Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Examining the Cost of Veterinary Care

Pet Column for the week of September 8, 2003

Related information:

Services - Veterinary Profession

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ann Marie Falk
Information Specialist

Over the past several decades, the quality and variety of medical care for companion animals has exploded in response to animal owners' demands. Pets now receive routine dental care, chemotherapy for cancer, and even pacemakers. Not surprisingly, the cost of care has risen.

"Pets are now more a part of the family than they were 50 years ago. People are taking a greater interest in their pet's health, so veterinarians can offer better quality care," says Dr. Christine Merle, a veterinarian and certified veterinary practice manager formerly at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana.

Advances in veterinary medicine have led to improvements in disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. A new emphasis on preventive medicine helps ward off heartworm, fleas, ticks, and intestinal parasites. Annual health checks with routine blood work catch serious problems early on, leading to more successful treatment and a better quality of life for pets.

The advanced diagnostics now available can save pet owners money by pinpointing a problem quickly and early, enabling use of the most effective treatment. Without proper diagnostics veterinarians must guess at the problem and may have to re-treat the animal several times.

Many new drugs have been developed for veterinary use. They generally are dispensed at a fraction of the cost of a comparable drug used in human medicine.

"A veterinarian is a combination of all doctors: a surgeon, anesthesiologist, radiologist, pharmacist, dermatologist, and the list goes on and on. A veterinary clinic is a 'one-stop shop' where your pet can get it all done. Most services can be provided the same day, without the hassle of scheduling different appointments with a variety of doctors," comments Dr. Merle.

Veterinarians typically spend 8 years in college to earn a doctoral degree, and many study further to specialize. Compared with other professionals with similar educational levels, veterinarians usually earn much less-and they graduate with high student loan debt. Their love of animals does not diminish that they deserve a fair wage for their knowledge and services.

Likewise, a veterinary clinic is a business, and overhead costs have risen with technological advances. X-ray and ultrasound machines are now commonplace at local clinics. Supplies and equipment must be stocked for patients ranging from Chihuahuas to Great Danes. A large staff is required to do everything from animal restraint to treatment to clean up.

"Prices for basic veterinary care have not risen much in the last 30 years, while in human medicine the cost of services has skyrocketed. It is less expensive to treat your dog than your child for the same illness," says Dr. Merle.

All these factors influence the cost of care, but you should always feel free to ask your veterinarian to explain the charges. Your veterinarian should discuss the range of treatment options and their costs in advance so you can choose the level of care that's right for your animal. Before agreeing to a procedure, you could ask for a written estimate of the costs.

"Communication is essential. As the pet's health advocate a veterinarian must do or suggest what is best to protect the animal's health or relieve suffering. As an owner you'll feel better knowing exactly what is being done for your pet and how that is improving quality of life for your loved one," states Dr. Merle.

For more information about the veterinary profession, pet health care questions, or cost of services, contact your local veterinarian.