The headline read: “Revenue growth can’t hide ‘alarming’ decline in client visits.” This news, from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, went on to note that “Income increased at many pet practices in 2010, but frequency of veterinary visits remains depressed.” In other words, fewer guardians took their pets to the vet, but got charged more.

This trend is disturbing for several reasons:

1. Fewer animals, especially cats, are getting annual “wellness” checks.  While I don’t support yearly vaccine boosters, I still believe that those annual check-ups are absolutely necessary. Cats, in particular, hide signs of illness until they are very sick. In too many cases, that point is long after the problem ceased to be treatable. To catch problems early, the vet has to see the cat. Dental disease, for example, frequently goes unnoticed until the pain becomes too much for the cat to deal with, and “symptoms” become obvious. (Read more…)

2. To be fair, the cost of offering ordinary veterinary services is rising. Yes, we love animals, and wish we could take care of them all for free. However, like everyone else, we still need to eat. Veterinary care is still way cheaper than human medical care. But just to keep the doors open, every clinic (or mobile service) must provide:

  • Staff:  the largest cost. This includes salaries, taxes, and any benefits the staff gets, such as discounted food or vet care–which are also taxable, BTW). And the clinic owner still has to clear enough money to support her own family.
  • Physical facilities: building mortgage or lease, insurance, utilities such as lights, heat, phone, and internet; or fuel, insurance, and maintenance for a mobile vehicle.
  • Equipment: surgical and dental tools, x-ray (dental x-ray is separate), blood analysis equipment, centrifuge, microscope, autoclave, stethoscopes, fluid pumps, blood pressure and other monitoring equipment; some also offer endoscopy, ultrasound, surgical lasers and other expensive equipment.
  • Consumables: cotton swabs, gauze, tape, syringes, needles, scalpels, suture, drapes, fluids, IV lines, soap, towels, vaccines and medications (which have seen huge increases in price in the last few years), food, cleaning supplies, office supplies, and thousands of other things you would never think of.
  • Outside services: pathology and other diagnostics.
  • Click here for an interesting article that compares veterinarians with other health professionals.

3. On the other side, extraordinary services are also increasing. When a clinic purchases an unltrasound machine ($30-$80,000), and puts in the time, money, and effort to learn how to use it, all that has to be paid for. Ultrasound services may then be pushed, possibly even when they are not really justified. The availability of “cutting edge medicine” is what some clients are demanding, but they’d better be willing to pay for it. Unfortunately this sometimes leads to prolonging an animal’s suffering past the point of reasonableness. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.

Getting a pet may be low-cost or even free, but keeping it takes money. A cat can consume $5,000 to $20,000 in food, kitty litter, and veterinary care over its lifetime; dogs are even more expensive!  (See ASPCA’s chart of the first year’s expenses for various pets.) You can do it on a tight budget, but to keep a pet in the way that will promote optimal health and longevity takes time, effort and money. Scrimping on food and veterinary care now will be more expensive in the long run, but the real price will most likely be paid by your animal companion.

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