Why is veterinary care so darn expensive?

After getting a dermatology bill in the mail for $571 for the biopsy of a dark mole on my shoulder (don’t worry, it was benign) and a $282 bill for a pathologist’s interpretation, I showed it to Dr. Laci and asked her what we would have charged for the same procedure.

Illustration of how expensive health care is

I mean, $853 dollars for a mole?  We both agreed that we would have removed the mole rather than biopsy it because the cost of biopsy at a veterinary hospital is about the same as removal when local anesthesia can be used.   We wondered why people with veterinary jobs would have charged at least one seventh and why it took 1.5 weeks to get the results back when we can get results from board certified dermatopathologist in
24 hours.

As the quality of veterinary medicine increases and medical advances are made, the cost of cutting edge vet medicine is rising – but not at the same pace of human medicine.  More often than not, people feel that they are getting ripped-off by their vet and that their fees are way too high.  The studies verify these sentiments and it is all over the veterinary industry news. Some pet owners feel many of their simple pet medical questions go unanswered. Many people also assume that their vet is raking it in.  Is this true?

Compare the median salaries and schooling of several professions:

  • Veterinarian: $80,000 (8 yrs school +/- 1-2 yr internship +/- 3-4 yr residency) 1
  • Nurse Practitioner:  $87,618 (6,7,or 8 years depending on the program) 2
  • Average Physician: $186,000 (8 years + 1-2 yr internship +/- 3-4 yr residency)
  • Family doctor:  $150,267 4
  • Psychiatrist:  $163,144 4
  • General Surgeon: $255,438 4
  • Dentist:  $147,010 (5 to 7 years depending on the program) 5
  • Attorney: $145,000 starting and up (7 years) 6

Frustrated VetBusiness revenues:

In addition to lesser business revenues than other professions, vets have a higher cost of goods associated with doing business. Marketing to veterinarians is a rising cost. They have to purchase a veterinary practice website.   And what percent do they get to keep after taxes (net income/profit)?  Veterinary hospitals, when compared to other professional practices, have lower profit margins in addition to the veterinarians having lower salaries.  Here are some examples of the average profit margins generated in different professions:

Veterinarians have very stressful jobs leading to a the highest rate of suicide of any other medical profession. Have a look at this UK study on the incidence of suicide in veterinarians.

  • Veterinarians: 12%
  • Optometrists:  29%
  • Accountants: 30%
  • Architects:  26%
  • Attorneys: 36%
  • Physicians: 36%
  • Dentists:  23%
  • Chiropractors: 27%

It’s always interesting (and scary) to compare the cost of human medicine versus veterinary medicine in the United States:

A hysterectomy surgical fee for a woman is $30,000 to $70,000 but for your adult Rottweiler it is $200 to $500 dollars including anesthesia and post-operative care (up to 35 times higher)

A registered nurse makes an average of $62,527 while a registered veterinary nurse makes an average of $33,000 per year and unregistered vet techs make less ($23,588)

A total hip replacement surgical fee for a person is $90,000 to $150,000 but for your boxer its only $4,000-6,000 including anesthesia and post-operative care (up to 37.5 times higher)

I am not claiming that veterinary care is cheap or that vet fees should be drastically increased.  I am not implying that $79,000 is chump change either (although nearly a third of vet students have an average debt above $150,000). Despite their amount of schooling, their debt, and the long stressful hours at the hospital and on-call, people with animal health jobs wake up every morning (and at all hours of the night) to help your pet, not for the love of money, but for the love of animals.

Dr. Jed

Online Vet Dr. Jed Schaible Signature

Pet Health Questions?  Meet Dr. Jed Schaible VMD

Human healthcare costs were attained from http://www.oshpd.ca.gov. Veterinary salary data was attained from the AVMA website. Cost of veterinary websites taken from VMF.  Average salaries:  various online sources cited via a superscript hyperlink.

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October 25, 2010 at 19:05

Very informative breakdown that all pet owners should see :) Thank you

October 26, 2010 at 14:32

Sure thing Tamara! Hope you found it interesting.

October 26, 2010 at 03:02

i totally agree, that the veterinarian is a profession that is pursued because of the love for animals and not for the money.

October 26, 2010 at 14:33

Betty, A funny thing is most vets I know wanted to be vets since they were young; pretty uncommon for most professions!

October 26, 2010 at 06:33

Well, expensive is relative, isn’t it? We spent $50,000 on Jasmine’s vet bills in last two years …

I am not complaining (much) except the totally wasted $800 we dished out at emergency vet only to get completely bad information and referral to teaching hospital where we paid for all the things the emergency vet did (such as x-rays) all over again.

