Why is Veterinary Care so Expensive?


If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me this question, I’d be a wealthy woman! What most people don’t realize is that, relatively speaking, veterinary care, especially when compared to human healthcare, is actually not at all unreasonable. As a former veterinary hospital manager, I can give you some behind the scenes insight into what makes up the cost of veterinary care.

Your cat’s veterinarian is not just your cat’s “family doctor”

Your cat’s vet is also her surgeon, radiologist, dentist, dermatologist, neurologist, ophthalmologist, psychiatrist, ears/nose/throat doctor, and pharmacist, all rolled into one. I’ve always felt that a veterinarian’s training and schooling is far more rigorous and complex than that of a physician. Not only can their patients not talk to them and tell them what’s wrong, but they have to study more than one species. During the first years of veterinary school, students also have to study large animal medicine, even if they know they’re never going to practice it. And even within the small animal track, there are multiple anatomies and disease processes to learn for each species, be it cats, dogs, ferrets, rabbits, or even scaly critters.

A veterinary clinic is a business

Just like any other business, veterinarians have to deal with overhead. They have to pay rent, utilities, and staff salaries. They have to purchase supplies, medications and equipment. They have to pay for laboratory analysis by an outside lab, or maintain an in house laboratory.

Myth: veterinarians get paid a lot of money

Trust me, nobody goes into veterinary medicine for the money. The average veterinarian graduates with a whopping $150,000 in debt. The average veterinary salary in 2011 was $55,000. By comparison, the average physician salary for the same time period was $300,000. (Figures are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

What goes into a bill for veterinary services

The following are some charges you may see on your veterinary bill, along with the explanation of what these charges really encompass. I’m hoping that this will help provide a better understanding of the value of veterinary care.

Office call/exam fee

This is the most important part of the bill. In that 15-30 minute time period, your vet will perform a complete health exam. You’re paying for the vet’s expertise, training, and experience, as well as his time. This fee also covers the time spent making notes in your cat’s record (which is often done after you’ve already left the clinic).

Lab tests

Whether performed inhouse or sent to an outside lab, the costs for lab tests do not just cover the actual performance of the test, ie., blood draw, urine sample collection, cytology (analysis of cells in fluid or in a growth), etc., but also the cost of running the test, and the cost of interpreting the results. The latter is the most time consuming part, and is both an art and a science. The numbers need to be viewed and analyzed in the bigger context of your cat’s health history as obtained in the exam, as well as her past history.

Ear cleaning

In most cases, a technician or assistant will perform a thorough ear cleaning, if that is required. You’re paying for the technician’s time and experience. Cleaning an infected or inflamed ear takes skill and attention to detail.


This is probably the most debated item on veterinary bills. The bulk of this charge is for the actual cost of the medications. Pharmaceutical drugs are expensive, especially if no generic version is available. You’re also paying a dispensing fee, which covers labeling the medication correctly and answering any questions a pet guardian may have about it. You may be able to save money using internet pharmacies, but make sure that it’s a pharmacy that is trusted by your cat’s veterinarian. And beware of having your cat’s prescriptions filled at retail pharmacies. Unfortunately, pet prescription errors are far more common that you might think, and pharmacists receive very little training in veterinary pharmacy.

What happens when a client can’t pay?

This is the worst part of the job for any veterinarian. Most veterinarians go into their profession because they care about animals and they want to help them. However, they also have to support themselves and their families, and even if they wanted to, they couldn’t give their services away for free.

Pet insurance can be a good option for cat guardians who are worried about the rising cost of veterinary care. The Humane Society of the United States provides a list of resources for those who have trouble affording veterinary care.

I hope this helps dispel some of the misconceptions about what goes into your cat’s veterinary bill. If you have a specific question about the cost of veterinary care, leave it in a comment and I’ll do my best to answer it for you.

Photo: istockphoto

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