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The crisis in pet health care

Healthy pets need to see their veterinarians regularly
Healthy pets need to see their veterinarians regularlyLiane Ehrich

The veterinary industry has been talking about it for several years now: there have been several studies confirming what many in the industry have seen: pets are going to their veterinarians less often, and when they are coming in, they are sicker.

The first study, which has been an ongoing multi-tiered study, was produced by Bayer. It showed that pet visits to veterinary hospitals were down across the nation — this is happening when pet populations are rising and people are spending vast amounts of money on other types of pet care. In another recent study by Banfield, the percentage of pets presenting with preventable diseases has risen.

Finally the mainstream media has picked up on this trend with a recent article in USA Today. The article said the same things that the entire industry knows already, but unlike insider studies it has produced a backlash (read the comments under the article). There is a rising tide of anger about veterinary costs.

So what are veterinarians to do to help pet owners understand the value of their time? The problem is that veterinary care is hard to compare to other services. Your own medical costs are hidden from you, so you have no idea what an exam, MRI, day at the hospital or even vaccines cost. Sadly that leaves dentists and car mechanics as points of reference.

Dentists do a fraction of what veterinarians do. In addition, and tellingly, people aren't emotional about their teeth. Dental care is seen as a necessary evil. You go once every six months and hope they find nothing. In most cases your insurance picks up the tab and once again your costs are hidden. Do you know what full dental x-rays cost? If you choose to skip something you probably won't lose your life or the life of a loved one. Fixing a crown for a $1000 can be replaced with a $200 extraction and the crown can come later.

That leaves the wholly inappropriate comparison of a car mechanic. People sometimes get emotional about their cars, but if a mechanic says it needs a new engine for $3500 no one accuses them of cruelty or extortion. No one tells a mechanic when he presents a $1500 bill for your car that he doesn't care about your car.

The issue with veterinary care is that it is medicine that you pay for, and it is medicine that you have an emotional attachment to. Unlike a mechanic, veterinarians are highly educated professionals with CE requirements and an overarching desire to prevent your pet's suffering or death. Your mechanic doesn't really have a dog in the fight about whether you junk your old heap or repair it — he doesn't care — nor should he, it's a car.

But your dog is not easily replaced, and when your veterinarian tells you that to save her life you will have to shell out $1000-2000, you become emotional. You feel like you're being held hostage. Your choices, unlike those concerning your car, are very limited due to the emotional bond you have with a living being. Medicine is also completely alien - how do you know that what your vet says your pet needs is really what your pet needs?

Veterinarians aren't greedy; they make less than most pharmacists, almost all human physicians and almost all dentists. Their hourly rate is lower than your plumber's. They went to school for half their adult life not because they want to be rich, but because they care abut your pets. The fact that everyone complains about unnecessary tests says more about the failure of the veterinarian to explain the necessity of these tests than to the veterinarian's supposed greed.

Having pets is an emotional commitment, and putting together and stocking a hospital with the equipment and people able to keep your pet healthy is a financial commitment. When your veterinarian tells you that something will cost $700, usually the cost was higher, and they discounted and cut-corners long before the bill was presented to you. Ask any veterinary hospital manager what their biggest headache is and they will tell you without pause and almost without exception, that it's discounting. Veterinarians are terrified that they will not be seen as compassionate, they are terrified that you will ask them to euthanize their pet because you cannot afford treatment. Your veterinarian wants to save your pet's life, she wants him to be healthy, pain free and free from illness. She will do everything in her power to make that vision come true, and all you have to do to help her is give her the benefit of the doubt when she tells you what it will cost, because, most assuredly the treatment plan she handed you has already been discounted and shaved of everything even remotely unnecessary — because above all, your veterinarian wants to help you help your pet.

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