So that one I’m totally not happy about.

I’m not happy about being up to our ears in debt either.

Were the costs fair? Apart from the emergency vet’s bill I’d have to say yes, I find them fair.

Ouch, just shot myself in a foot ;-)

October 26, 2010 at 22:49

Lol – I guess you did. Inevitably, the emergency hospitals will have to repeat diagnostics given the current system. Laci and I always make copies of the x-rays, bloodwork, and medical record summary for clients prior to them leaving if there was any chance of them needing to go to the emergency hospital. I think that is a good “best practice” but like anything else, it takes the vet time to do that and then, there are those practices that want to repeat anyway for whatever reason – money or the referring vet didn’t provide high-enough quality films.

October 27, 2010 at 07:59

Frankly, I’m amazed that animal surgeries are so cheap compared to human surgeries. I think that it’s us humans that are getting the bum deal.

October 29, 2010 at 00:25

You are totally right- I just had a steroid epidural injection for my herniated disc and it came to $1800. I got a statement from my insurance company saying that they were billed $26XX.00 and I was shocked. It also said I owed $1800. But then I called them and they said they billed the insurance company more so they would cover it and 90% of my part. It is a joke. The game that gets played in human medicine is a shame. And who pays for it? You and me and small business owners that are trying to keep their employees above water in a very, very difficult economy. See now, you got me started. Have a great day.

September 26, 2011 at 17:28

I just got back from a large national vet chain visit and tallied my bill. The exam, special food, stool test, and bio-hazard waste management were all reasonable, but the mark-up on the 4 medicines my dog was given totaled $115.30 which was 61% of the total bill. This is insane, I’m trying to contact the corporate center to see if they can explain where the gap is coming from.

October 12, 2011 at 17:35

Just a heads up, if you try to discuss the cost of medication with a vet, he gets insulted, becomes evasive and gives condescending responses.

Vet tech
November 20, 2011 at 13:16

As a person who has been a Vet Tech and worked in the field I know a little about the Medicine. You are not just paying for medication. You are paying for the medication, the pill vial it comes in, cost of shipping that is charged by the company the vet gets the medications from, plus the techs time to fill the medications, the cost of the labels, and the list continues. I’m sorry the Dr. was not more informative and was condescending because that is no necessary ro appropriate at all. I just know there is ALOT that goes into medication and it’s not just the cost of the actual pills.

January 31, 2012 at 16:23

I can respect admin fees, but please call them admin fees. When a company online would sell me the same medication (if only I had a license) for 40% of the cost the vet is charging, I have to ask myself why.

February 2, 2012 at 09:44

The pharmeceutical companies do not sell directly to any internet pharmacy. They must buy their drugs thriugh 3rd parties. One of my patients bought all of their HW meds on the most popular internet pharmacy, you know the one that calls us thieves on TV and all of his dogs got HWs. The drug companies show me all kinds of counterfeit drugs tey have caught thesae people selling. The govt. just fines them a couple million a yr.

November 20, 2011 at 20:07

If it’s a national chain, probably Banfield, maybe VCA, the doctor you saw had absolutely no input on how much to charge for said medications, the corporate office does all the pricing. The doctors I work for are always willing to write out a prescription whenever possible. The doctors make a pretty minimal amount of profit off of meds anyway.

January 31, 2012 at 16:26

It was a national chain, but I’m not out to smear any franchises. On my original call I asked if I could contact corporate regarding medication pricing but the vet said he was the one to talk to about it. I’m now with a vet who has offered some great natural alternatives to popping meds and prescription creams. So far they’re working.

Dr. P
November 20, 2011 at 14:29

“the mark-up on the 4 medicines my dog was given totaled $115.30 which was 61% of the total bill.”
How do you know what the mark-up is? You have no way of knowing the vet’s cost on meds. Or were you just saying that the COST (to you) of the meds was $115? If that includes heartworm or flea/tick preventatives, that’s understandable–those are expensive, even if you buy online. If you’re really concerned, next time you could try asking them to write you a script for an outside pharmacy and see if that’s cheaper. Some meds are even on the $4 list at some pharmacies, and most vets have no problem doing that (as long as they are human meds–others won’t be available at a human pharmacy).

October 9, 2011 at 18:06

I just brought in a stray cat to get checked out and fixed up if possible. He’s been hanging around for a few days and his mouth is in really bad shape so I brought him to a local vet. The total for the consultation, blood tests (FIV and leukemia), general blood test for liver and kidney function, fluids for dehydration, pain meds, and an over night stay at the clinic..$850. Yes this is what I paid to help a stray cat who needed care. Is it too much?? Yes, its way too much for the average person. I know several vet clinic owners and they are all extremely wealthy. Some are millionaires. Those who say veterinarians don’t make much money are missing the point. It’s not the veterinarians who profit. They are just the workers…it’s the owner’s of the clinics who profit. They profit because they pay the doctors and technicians very little and charge huge mark ups on medication and products (300-400%) and also jack up procedure fees. When you buy special food at a vet (td,cd, etc) you pay about 3-4 times what it costs them to buy it. I understand that the purpose of running a business is to make a profit but some vet clinics take it too far so they can line their pockets. They rape customers for whatever they can get. They play on the fact that you have a heart and will do anything for the animal that you love. The game for them is too see how far they can push you to spend the money. I’m fortunate enough to sometimes be able to afford these ridiculous costs. I try to help animals in need if I can and it would be nice if the clinic owners could pitch in once in while. I haven’t found one yet who has that kind of compassion. Makes me sick too tell you the truth.

October 11, 2011 at 16:33

I agree with you that some vets definitely take it too far. While I haven’t met any practice owning millionaires, I bet you are right that there are some out there. That seems really outrageous–$850 for a stray check up and overnight stay. That is very generous and kind of you to help the cat.

We here are very much on the side as helping pet owners maintain those costs, so some vets may frown upon us, but I think you can practice medicine efficiently and effectively without gouging pet owners for overpriced drugs and food. I could go on endlessly about it! Thanks for commenting.

Dr. H
November 20, 2011 at 19:56

51% of vets are employed by corporations… Those “rich clinic owners” are becoming hard to find. The future is rich CEO’s of the companies, aka the 1%. Most GP vets make a titch more than a McDonald’s manager. But I still love my job.

A Veterinarian
November 20, 2011 at 18:27

The average person thinks most vets are money-grubbing assholes. And thats exactly what makes me want to quit my job.

Dr. J
November 20, 2011 at 21:21

This is in response to
GKafka’s comment. I am a veterinarian that has worked in multiple clincs over the years. Although some practices are better than others I would argue that most veterinarians work hard and fair for their clients and patients. I don’t know of ANY vets that charge 3-4 times what they pay for food. If fact, I don’t know ANY that charge more than the standard prices that are issued by the companies– and I can tell you from experience that is not even a 100% markup. If fact, it’s a 40% standard markup.

May 16, 2012 at 15:07

In response to Dr. J. My wife used to work at the Ecoumuseum here in Montreal, Quebec (google it). As a perk she was able to order all our cat food through them and pay cost price. My wife doesn’t work there anymore and we now by our cat food through one of the clinics owned by the people who run the ecomuseum! They’re good people but we now pay 3x as much for cat food. We tried to deal with them because we have so many cats but they won’t budge on the price. It’s business like any other. I sure as heck don’t see only a 40% mark up. It’s like this at all the clinics in my area. This clinic recently adopted a new pricing policy, $11 to administer a pill for an animal that is in their care. Yes that’s right, $11 to shove a pill into a cat or dog’s mouth. Takes a minute to do that and they charge $11. Sucks no matter how you look at it.

November 21, 2011 at 00:09

What is truly depressing is that after that fantastic breakdown of how little vets are actually making, and that doesn’t even get into large animal vets, the majority of responses above still feel they have been rippped off. This year I started my own mobile equine clinic and I can not begin to describe how awful it is to have clients question your prices. I was selling my clothes to pay bills. And they think I’m making a fortune. Overhead. Insurance. Dues. Rising drug costs. I love my job and its all I ever wanted to do, but sometimes the humans make me want to just walk away.

November 22, 2011 at 16:00

Kristen, I personally think that the vet industry will undergo lots of changes in the next 10 years. I think once vets stop selling prescription drugs and that market is switched pet pharmacists, people will stop viewing us as much of money-grubbers. People don’t buy drugs from their doctors, and I think eventually this will change in our profession too. I know it will not be overnight, but I think once we have all acclimated it will do the industry good as a whole. Thanks for commenting–yes Kristen, large animal vets have it even harder.

January 11, 2012 at 17:17

I am a vet and I get chewed out daily for charging 12 dollars for a rabies vaccination with an exam. I’ve been a vet now for 25 yrs. and I now hate people and told my kids they would get no help from me if they choose to be a vet . Where people come up with these BS price horror stories I don’t know.

