experience in practice, but it doesn't shift much higher than this subsequently. The median salary of a vet qualified between 10 and 20 years is between £45000 and £52000. The hourly rate for vets ranges from £15 for new graduates to around £25 for vets with many years experience. So vets are paid well enough, but nobody could call them "loaded". When you compare these rates of pay with other professions, it's clear that if a young person is motivated primarily by earning money, the veterinary profession is the wrong one to choose. 3. "Vets clean up with pet insurance. The first question they ask is: do you have your pet insured?" Why do people presume that vets ask this question with pound signs in their eyes? Yes, we do often ask the question, but people misunderstand the reason for it. If a pet is not insured, the owner will have to cover the costs themselves, and rather than shocking owners afterwards, vets prefer to give a detailed estimate, perhaps with different options, in advance. When a pet is insured, there's no need to go over such detail beforehand with the owner: the focus can immediately be to attend to the animal, in the knowledge that appropriate costs will be covered without the owner having to worry about them. 4. "When a pet has a serious injury or accident, if you can't afford to pay for it, vets often suggest that the animal should be put down. A genuine animal loving vet would never do that. If vets cared about animals, they'd do it for free" The problem here is that there is no such thing as "zero cost" treatment. Given that vets receive 20 to 25% of the fees charged, simple arithmetic shows that 75 - 80% of vets' fees are needed to cover the non-vet costs of treating an animal. If a vet gave you a 10 - 12.5% discount, they are effectively taking a 50% reduction in their take-home pay. If you are given a 20 - 25% reduction, the vet is doing it for free. And if the vet does the work at no charge, then he or she is actually giving you money for the benefit of treating your pet. Much as vets may feel a desire to do this from time to time, they do need to earn a salary so that they can pay for their own living costs. Vets operate in an open market: competition means that people are free to shop around to choose the best value vet in their area. If you feel that vets' fees are still "too expensive", ask yourself what corners you would like your vet to cut. Do you want less time with your vet? Do you want him to pay his nurses less? Do you want him to use cheaper surgical and medical products? Would you like him to move to a part of town where property is cheaper? Do you want him to decorate his clinic less often? Should he undertake less continuing education so that he isn't as up to date with treatments? Please don't just assume that vets are "ripping you off": if money was our main motivation in life, we'd all have left our profession many years ago.
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Information overload? – Trusting online pet advice

From the minute you bring a new pet home, as well as the companionship, fun and general entertainment there will always be a lot of questions and there will always be plenty of people more than happy to give you their advice and opinions. From your mother (always!) to the lady down the road that’s owned dogs for years, to the man in the pet shop, to your vet (listen to them!) and, of course, the internet. However, sometimes views vary wildly and it can be difficult to know who to trust. With any health related issue a vet should always be your first port of call; either by booking an appointment or ringing for advice. A good clinic will always be happy to chat on the phone but in many cases will want to see your pet before giving you a definitive answer. This can sometimes put people off but if you are concerned enough to ring, very often your suspicions are correct and there is a problem. However, there are many simple queries that can be handled over the phone, so do pick it up! Even at night and weekends, with a single call you should be able to speak to a vet or nurse, as in the UK all practices are required by law to provide a 24 hour service. Sometimes though, you might have questions that are more mundane or trivial or want the answer right now and that is when you will fire up Google! However, this is when things can get tricky. There are loads of brilliant sites out there giving excellent quality advice but there is also an awful lot of old wives tails, self-important pontificators and downright bonkers information as well! How do you decide which is which and what to believe? The best places to start are probably the big, established websites. My favourites are; icatcare.org, this site has an enormous library, covering topics from general care, to behavioural and health issues; cats.org.uk, this is the website for the Cats Protection charity and contains lots of articles including many relating to common queries and general care; dogstrust.org.uk, is particularly strong on articles related to behavioural problems, training and responsible dog ownership and; pdsa.org.uk, covers all species of pet animals with a huge range of health, husbandry and behavioural topics. Of course, vethelpdirect.com, is unique in that it allows you to in-put your pet’s symptoms or your concerns and receive specific advice tailored to the problem. Finally, do pay a visit to my own site, catthevet.com, it’s great! ;-) If you are after more specific information, for example a particular disease or health issue, again there is lots of great quality advice out there. A nurse I work with recently had to have her dog’s leg amputated and she found great comfort from the website and forum tripawds.com. Forums like this exist for most pet health issues, and for specific breeds or interests like agility or working dogs, and they can be a fabulous way of speaking with people in similar situations. Most give excellent advice and support but don’t embark on any changes to your pet’s medications, routine or training without consulting your vet first. There are also many sites run to accompany particular medications and diseases. My favourites are; itchfreepet.co.uk, about allergies, canine-cushings.co.uk, detailing Cushings disease in dogs, pet-diabetes.co.uk, covering diabetes management in cats and dogs and vetmedin.co.uk, a commonly used medication to treat heart disease in dogs. Ask your vet if your pet has a chronic condition, there is most likely a website out there for them! Back in the real world, there are no shortage of people to give you advice or offer their services. However, the area of pet ‘para-professionals’ (and here I’m thinking behaviourists, nutritionists, alternative therapists, even masseuses (!)) is highly unregulated and although governing bodies exist, it is not compulsory to join them. So, if you want to contact someone like this, do speak to your vet first. We are always open to our patients having extra help and we are likely to know the best, and properly qualified, people in our local area. I am a big fan of the internet & the information it gives. I often direct my clients to sites I know will be helpful and find if someone has done their research before seeing me, it usually makes my job easier.  Equally, if an owner wants to explore alternative or complimentary therapies for their pets I am happy to support them (provided conventional treatment is kept up) and we keep a list of registered practitioners in the practice. However, when on-line use the same common sense as in the real world and if it seems crazy, unlikely or too good to be true, then it probably is! Cat Henstridge BVSc MRCVS
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