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Breakdown of a vet bill: Pet insurance can help

Posted on: May 8th, 2012 by

A vet cares for an animal.

By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
Idaho Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance

Almost every veterinarian goes into this profession because of passion and love for animals. But unfortunately, there’s a misconception that because veterinary care is expensive, it’s somehow funding vacation homes and fancy cars.

If you ask any veterinarian, one of the hardest parts of our jobs is not being able to provide for every animal equally due to financial restraints of the client– this is why I have always been a huge proponent of pet insurance as it helps pet owners afford the highest level of care available.

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As a profession, the veterinary medical community absolutely recognizes that our medicine is expensive, and this has more to do with advances in vet medicine than anything else. Here’s a breakdown of why a trip to the veterinarians is so dang expensive (and why you should definitely look into dog or cat insurance ASAP!)

Regardless of how big your veterinarian’s heart is, your neighborhood veterinary clinic is a business, and a business needs to make money to survive. It provides a service and like any other business, the clinic has bills to pay, including rent and utilities. In addition, keeping up with current medical advancements is expensive.

Many clinics have equipment like you’d find in a human hospital or doctor office, including, digital radiology, ultrasound machines, laser surgery devices, endoscopy and other high tech instruments that are very expensive, but necessary to practice the level of professional veterinary healthcare needed. Purchasing up to date and current equipment can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Another reason vet care can be expensive is because a veterinary clinic is often the primary care, dentist, oral surgeon, orthopedic surgeon, dermatologist and behaviorist all in one!

In addition to medical instruments, invoices also help pay staff salaries. In my opinion, animal technicians and assistants are probably one of the most sorely unpaid professionals. Many will have gone to two to three years of school, have considerable student debt and make an average of $12.88 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They are able to place catheters, take detailed radiographs, calculate drug dosages and have a whole slew of other advanced technical skills. The reason they don’t they get paid more is because that cost would be passed onto you, the client.

Believe it or not, being a veterinarian is not a “cushy” job. Most live modestly and have considerable school debt. Every time a client says, “I probably just paid for your next vacation” after seeing their invoice, I want to take them out to the parking lot and show them my thirteen year old car with the missing hubcap and 175,000 miles on it!

The average veterinary starting salary in 2011 was $46,971 according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. That’s by no means a terrible wage, but you have to consider the average school loan debt accrued is $142,613. Veterinarians have enormous monthly school loan repayments.

In comparison, the average starting salaries of an MD or a dentist who has similar school loan debt, are considerably higher. Starting salary in 2008 for physicians was between $174,000 and $209,000, four times higher than that for veterinarians. Average school debt for physicians, according to the American Medical Association was $130,000, actually less than that of veterinarians.

So, how does that vet bill add up anyway? Let’s take the case of Tulah, a five year old female Pomeranian. She has been asking to go outside to potty frequently, and then straining to urinate, with only small amounts of urine coming out. She’s done this before and you’re certain it’s a urinary tract infection. You make an appointment to get her the antibiotics you know she needs and the bill is $205.

Here is how Tulah’s invoice is broken down:
-Exam - $50, this pays for the doctor’s expertise. He or she will likely examine all of her, even though it is her bladder that is a problem. We are looking to make sure nothing has changed recently, such as gain loss or gain or other problems, like ear infections or periodontal disease. If she has lost weight she could actually have a bigger problem, such as diabetes that is causing her to develop urinary tract infections.

-Urinalysis – $40. Examining the urine under the microscope to confirm the presence of bacteria and determine the type of bacteria is crucial prior to picking the type of antibiotic she needs. If the urine also has protein in it, or sugar, or some other abnormality, this can alert the doctor that something else might be going on.

-Ultrasound of bladder -$60. This test is important to rule out the presence of urinary stones or even masses of tumors that could be causing Tulah’s urinary tract infection. Neglecting to rule this out could prevent her from being treated appropriately.

-Antibiotics – $30. It is true that the antibiotics are marked up from their original cost from the warehouse. The mark up covers the technician’s time to count them out, possibly split them for you, make a label and discuss how to administer them and any possible side effects.

-Pain medication – $15. Urinary tract infections are uncomfortable. Tulah is going to heal more quickly if her discomfort is treated as well.

Put together, the bill comes to $205. If Tulah had only gotten antibiotics without those other tests, something serious could have been missed, or she could have been inappropriately treated.

The economic downturn has hit the veterinary community hard. Many clients are unable to afford treatment their pets need and are cutting back on regular care as well. The decline in veterinary visits has made it hard for many clinics to make ends meet. So when someone comes in with a sick animal and only $50 in their pocket, it isn’t because we’re heartless that the animal may be refused care, it’s because this happens every day, and clinics often don’t have the resources to extend free care. Someone has to pay for it, where do you draw the line? If you ask any veterinarian, I bet most would agree that having an animal that goes untreated, or receives subpar care is the worst part of our jobs.

So what can be done? The number one best solution to this problem is cat and dog insurance. I often have clients tell me, “my own knee surgery cost less than this!” But that client probably had human health insurance which paid the bulk of that cost, leaving the out of pocket expenses much lower. According to Medscape.com the average cost for ACL repair in humans is about $11,500; the average cost for a similar surgery in your pet is likely somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on how it is repaired and where you live. Pet insurance is comparable to human insurance and can substantially defray the costs of unexpected veterinary bills.

In the cases where a client really just cannot afford anything and has no pet insurance, we usually refer them to the local humane society, where donations and grants allow the organization to provide for needy animals. Often the client has to give their pet up in order to have it treated, and usually don’t get him or her back.

Veterinarians love animals and they want to be able to heal everyone that walks through the door, but unfortunately, often their hands are tied by lack of finances. It will be a great day when most pets are covered by pet insurance and they are able to get the care they need.

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