What’s driving the cost of vet bills?

Understanding the reasons why prices may vary from clinic to clinic, and what contributes to the cost of non-routine procedures, can help you choose a vet that fit's both your pet's needs and your budget. The post What’s driving the cost of vet bills? appeared first on MoneySense.

What’s driving the cost of vet bills?

Canadians enjoy universal health care coverage, but our beloved pets (unfortunately) do not. And when you’re paying for it upfront, the price tag of a trip to the can seem steep. Besides the one-time cost of microchipping and spaying or neutering, standard annual veterinary care costs around $650 for both and , according to the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA)—and that doesn’t account for any emergency surgery, treatments or medicine in cases of accident or illness. 

To ease the sticker shock, it’s helpful for pet parents to understand what’s driving the cost of your vet bill, why prices vary from clinic to clinic, and how to find the right veterinarian that balances your pet’s medical needs with your budget.

Why vet costs vary for the same procedures

Veterinary costs aren’t standardized in Canada, so it’s hard to compare the average cost of examination fees or things like spaying/neutering, dental cleaning, vaccinations and x-rays. The (CVMA) publishes suggested fee guides for small- and large-animal procedures, but that information isn’t available to the public. There might be some variance in price based on a pet’s individual needs, but any reputable veterinarian should be able to tell you the price of more standardized things like exam fees, spaying/neutering, nail trimming, dental cleaning and extractions, and blood and urine testing. 

“Transparency is of the utmost importance,” says Dr. Bryan Gelman, a veterinarian of the Yonge & St. Clair Veterinary Hospital in Toronto. Understanding that no one appreciates a surprise bill, Gelman and his staff are upfront about costs and prices, as well as communicating any potential changes that may require additional care at an additional cost. “I’ll tell them before we do it, so they’re fully aware before we proceed.”

The price of the same procedure may vary between clinics, depending on things like the needs of an individual pet, the type of equipment used, and whether anesthetics or post-op drugs are needed. Every clinic has a different way of breaking down costs: some vets will schedule up to three appointments an hour, while others will do five. If one veterinary clinic charges $300 for a procedure and another clinic charges $600, it’s important to ask exactly what’s included in the package, such as pre-op bloodwork, anesthetics, hospitalization, monitoring, fluids via IV catheter, medication and a follow-up visit. A pet’s size and a variance between will also impact the cost of a procedure. Putting a under anesthesia is like knocking out a small horse! It’s always a good idea to ask for an all-inclusive price specific to your pet, so you can compare apples to apples.

Of course, that doesn’t mean more affordable vets don’t provide a good quality of care. Ultimately, it’s about understanding and being comfortable with how your vet breaks down their costs and accounts for their time. Quality and cost aren’t necessarily trade-offs, but a balancing act. 

Why costs vary by clinic

Besides the cost of actual medical care, pet owners should also consider what goes on behind the scenes. Independently-owned veterinary offices, which make up more than 90% of clinics across Canada, operate as small businesses and have to pay rent, insurance, utilities, and staff salaries, and buy facilities and equipment that meet regulatory standards. Even the purchase and maintenance of smaller items such as an autoclave—a device used to clean and sterilize surgical tools—costs thousands of dollars. If a vet’s office is in a prime location with top-of-the-line diagnostic and surgical equipment and provides 24/7 celebrity-level care, the cost will reflect that. 

Of course, vets are animal lovers too, and they’re sympathetic to their clients’ financial hardships. Gelman says while many vets will try to accommodate their clients or do pro-bono work, cutting corners or doing things on the cheap can only make things worse. 

“It comes down to quality of care,” he says. “If you want to do the best you can for your patient and client, there are costs associated with that.”

Financial tips for pet owners

If you want to balance cost with the quality of care in selecting the right vet, you need to ask the right questions and seek out recommendations from trusted sources. In addition to reading online reviews and getting referrals from friends and family, you can assess the quality of care by touring the clinic facilities and equipment, and interviewing the staff. If you cannot view staff bios on a clinic’s website, simply ask for an overview of the staff and their credentials. 

In terms of cost, location can be a big factor. Generally, urban centres have higher prices than rural areas. Urban clinics pay higher rents and more competitive salaries, and these costs are passed on to pet parents. If you are willing to travel outside the city for veterinary care, you may be able to save money. Convenience comes at a cost!

When it comes to covering the unexpected costs for pets that can live up to 15 years (or longer), pet parents should consider insurance for both accidents and illness. Gelman estimates about 25% of his patients have pet insurance, and says it’s popular with younger, budget-conscious pet owners who want peace of mind. (Note Gelman’s patient base is insured well above the industry average of only

“If at any point you think an emergency situation may dictate the way you treat your pet medically or prevent you from doing what’s best for them, then insurance may be right for you,” he says. 

As an alternative to insurance some pet parents opt to save the money they would pay in insurance premiums in a high-interest savings account, so they are regularly setting aside money that can be put towards unexpected veterinary expenses, if the need comes up. 

Veterinary medicine can be expensive, but Gelman says there’s a silver lining: In terms of medical options and improving care and quality of life, there’s never been a better time to be a pet.

“The ability to do things we couldn’t do 20 years ago has also improved. People can pursue chemo for their pets, and 20 years ago that wasn’t an option. Now, there are more options than ever to pursue what’s right for you and your pets.” 

Kerri-Lynn McAllister is a proud pet parent to two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and the Founder & CEO at , a website that connects pet parents to healthcare services and advice.


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