A veterinarian takes care of a new puppy during his check up. FatCamera/Getty Images
I've Always Wondered ...

Why is veterinary care so expensive?

Janet Nguyen Aug 5, 2021
A veterinarian takes care of a new puppy during his check up. FatCamera/Getty Images

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Marketplace listener Francesca Nadalini from Austin, Texas, asked:

Why is veterinary care so expensive?  Is this a uniquely American thing? Does our consumer-unfriendly health care system and culture for humans just spill over into the veterinary side of health care?

Francesca Nadalini has a strong bond with her Chihuahua-beagle mix, Mia, whom she adopted from a local shelter almost seven years ago.  

“I was 19, just moved out, was living on my own and was in kind of a really depressed place,” Nadalini said. “And she really brought my life into a much brighter place.” 

But looking after her is expensive, and she’s had to spend thousands of dollars on veterinarian care during the time she’s had her. 

The nail trimmings, the medical treatments and the flea-and-tick-prevention pills all add up.

Nadalini isn’t alone. Veterinary care spending has been steadily rising, with U.S. consumers estimated to spend $32.3 billion this year on veterinarian care and product sales, according to the American Pet Products Association. In 2010, consumers spent about $13 billion on care, or more than $16 billion when adjusting for inflation.

Francesca Nadalini adopted Mia, a Chihuahua-beagle mix, almost seven years ago. (Photo courtesy Nadalini)

Vet care costs have increased because of the rising prices for drug and pharmaceutical products, while new technologies and the latest medical equipment are more expensive, explained Mark Rosati, assistant director of media relations for the American Veterinary Medical Association,over email. 

Rosati said that the increased spending not only reflects higher costs, but also a variety of other factors, including a rising pet population and longer pet lifespans, which means more veterinary care.

More expensive procedures for pets

Karen Leslie, executive director of The Pet Fund, noted that certain procedures have now become a more widespread option for pet owners, which is why some owners are spending more. 

“For example, 20 years ago, when we started, you would be very lucky to get an MRI for your animal. You’d have to be near a veterinary teaching hospital,” Leslie said. “Now, MRIs are more readily available, which is great, because they’re an incredibly important diagnostic tool. But that’s $2,000 to start, just as your diagnostic tool, before you even begin treatment.”

Leslie said that her organization, a nonprofit that provides veterinary care assistance for those who can’t afford it, is seeing a spike in cancer diagnoses in pets. The full treatment, including surgery and chemotherapy, can reach between $8,000 and $10,000 for a dog or cat.

“That is an expense that most people don’t have ready in their back pocket,” she said. 

Leslie pointed out that hospitals are required to treat people with medical emergencies whether or not they have insurance. 

“There is no such program for veterinary care. So, where human hospitals are reimbursed for their Medicare expenses, veterinarians are not,” Leslie said.

No medication reimbursement for vets

She added that veterinarians also have to pay for medication and medical supplies without reimbursement either, which means they have no other option than to raise prices. 

And while it’s not the main reason for rising costs, she explained that more and more veterinary clinics are being bought by corporations. Confectioner Mars Inc., for example, now owns BluePearl, Banfield Pet Hospitals and VCA — which Leslie said are the three largest vet clinics in the United States. 

She said that corporate vets have no flexibility in terms of what they charge, and their prices are typically higher than at an independently owned facility.  

As an example, Leslie said that one vet near the Pet Fund’s headquarters in Northern California charges $1,000 for an ultrasound. But one vet less than 2 miles away charges $200. 

That’s why Leslie said that it’s important for pet owners to shop around to find out how much vets are charging for their procedures. 

Clinton Neill, an assistant professor at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said that vet care in a metropolitan area in Europe tends to be cheaper than in a U.S. metropolitan area. But the difference may have to do with insurance ownership rates. 

About 2% to 3% of pet-owning households in the U.S. have pet insurance, versus 25% in Europe, according to Neill. 

Neill said that insurance may have failed to gain traction in the U.S. because the products here  weren’t particularly good when they first launched. 

Barriers to pet insurance

“Today, we have better insurance products. However, the issue today now is that a lot of those insurance products are not really available for a lot of people because of credit scores or their income,” Neill said. “So it’s really become a problem to even just qualify for those.” 

He added that in countries where the government already covers universal health care for its residents, pet owners may have more money to put toward their animals’ health insurance. 

In a survey Neill conducted earlier this year, 72% of people in the U.S. said they feel like they can’t afford veterinary care at least some of the time. 

Francesca Nadalini said that after graduating, she did not have an extra $50 to $100 a month to pay for her dog’s vet costs. But luckily, her mom has been able to provide financial support, and may end up helping out every other visit. 

There is no veterinary Medicare, which is why Leslie said that it falls to nonprofits to bridge that gap. “But that gap is nowhere being bridged,” she added. 

Leslie noted that the inequity that exists in human health care also exists in veterinary care. 

“Access is a real issue,” she said. “The cost is a barrier to many.”

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