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Thank you to our guest blogger, Christine M. Fletcher, DVM

 

photo credit Debbie Brusius

It seems like just yesterday that you brought your new kitten home, all fluff and mischief. But the months have flown by, and it’s time to get her spayed. You call your veterinarian’s office and get a surgery appointment and an estimate. Later when you mention it to a friend, he says, “They’re charging you how much? That’s ridiculous! I had my cat spayed last year and it cost less than half that. Your vet’s ripping you off!”

This situation isn’t uncommon. Veterinary hospitals hear it from clients all the time, and not just about spay and neuter surgeries. The cost of a dental cleaning, lump removal, X-rays, even a basic exam can be twice as much—or more—at one hospital compared to another. How does this happen? Is more expensive really better, or are you just paying for somebody’s fancy Porsche? How can you know?

 

Apples to oranges

Many clients assume that the same procedure at two different hospitals is…well, the same. After all, a cat spay is a cat spay is a cat spay, right?

Actually, the services that go into a spay (or a dental cleaning, or a lump removal, etc.) can vary widely between hospitals. To be sure you’re comparing apples to apples, you need to know exactly what the procedure includes at each hospital.

   
   

Take these hypothetical cat spays. When you inquire, you find out that the estimate from the more expensive hospital includes pre-anesthetic bloodwork, IV catheter and fluids, gas anesthesia, and post-op pain medication in addition to the actual surgery. At the less expensive hospital, a cat spay includes gas anesthesia, surgery, and pain meds, but no fluids and no bloodwork. At yet another hospital, with even lower fees, a cat spay may be done under injectable anesthesia only, with no gas anesthesia (or the oxygen support that comes with it) and no other services at all—not even post-op pain medication.

At all three hospitals, your cat will be spayed. The only way for you to know the difference between the three procedures is to ask beforehand what’s included. This also gives you the opportunity to ask why certain services are recommended (or not).

 

Who’s doing what?

A difference in costs may also be due to different levels of staffing and equipment. At some veterinary hospitals, for example, certain procedures—such as monitoring anesthesia or performing dental cleanings—are done only by certified veterinary technicians (CVTs). CVTs have completed a 2-year college program that includes instruction in anatomy, anesthesia, pharmacology, nursing, surgical assisting, radiology, and dental hygiene. They must pass a national exam to become licensed. Then, to keep their license, CVTs in Oregon must regularly complete continuing education courses to ensure they’re staying current with new medical knowledge.

Other hospitals don’t utilize CVTs. Instead, they train their own veterinary assistants. In Oregon, veterinary assistants may not legally administer anesthesia or rabies vaccines (which CVTs can). But they’re allowed to perform almost all other duties, including cleaning teeth and monitoring animals already under anesthesia. Veterinary assistants may or may not have previous experience. They may have completed a four- to nine-month training program, or they may have received all their training on the job. There are no educational or licensing requirements.

As you’ve probably guessed, CVTs command a higher wage than veterinary assistants. Hospitals that employ CVTs and rely on their expertise have higher staffing costs, which is often reflected in the fees charged for services.

 

Equipment, Specialists and Emergency Care

As another example, some veterinary hospitals choose to have a board-certified radiologist read their X-rays. This improves diagnostic accuracy, which is great for the patient. The downside? This service adds to the cost of X-rays.

 

 

The amount and types of equipment a veterinary practice chooses to have also has an impact on fees. Additional or upgraded equipment means the hospital can provide more services to its patients. The disadvantage, again, is cost; not only to lease or purchase the equipment, but for ongoing maintenance and supplies to keep it running properly. For example, a veterinary hospital that invests in lab machines can get their patients’ blood test results the same day—sometimes, the same hour. This can be enormously beneficial, especially for emergency and critical patients who need fast diagnostics. But setting up and maintaining an in-house lab is a major expense…which is why blood tests performed in-house can be more costly than the same tests sent to an outside lab.

Likewise, an emergency veterinary hospital must have enough equipment, supplies, and staff on hand to diagnose and treat critical patients 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most regular veterinary practices can’t afford to pay for night staff, which means a hospitalized patient may go without supervision for several hours overnight. In contrast, a patient at an emergency veterinary hospital receives the same level of monitoring, treatment and nursing care at 3 AM as he does at noon. Not surprisingly, staffing and equipment costs at a 24/7 emergency hospital are much higher than for the average veterinary practice, and this is reflected in their fees.

These are just a few of the reasons that prices at one veterinary hospital may be higher or lower than the hospital down the street. As a client, you always have the right to receive an estimate for services. If you aren’t automatically given one, don’t hesitate to ask. If you’re not sure why a particular service is included in the estimate (or not), ask about that too. The veterinary team should be willing and able to explain every service included in a procedure: what it is, what it costs, and why it’s necessary.

 

 

Other factors, like equipment, inventory and other overhead, can be harder for clients to evaluate. This is where the most important factor of all comes in: trust. Regardless of whether their fees are high or low, you need a veterinary team you can trust to do their jobs to the utmost of their ability and to have your pet’s best interests at heart.