Why does treatment for pets cost so much?
The price of getting a dog treated at the vet is rising. Is it profiteering or are owners just more desperate than ever to save their beloved companions, asks Jessica McCallin at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
The cost of veterinary treatment is rising by about 12% a year. Insurance is on the increase, too.
BBC British journalist Justin Webb recently struck a chord with pet owners when he revealed that there was a final bill of more than £5,000 for having a chewed sock removed from the family dog’s stomach. It was covered by £30-a-month insurance but is an illustration of how expensive treatment can now be.
Last year, the Society for Practising Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS) surveyed its members about the rising cost of fees and found that nearly 76% of the small animal vet practices who responded had increased their fees over the previous 12 months. The cost of routine procedures such as vaccinations had risen 3.3% in a year.
The Association of British Insurers (ABI) said in 2014 that the average cost of a claim had risen by 7% from the previous year to £679. Even seemingly straightforward treatment can run into the hundreds. A lame dog typically set its owners back by £400.
Antwanette Brightmore, a mother of two from the Midlands, estimates that over the past 20 or so years she has spent £10,000 on pet insurance.
“I have noticed the premiums going up over the years, but I’m happy to pay them as I think part of being a responsible pet owner is accepting the cost of their healthcare. I’m not of the ilk that says that you can put an animal down if the vet’s bill is too high. And I think I’ve made my money back. One dog had heart problems and needed scans and ultrasounds and ECGs (electrocardiograms). Another had an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan which cost £3,000.”
But the ABI estimates that, despite rising costs, only one in four dogs have cover. There are pitfalls with insurance. It doesn’t typically cover pre-existing conditions or routine procedures such as vaccinations and neutering. It’s harder and more expensive to get cover for older animals. Some will provide life-long cover, others only for accidents.
The real question is do the increases reflect a genuine rise in the cost of providing veterinary care? Or are vet and insurers exploiting pet owners’ attachment to their animals?
Veterinarians say the costs increases are a reflection of the greater number of options available today.
“It’s now more common to find X-ray machines at surgeries and this pushes the price up.”
Lots of new diagnostic and imaging equipment is being used, and new treatments introduced, says Sean Wensley, president of the British Veterinary Association. “These advances are expensive and there is no NHS (National Health Service) for animals. And most veterinary surgeries are small to medium-sized businesses that can’t absorb these costs.”
But what of routine, often uninsured, procedures? If routine vaccinations went up 3.3% in 2015 and the United Kingdom Consumer Price Index inflation was only 0.2%, then is the difference just extra income for vets?
Nick Stuart, the SPVS president and a vet practising in south Gloucestershire, argues that this is in line with inflation, and reflects manufacturers edging up the price of the drugs.
Veterinarians have also come under fire for the mark-ups they charge on medicines. All business will put on a mark-up, but is this level reasonable?
Stuart says that often these examples are not comparing like with like. “When you buy drugs at a veterinary practice, you are also getting a consultation, advice on how to administer it, what it will do for your individual animal. This doesn’t happen online.”
He does concede, however, that for chronic conditions, such as arthritis, where an animal may be on medication for a long time, it can often be cheaper to buy the pills over the internet.
Veterinarians certainly say that their salaries are not rising as fast as the price of treatment. Peter Brown, who conducts surveys for the SPVS, says their latest figures suggest that newly qualified vets will earn £30,000 this year, a figure that is actually down 3.7% on last year. “After 10 to 15 years in practice they may be earning up to £50,000, but this is significantly less than their medical counterparts.”
An increasing willingness to pay for veterinary care is also fuelling the rising costs. “There was an increase in pet ownership after WW2 (World War II), but also a change in the way we related to our pets,” says Abigail Woods, Professor of the History of Human and Animal Health at King’s College London and a qualified veterinarian. “We started to have them inside the house rather than, say, outside in the kennel. We started to see them as quasi-human and form strong emotional bonds to them.”
Veterinarians and the pharmaceutical industry realised there was money to be made from this, she says. “Pet owners wanted more treatment and the industry responded.”
And insurance pushes up the cost of treatment by allowing options that would otherwise be unaffordable. “A vet is not making more money off an insured animal,” says Wedderburn. “What insurance does is give the vet more options.”
But, of course, the more the insurers have to pay out, the more they will push up the premium to ensure they make a profit. At the moment, people seem still prepared to pay.
At the beginning of World War II, a government pamphlet led to a massive cull of British pets. As many as 750,000 British pets were killed in just one week. This little-discussed moment of panic is explored in a new book.
The cull came as the result of a public information campaign that caused an extraordinary reaction among anxious Britons.
A puppy is treated at a Blue Cross animal hospital in 1953, where services were provided free of charge: