Why is veterinary care so expensive?

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Marketplace listener Francesca Nadalini from Austin, Texas asked:

Why is veterinary care so expensive? Is this a unique American thing? Will our anti-consumer health system and human culture just spill over to the veterinary side of health care?

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

“I was 19, just moved out, lived alone and was kind of really depressed,” said Nadalini. “And it really took my life to a much brighter place.”

But taking care of her is expensive, and she has had to spend thousands of dollars on veterinary care during the time she has them.

The nail cut, medical treatments, and flea and tick prevention pills all add up.

Nadalini is not alone. Veterinary care spending has grown steadily, with U.S. consumers spending an estimated $ 32.3 billion on veterinary care and product sales this year, according to the American Pet Products Association. In 2010, consumers spent about $ 13 billion on grooming, or more than $ 16 billion on adjusting for inflation.

Francesca Nadalini adopted Mia, a Chihuahua-Beagle mix, almost seven years ago. (Courtesy photo by Nadalini)

The cost of veterinary care has increased due to rising prices for drugs and pharmaceutical products, while new technology and the latest medical equipment are more expensive, said Mark Rosati, assistant director of media relations for the American Veterinary Medical Association, via email.

Rosati said the increased spending reflects not only higher costs, but a variety of other factors, including increasing pet populations 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 practices are now a widespread option for pet owners, which is why some owners are spending more.

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

Leslie said her organization, a nonprofit that provides veterinary assistance to those who can’t afford it, is seeing an increase in pet cancer diagnoses. Full treatment, including surgery and chemotherapy, can range from $ 8,000 to $ 10,000 for a dog or cat.

“That’s an expense that most people don’t have in their back pockets,” she said.

Leslie pointed out that hospitals have a duty to treat people with medical emergencies, whether or not they have insurance.

“There is no such program for veterinary care. Where human hospitals get Medicare reimbursement, veterinarians are not, ”Leslie said.

No reimbursement of medication for veterinarians

Veterinarians would also have to pay for drugs and medical material without reimbursement, so that they had no choice but to raise prices.

And while this is not the main reason for the rising costs, she explained that more and more veterinary clinics are being bought by corporations. Pastry chef Mars Inc., for example, now owns BluePearl, Banfield Pet Hospitals, and VCA – which, according to Leslie, are the three largest animal hospitals in the United States.

She said corporate veterinarians have no flexibility with their fees and their prices tend to be higher than those in an independent facility.

As an example, Leslie said a veterinarian near the Pet Fund headquarters in Northern California charged $ 1,000 for an ultrasound. But a vet less than 2 miles away costs $ 200.

Because of this, Leslie said it is important for pet owners to shop around to find out how much veterinarians are charging for their treatments.

Clinton Neill, assistant professor at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said veterinary care tends to be cheaper in a metropolitan area in Europe than in a U.S. metropolitan area. However, the difference can be related to the insurance conditions.

According to Neill, around 2 to 3% of households with pets in the US have pet insurance, compared with 25% in Europe.

Neill said insurance may not have caught on in the US because the products here weren’t great when they were launched.

Obstacles to pet insurance

“Today we have better insurance products. The problem today, however, is that many of these insurance products are not really available to many people because of their creditworthiness or income, ”Neill said. “So just qualifying for these has really become a problem.”

He added that pet owners in countries where the government is already providing general health care for their residents may have more money to spend THealth insurance for the heirs.

In a survey Neill conducted earlier this year, 72% of people in the United States said they could not afford veterinary care, at least intermittently.

Francesca Nadalini said that once she graduated, she didn’t have an extra $ 50 to $ 100 a month to pay for her dog’s veterinary bills. But luckily her mother was able to provide financial support and can help out with every other visit in the end.

There is no veterinary Medicare, so Leslie said it was up to nonprofits to fill that void. “But this gap is not bridged anywhere,” she added.

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

“Access is a real problem,” she said. “The cost is an obstacle for many.”