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Vets are too expensive, and it’s putting pets at risk

Costs have risen wildly in the last decade, and clinics are taking advantage of owners who can't pay.

The author with his cat, Orangey. (Image courtesy of Peter Fenton)

After a terrifying encounter with our automatic garage door, my beloved 23-pound cat Orangey was in trouble — dazed, struggling to breathe and in pain. I rushed him to the nearest animal emergency clinic and quickly agreed to X-rays and pain medication.

I didn’t think about the cost of anything at first. But as care escalated, I began to worry about our running tab. Though Orangey’s injuries were minor (and the doctor agreed to perform only essential procedures), he was hospitalized for about 48 hours. All told, the bill totaled $968.29.

I was shocked. And not because I’m a novice pet owner — my wife and I have been rescuing cats for most of our married life. But when we started, vet costs were modest. That’s not the case anymore. According to a 2011 report by the American Pet Products Association, the cost of routine and surgical vet visits has risen 47 percent for dogs and 73 percent for cats over the past decade. Pet owners spent about $8 billion on vet care in 2000; by 2013, that figure climbed to more than $14 billion.

Disturbingly, many owners are reacting to sticker shock by not bringing in their pets at all. “An estimated 23 million pets in the United States are in homes where the caretakers live at or below the poverty line, and that typically leaves the animals without access to veterinary care,” Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle said in a November 2014 blog post. “Close to 80 percent of their pets have never seen a veterinarian.”

Vet incomes are a big part of the reason for the rising costs. According to the Veterinary Medical Association, the mean annual professional income of private practice veterinarians rose from around $60,000 in 1995 to over $90,000 in 2007.* Vets argue that this jump to correct an imbalance. As Veterinary Advantage Magazine explained, between 1965 and 1995, veterinary fees lagged behind inflation. At the same time, student debt for vets grew exponentially. And pet owners began to turn to online pharmacies for medicine. As  Rob Foley of New York, who co-authors The Angry Vet blog, explains, this is a killer for vets. “When a veterinarian loses revenue through pharmacy sale losses, they must make up this income by raising other costs like exam fees or diagnostics,” he writes. “The money simply has to come from somewhere.”

However, even Foley admits that some veterinarians take advantage of pet owners: “I have seen bills run up. I have seen animals hospitalized who clearly did not need to be and animals operated on who did not have to be.”

When owners can’t pay, clinics offer payment plans — but at a price. When my wife and I raised heck at the emergency room over Orangey’s charges, the vet whipped out a brochure detailing the clinic’s plan: a credit card with a high APR. We declined. But others might be forced to saddle themselves with additional high-interest debt. (It’s possible to get pet health insurance, but Consumer Reports says it’s rarely worth the price.) CareCredit, a division of GE Capital Retail Bank, is a major issuer of such credit cards to vets, dentists and other professionals. In an interview with VIN News Service, a company spokesperson affirmed that well over half the animal hospitals in the United States accept the company’s card.  An independent study found that vets who routinely offered the card to customers earned 17.2 percent more total revenue per year.

According to a 2013 settlement after an investigation into alleged predatory lending practices by the New York state attorney general, “Approximately 65 percent of CareCredit card holders apply for the card while they are in a provider’s office.” In other words, when Orangey or Fido is in distress. “In many complaints to the OAG (Office of the Attorney General), the provider completed the application information and submitted the application on behalf of the consumer,” the settlement states. “Some consumers were led to believe that they were signing up for an in-house, no-interest payment directly to their provider.” Here’s what they got instead: A deferred-interest credit card with charges that accrued at a rate of up to 26.99 percent on the total bill after a promotional period.

Some nonprofit clinics are trying to blunt the challenge these rising charges create for pet owners. Some nonprofit organizations have established spay and neuter clinics for low-income clients. The surgeries are performed at a fraction of the cost a private vet would charge.

But even this goodwill gesture upsets some segments of the veterinary community. A group of Alabama vets, for example, is waging war against the very concept of inexpensive spay and neuter clinics, alleging that they jeopardize the future of the profession.

Michael Blackwell, senior director of veterinary policy for the Humane Society of the United States, offered this response to their claim: “Unhappy with economic realities, some veterinarians are casting blame on the good-hearted souls within their own profession who work with animal welfare groups to make sure poor and financially strapped families have access to care for their pets. By blaming nonprofits, veterinarians are barking up the wrong tree.”

Thankfully, my cat Orangey is back to his old self. He’s purring on the desk beside me because of the care he received at the emergency clinic. Like most pet owners, I would have paid anything to save him. But veterinarians shouldn’t take advantage of our devotion to enhance their bottom lines.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the mean salary of private vets in 2009.