Why does treatment for pets cost so much?

Image source, iStock
Image caption,
Cat under anaesthetic

The price of getting a pet 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.

The cost of veterinary treatment is rising by about 12% a year. Insurance is on the increase, too.

The BBC's 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 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. Cat dental treatment had gone up 17.5%.

The Association of British Insurers 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. Tesco Pet Insurance said that, in 2014, the average cost of treating a common condition such as a bite abscess on a cat was £245. A lame dog typically set its owners back by £400. Costs can spiral, however. A cat involved in a road traffic accident might run up a bill of £875 and a torn knee ligament in a dog could cost around £1,200 to fix.

Antwanette Brightmore, a mother of two from the Midlands, currently spends £78 a month insuring her four cats. In the past she had dogs as well, and estimates that over the past 20 or so years she has spent £10,000 on pet insurance.

Image caption,
Antwanette Brightmore with her cats

"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. Another had an MRI scan which cost £3,000."

But the ABI estimates that, despite rising costs, only one in four dogs and just 15% of cats 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?

Vets say the costs increases are a reflection of the greater number of options available today. Pete Wedderburn, a practising vet in Dublin, takes the large increase in cat dental treatment costs as an example.

"A few years ago, if a cat came in with a painful mouth, a vet would typically anaesthetise the animal, have a look in its mouth and extract any rotten teeth. A relatively straightforward procedure. Now veterinary dentists will recommend that you X-ray the cat's head too. 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 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 UK CPI inflation was only 0.2%, then is the difference just extra income for vets?

Image caption,
Jack Russell with cone

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.

Vets have also come under fire for the mark-ups they charge on medicines. The Daily Mirror recently investigated the issue and gave the example of a vet charging £20 for cat steroids which could be bought for £1.12 online from several companies which offer pet prescription services. 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.

Vets 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, 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 Kings College London and a qualified vet. "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."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A puppy is treated at a Blue Cross animal hospital in 1953, where services were provided free of charge

Vets and the pharmaceutical industry realised there was money to be made from this, she say. "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.

More from the Magazine

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
This dog was treated by a vet, but many were put down at the outbreak of WWII

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.

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