I hear from many pet owners that the costs of veterinary care for their pets seem to have disproportionately and dramatically risen in recent years, in comparison to other costs of living. The question is, are they correct?
Like most things I choose to blog, podcast, or videocast about, the answer is not that simple. There are examples where costs of veterinary care have indeed skyrocketed, other examples where it has not gone up any faster than other costs of living that are subject to inflation, and yet others where costs have actually remained the virtually the same.
Referral veterinary medicine is really the area where costs have dramatically risen, having gone up in some cases, by over 100% over the past decade. Referral medicine is a branch of veterinary medicine where patients are referred by the general practitioner in cases that have progressed beyond the scope of general practice, and require the expertise of specialists and the specialized diagnostic equipment and treatments they have access to.
Part of this dramatic rise is the result of new technology and medical techniques being offered in referral medicine, such as hyperbaric chamber and stem cell therapy. However, by in large, it seems that the referral veterinary medical industry attempted to make up for less referrals in the wake of the Great Recession by jacking up the prices of their services.
For example, referring a case for decompression spinal disk surgery in 2008 may have cost the pet owner around $4000. Fast forward 5 years later, and that same case now costs $7000-$8000, a rate of price increase that markedly outpaced the rate of inflation during that period. As a result, even though many pet owners are in a better position than they were in the height of the recession, they are still often just as reluctant now as they were in 2008 to take their pet to a specialist, and I can hardly blame them.
In general veterinary clinics, the situation is quite different. Most operate on fee increases that simply keep pace with inflation. With inflation having fluctuated between 3%-4% per year over the last 10 years that is about the rate of general fee increase general practice has seen. However, since the earning power of many pet owners has either reduced or stayed virtually the same over that same period, the perception is that veterinary costs have simply soared.
In other specific cases, veterinary medicine has not kept pace with inflation or even raised fees at all…to the financial detriment of the practice, since not keeping fees at pace with inflation causes a net loss in net revenue.
Take dentistry for example. The cost of a dental cleaning in my clinic costs about the same now as it did in 2008 and that is the same for many other general practices. It has always been a challenge to begin with to make pet owners understand the importance of pet dental health and the health consequences of not keeping of with it. Rising costs would make that task even harder, to the point that many would simply not opt to have the dentistry done, or have a groomer with no medical training (thereby offering dental cleaning services illegally – a discussion for another day) scrape the visible teeth that the owner can see (meanwhile the insides of the teeth and in the teeth back of the mouth continue to rot unabated). As a result, we have held the price down, absorbed the costs of inflation, and found ways to mitigate that cost through efficiency and carefully planned protocols.
I believe that eventually, the situation will level out again, as people tend to simply find a way in the face of adversity. Pet owners are now beginning to see the value of pet insurance and/or seriously prepare for the cost of veterinary care as part of the household budget. Veterinary clinics are forming co-ops that use their collective buying power to leverage vendors to reduce the costs of supplies, equipment, and medicine. At some point, the if the referral branch of veterinary medicine continues to outpace inflation, it will become too cost prohibitive that they will be either forced to find the same efficiencies we are resorting to in general medicine to reduce and control price; or they will simply cease to exist outside of veterinary colleges and/or in hyper-affluent areas.
The free market usually solves disparities and veterinary medicine in the end is not exempt from free market trends. I am confident that pet owners and veterinary medicine will by necessity find the middle ground necessary to continue to provide pets affordable, quality veterinary care.
Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital in West Melbourne, FL, Chief Editor of the Veterinary Advice and Information Website, Web-DVM, and founder/CEO of Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care