Who suffers most from the rising cost of veterinary care?


When pet owners can't afford basic healthcare for their animals, the pets suffer-but so do the people.

Even with the economy’s improvement over the past few years, many people are still keeping a close watch on how much they spend—and that includes veterinary care for their pets. But what about those who just can’t afford pet care anymore? What should they do? Commonly, the answer is, “Well, then those people shouldn’t have a pet in the first place.”

I reject that notion as callous. I believe that in many instances, people with the fewest financial resources are those who may benefit the most from having a pet. Pets are good for us. I’m confident that most people are aware of studies that show the benefits of living with a pet. What’s more, for some—particularly senior citizens—a pet may be what keeps that person going and gives them a reason to get up in the morning.

A harsh reality

I recently wrote a column on the importance of preventive care. If you’re not convinced that there are millions across America who truly can’t afford care, check out the following anonymous emails I received in response to the column:

“Over the past few years, we had to allow some pets to pass away. Our veterinarian had alternatives, but my wife is suffering from a chronic illness. I just couldn’t afford it. I believe the death of our last cat so affected my wife that she lost her will. And she soon died.”

“I am retired and live with one dog. Of course I want preventative care and I get it—but where I can afford it. Immunizations are cheaper at shelter clinics compared to the veterinary office. I buy meds online for a good price, cheaper than the vet’s office. Should I be going to a private veterinarian for better care? Possibly, but I do the best I can. I get my own care through Medicare and I assure you I do not always get the best choice of care. The healthcare crisis is a crisis for animals and humans alike.”

“A part of the reason for the decline in veterinary visits is economic. I know of several families in our vicinity that delay taking their pets to the vet because they simply cannot afford it; some are out of work and have enough trouble paying their bills.”

“People are struggling to put food on the table for their kids and for their pets. Something has to give. Pets that appear healthy will not be taken in for checkups. It's the economy and the increase in vet costs. My vet nearly doubled an office visit fee—just for walking in the door. In the meantime, I lost my job twice in the past five years and was on unemployment. When that ran out I had to take early retirement at half the pension I would have gotten at 65 and still I have no job for four years now. I figure I am doing good if my dog goes to the vet when I know something is wrong. They provide a senior discount, except it seems that they have an endless list of fees and services to which the discount can't be applied.”

“I’m a senior and I live alone. I struggle to pay for my own food, let alone my pet’s food. The kind of care you wrote about would be nice in fantasy world—but that’s not my world. Are you suggesting that because I can’t afford to go to the vet each year I should give up my cat?”

What can we do?

The problem is that not only are some pet owners not going to the veterinarian, they’re understandably angry about not being given an alternative. I can’t say I have a perfect solution to the problem, but our profession needs to do better than generically suggesting low-cost clinics (which may not even exist in some communities). Organized veterinary medicine must concede there’s a problem and at least attempt to address it head on.

I encourage veterinary leadership groups to create a task force to further investigate this situation and recommend solutions. One idea is to encourage veterinary practices to help their own by asking clients to pay an extra dollar—or whatever they like—when they pay their own bills. That money could be held in a fund to deliver to clients who can’t afford care. However, I understand that there’s a myriad of potential problems associated with doling out these dollars and administering such a fund. So perhaps this kind of fund would be better managed by a national nonprofit organization, such as the American Veterinary Medical Foundation.

It’s unfortunate that millions of pets die early or needlessly suffer because their families can’t afford appropriate care. These folks certainly can’t afford preventive care—sometimes they can’t afford any care at all. If the end goal is to increase veterinary care for pets, ignoring this significant problem isn’t helpful.

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