January 31, 2012 at 16:20

Wow, I wish rabies vaccination and exam was $12! Where can I get those kinds of rates? EVERY visit costs me (routine or otherwise) between $60 and $450 no matter what.

May 15, 2012 at 21:45

All we have looked into, and the one we have all pay 80% of mecdail bills, but they have no control over the remaining balance. That is what you pay to the vet. There are some vets that want you to pay in full and then YOU get the money from the insurance company. It would be up to the vet regarding making payments on the remaining balance.With three dogs and two cats, the cost of insurance could be cost prohibitive!!! We have one dog insured and it is about $300 per year. There are some breeds that are not usually covered by some companies, but many cover all breeds and just will not cover any congenital problems.The AKC offers a free 60 day trial of insurance the is through National Speciality Insurance. There is also VPI Pet Insurance. Both are good and offer pretty much the same things. Check the cost first. The older the dog or cat, the more it is each year!!!!!It is good though for the REALLY enexpected expenses!! We had 80% of a $2,500 vet bill payed and that was QUITE a help!!!!

June 19, 2012 at 16:24

If you want to waste money and have your dog riddled with fleas and your house ifnested then buy flea stuff from a pet shop or supermarket. I work in a vets and its getting boring the amount of people who bring in flea ridden pets saying “but we treated him/her with flea treatment from the pet shop” POINTLESS!! Pet shops and supermarkets are not licenced to sell products strong enough to kill fleas. When will people realise this!!! Go to your vets for the poor dogs sake!References :

May 18, 2012 at 01:30

Personally, I looked into pet icusranne and did get it for one of our females. But when we went to place a claim they denighed it because there was another accident prior to the one claimed so they claimed it was from that. Even going through parvo they never covered it saying it was preventable. Even though she had been given all shots.So yes it is a good thing if you get it the day you bring home a puppy but I don’t find it helpful in any other situation. And even then for what is paid monthly set that aside in a pet fund and when an emergency happens you have it paid for and you can’t be told it isn’t covered.gina

August 17, 2012 at 11:29

Listening to these people who have no respect for veterinarians is heartbreaking. I have been practicing for 30 yrs. Been injured several times by horse cows and yes ever dogs. The work is hard, hot and nasty. But, everyone thinks we should do it for free. No wonder vets now have the highest suicide rate.

January 31, 2012 at 16:28

Correction, I mean vaccination $12 (in addition to exam fee), that’s still a good deal.

February 26, 2012 at 21:50

:-( Poor puppy. My BFF’s dog is sick and won’t make it tougrhh surgery but she refuses to put her down. I just hope that the little thing isn’t in pain. When our family dog died I was heartbroken.

May 16, 2012 at 08:51

some natural aelarnttives.tea tree and neem oil are natural pesticides that are also good for all skin complaints and are safe for dogs. find a shampoo AND conditoner that contains either specifically for dogs.lavender is also a good pesticide if yoy have wooden floors hoover well in the cracks/corners then put a few drops of the pure oil in hot water and wipe over the floor , also natural antiseptic. boil all pet bedding/ accesories and any other blankets they lie on if fabric allows, kills fleasanother treatment is to give the animal garlic capsules daily. this is supposed to prevent fleas from living on the animals coat.check with your vet.cider vinegar is good and can be used to rinse you pet. (treatment recomended for head lice too)cimb the pet reguarly with a lice comb , i have used it and it reduces the amount of infestations alone!hope this helpsReferences :

June 19, 2012 at 19:10

Pet Shop sell it but it isn’t as power full as the stuff from the vet. If you don’t want your dog suffering from fleas then go get prpeor stuff it’s more expensive but isn’t the dogs health more important then your pocket?? I use Front Line spray Coz I’ve got so many animals and it works a treat better than anything Else I’ve tried.References : Got 3 dogs and 2 Cats

May 18, 2012 at 03:03

A cautionary tale ..I bguhot flea stuff from the supermarket, it was a well known brand and loads cheaper than the vets. I applied it and assumed the fleas would go. I was wrong. A week later my dog had a rash so we took her to the vet. I was mortified to discover that she still had fleas and they were irritating her skin badly. Apparently only the ones you buy at the vet’s actually work. And now I can vouch for that!! It wasn’t so expensive really a320 for six months worth of flea killer from the vet and peace of mind cos it worked straight away. Just thought I’d share that with you, hope it helps!!References :

May 14, 2012 at 20:12

Thanks for sharing the link, but unfortunately it seems to be down Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please reply to my post if you do!