As with any business, prices among veterinary services vary. It can often seem confusing and unexplainable – why is it X at one practice and Y at another; surely one is ripping you off? Although it is impossible to comment on all vet prices, in this admittedly short piece I am going to attempt to highlight the reason veterinary services vary in cost.

Cost is an issue – we know

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge a key fact – I know that having the NHS in the UK has made understanding and accepting medical costs very difficult. It seems a strange concept that we must pay for medical care and the extent of the price of medical care provision. 

In 2017 there was a report that 85% of veterinary professionals had felt threatened by clients who were angry at the cost of treatment. Things have not improved since, with intimidating behaviour on the rise during the pandemic. We know and understand that no one WANTs to pay vet bills. Your pet is sick, you’re stressed and upset, and they are often a ‘distress purchase’; bills we simply weren’t expecting, a purchase made from necessity, rather than for pleasure. Added to our cost-of-living crisis, the addition of an unexpected bill when we are struggling to pay for the steep increase in fuel, food and household bills can be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’.

The problem is that there is an inevitable tension between the fact that veterinary professionals are there to advocate and treat your pet and care so deeply that they remain in a profession where depression, burn out and suicide is four times the national average – and the fact that, like it or not, veterinary practices are a business and need income to survive.

Open market

Medical care is expensive, and there is no doubt that providing medical care for our pets is costly too. Given that we know provision of medical care is expensive, the issue is more a question of – are vets fees unfairly expensive and why can one practice charge so differently to another?

Vet fees are, as in most businesses, unregulated. It is an open market.

Due to a workforce shortage, post pandemic pet boom and increasing workload, vets are extraordinarily busy. They don’t necessarily need to compete for business. (Most veterinary professionals are overworked and far over capacity).

That being said, they do need to provide competitive services to owners. This means that in a given area owners can shop around; so practices cannot raise fees to the point where they would lose substantial trade. As a result, locally, you are likely to be getting a fair price for your area overall.

In an article by The Skeptic, it was explained:

Prices do fluctuate between practices, and the reason for this is not simple. It is not necessarily that one is better than the other, or that one is ripping you off. Each practice does things differently, each practice has different protocols and overheads, and therefore prices vary. One practice may have a brand-new dental X-Ray, and a veterinary dental specialist on the team, and therefore may put their prices higher than those without. This isn’t an unfair thing to do. You are paying for expertise, equipment, consumables, drugs, anaesthesia and for the highly qualified Veterinary Surgeons and Registered Veterinary Nurses (RVNs) who look after your pet – as well as the amazing reception and auxiliary staff that keep the practice afloat.

Different systems will work for different practices

Some practices may choose to price items, services, time, consults, drugs and consumables at different rates and mark up, but all ultimately to achieve the same goal- to work and run as a business, to make some profit, and to be able to maintain and pay for its employees’ salaries, CPD allowance, RCVS registration, building maintenance, bills and insurance. 

Does Corporate vs Independent make a difference?

In recent years, the UK has seen a progressive shift towards clinics being sold to corporates, and this may be one factor in an increase in prices. There are a number of different business models in the UK, read here to understand more about how they work.

A ‘corporate’ is a clinic or group of clinics owned and run as a corporation, with multiple sites located across the entire UK. These corporations consist of a board of directors, often a very large number of shareholders, location managers and appointed vets in assigned surgeries. They are often owned by ‘business’ people, rather than the more traditional independent practice that was typically run and owned by veterinary surgeons. And in later years when rules changed to say anyone could own a veterinary practice – Registered Veterinary Nurses (RVNs). Of course, this change also allowed people not on the RCVS register to own practices.

Now, the pricing of corporate and independent practice differs massively. Sometimes services at an independent practice will be more expensive, and sometimes it will be the other way round. But the way they set prices has some differences because in corporate practices, decisions are typically made by the directors – people who are not working in the practice on the “coal face”. Whereas, typically in an independent the owner, a vet or RVN will typically still be personally invested in the practice and have more control as to how they set prices.

Again, this is not synonymous with independents being cheaper, pricing will vary between both. As mentioned above, businesses will set prices and mark up on consumables on drugs in different ways. The aim is the same; to uphold animal health and welfare, treat animals to the best of our ability to relieve pain and suffering; and to have a successful business where they can pay employees their salaries, cover their professional CPD and registration, upkeep the maintenance of the site and as with any business, make some profit. 

Top Tips

The cost of medical care is expensive, and in many cases, it is justifiably costly. Vets and RVNs study extensively, they are highly knowledgeable professionals and as such deserve to have their time recognised. In comparison to their human medic counterparts, veterinary salaries are much lower.  

To provide a high level of veterinary care, many cost implications that you may not even think about are involved. Drugs cost, consumables costs, sanitation costs, the team’s time costs, the building costs, the insurance costs, professional registration costs. 

Pets are a joy to own and can positively reap many physical and social benefits to owners. Of course we want anyone who wants to own and care for a pet correctly to own one and afford one. However, ultimately it is your responsibility to ensure you have financially prepared for that animal. Save before getting a pet; research how much maintenance and preventative care costs before getting a pet and budget for that; save continually while owning a pet; investigate insurance if you do not have a huge amount of disposable income if your pet becomes sick unexpectedly.

Know that veterinary professionals want to do everything they can to help you and will regularly work within your budget. Please do not become irate if your budget does not extend to the ‘gold standard’, ‘most likely to get a good outcome’ treatment. There are usually other options, and we will work within your budget to try for the best outcome.

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