Ask the Vet: Why is veterinary care so expensive?

Dr. Melissa Magnuson Canobie Lake Veterinary Hospital, Greenland Veterinary Hospital, All Pet Veterinary Hospital
Dr. Melissa Magnuson
Canobie Lake Veterinary Hospital, Greenland Veterinary Hospital, All Pets Veterinary Hospital

Written by Dr. Melissa Magnuson

Veterinary care is medical care. It is no different from human health care but when compared to human health care, it is considerably less costly. Let’s consider some myths about veterinary medicine that clients have told me:

Myth 1: Veterinarians are not REAL doctors. Just like human medical doctors, veterinary medical doctors have the same amount of schooling to become a doctor but veterinary doctors learn about 10 or more species where human doctors learn about one. Veterinary doctors also have to be radiologists, ophthalmologists, dentists, surgeons, psychiatrists, and grief counselors. Veterinary doctors have extensive medical and surgical training—so they are REAL doctors.

Myth 2: Veterinarians make a lot of money, that’s why it costs so much. The average veterinarian salary out of vet school is $75,000 per year. Compare this to human medical doctors who make $160,000 starting salary. Specialty veterinarians make $120,000 where specialty human medical doctors make $285,000-$485,000 per year.  Both veterinarians and human medical doctors incur the same amount of financial debt to become a doctor, typically around $200,000, which they are required to pay back.

Myth 3: Veterinary hospitals just want to make money, they don’t care about the pet. The field of veterinary medicine is filled with animal loving individuals who care about pets. The most difficult part of the job is when clients cannot financially afford medical care for their pets. The cost to run a veterinary hospital is high (payroll, equipment, insurance, inventory, labs, leases, loans, rent, mortgages, continuing education to remain current in the veterinary field, etc. ). We are fortunate to work in a business that helps animals. A pet is a luxury item—similar to owning a car—it has to be cared for regularly and it costs to care for them.

Myth 4: Lab test are not necessary, that is how veterinarians make money. Lab tests are necessary, and also recommended for pets that appear normal because pets cannot tell us how they feel. The tests often reveal what is wrong and how it must be treated. Most lab tests are sent out to labs that charge the veterinary hospital money, so in order to run the lab tests, the veterinary hospital has to pay the lab first. If the lab doesn’t get the money, the test won’t be run.

Myth 5: Physical examinations are not necessary, veterinarians should just prescribe medication. The physical examination is the most important part of a veterinary appointment (combined with the client history and answers to our questions.) Remember, pets cannot talk so physical exam findings like heart rate, respiration rate, the quality of the heart sounds, the feel of the pulses, lymph nodes, abdomen, and color of the gums give veterinarians a lot of information to care for your pet properly. Some medicines would be detrimental without the physical exam.

Myth 6: Veterinarians overcharge for medicine, I can get it so much cheaper at on-line pharmacies or my own pharmacy. Veterinarians purchase medicine directly from pharmaceutical companies and then sell it to the client. These medicines are not expired and quality controlled. Many on-line pharmacies buy from 3rd party resellers overseas and sometimes are not selling the same drug that is approved by the FDA in the United States. Oversea products have different regulations. Also, human pharmacists are NOT trained in animal medicine, only human medicine, so they are unaware of drug substitutions that should never be made. For example—many liquid medications for humans contain xylitol, a toxic substance to cats and dogs that should never be used in veterinary medicine.  Medication dispensed from a human pharmacy could potentially be under dosed or over dosed for animals.   

Myth 7: It costs me more to take my pet to the vet than to go to my own doctor.  Many people that have their own health insurance do not see the full cost of human healthcare because they only pay the co-pay or meet a deductible.  If you do not have medical insurance for your pet, you will see the full cost of healthcare.

Myth 8: My pet is fine, he/she doesn’t not need to go to the vet yearly. Pets age much faster than humans and examining pets yearly allows the opportunity to discover issues early.  There have been many occasions where illness was caught on examination and lab tests in pets that appeared healthy to their owners.  Early detection allows the pet to have a much better (and less expensive) chance for a living a healthy life.  Owners may not always notice gradual changes in their pets.  It can be liked to living with someone who is gradually gaining weight – you may not notice, but someone who hasn’t seen that person in a while notices it right away.


How does an owner make it less expensive?

Start with the basics…

Feed a good quality grain free, minimally processed food…what you put in your pet affects how your pet feels. If you feed junk, you will get junk.

Keep your pet a healthy weight

Exercise your pet regularly

See your veterinarian at least once yearly for a wellness examination.

Preventing disease in your pet is much more inexpensive than treating disease.

Always ask your veterinarian for a treatment plan to go over costs before you proceed with diagnostic tests, treatments and medications so you know how much items will cost. Discuss the care you are receiving with your veterinarian and ask questions so you fully understand charges and why the items are recommended. Ask your veterinarian if it is possible to split up certain preventative care items/treatments among multiple visits to help with finances.

Consider pet insurance, while many do not pay for preventative care, they do cover medical issues that are unexpected.

Consider signing up for a veterinary finance option.  CareCredit is a popular payment option. It helps spread out payments for pets that need surgery (spay/neuter), dental cleanings, and/or unplanned incidents.  It is also very helpful if you have multiple pets.  Check with your veterinary hospital to see if they accept CareCredit. 



About Dr. Magnuson

Dr. Melissa Magnuson is a native of southern Minnesota, where she grew up on a small pig and cattle farm. Ever since she can remember, she’s wanted to be a veterinarian and fulfill her lifelong passion of helping animals. With a degree in biology and philosophy from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN, she went on to work on a master’s degree at Southern Mississippi University. From there, she completed her Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota in 1998.

Her internship in small animal medicine, surgery, and emergency medicine brought her to the east coast. She has a special interest in surgery, emergency medicine, and avian and exotic animal care. Because she absolutely LOVES veterinary medicine, she never feels like she’s at work. She feels very lucky to have found her passion.

Dr. Magnuson is married to her best friend, Andy, with whom she has three beautiful daughters. Her pets include four dogs, three cats, a bird, a bearded dragon, and a guinea pig. In her spare time, she enjoys being with her family outdoors, biking, hiking, swimming, and reading.

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