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Spend any amount of time in a veterinary office an you're guaranteed to hear a question that makes most animal health professionals groan internally. The question, seemingly innocuous, is "How much is this going to cost?"
The problem lies not with the question itself - but how it is phrased. Suspend reality for a moment and imagine your dog or cat as a car. Would you bring a car to the mechanic for an unknown issue and ask for a price before the mechanic had a chance to assess what's wrong? In the same way, animal health professionals dread the question of price because they can't give you a solid figure without figuring out what's wrong - animals can't speak to humans with language, telling us exactly where it hurts and what type of pain it is. Neither can cars.
Both situations require more delicacy and expertise to find the cause of a problem than if, for example, a fully grown adult were to go to a clinic and ask to be seen for a sprained ankle. What appears to a caring, concerned owner as something minor may, in fact, turn out to be much more serious of an issue.
So what should you ask instead? If you're facing a medical emergency or are visiting your veterinarian for a specific problem, you should ideally be focused on the problem at hand and not the sometimes substantial cost incurred. The best time to inquire about the price of emergency medical care is NOT when an emergency arises, but during the times everything is okay.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals suggests owners of small dogs squirrel away about $210 every year for recurring medical costs. Medium dogs require slightly more in terms of monetary investment - about $235 a year. Large dogs cost an average of $260 a year in routine medical care, and cats generally cost a bit less to maintain - about $160 a year in routine medical costs.
Start up a small savings fund for your pet's care. Plan to spend between $160 and $260 a year on things like an annual wellness exam, routine vaccinations, heart-worm preventative and flea and tick preventative. And it's worth it in the long run - even the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) agrees that spending annual routine care costs cuts down on emergency care later. Maintaining a regular history with your vet ensures that, when routine blood work does come back with a problem or Fluffy really doesn't feel well, both you and your veterinarian are able to agree that something is not right and catch potentially life-threatening issues earlier than might otherwise be possible.
Sure, in a perfect world every animal would have adequate veterinary care. But again, it isn't a perfect world and problems arise. What about when the proverbial litter box scoopings REALLY hit the fan? It's a question that's hard to answer based on a lot of variables, making the question "how much is this going to cost?" just that much more frustrating.
Internet advice articles abound telling pet owners exactly how much to plan for in the event of an animal emergency. Like all good advice, you get what you pay for. Setting an arbitrary number is a good starting point, but isn't always accurate. Some website advise you to squirrel away as little as $1000, while others suggest you keep a rolling account, placing $25 aside and into that account every week, much like you would a child's college fund.
Out of the two options that seem to be favored among the Internet's armchair experts, the second is closer to the mark. $25 each week equals out to just over $1300 a year, enough to cover some, but not all, emergencies. Most animals never encounter an emergency each year, but you'll never know when one will hit. And the idea is to be prepared for when an emergency does occur.
The problem of the price knowledge gap comes, in part, because a lot of pet owner's don't understand the true cost of what goes into caring for their animal. There's always a base exam fee - the money a veterinarian charges just for you being in the office. This can be likened to the same fee you pay to see your doctor.
There will almost always be some form of diagnostic testing...Blood work, diagnostic examinations, urine or fecal testing and fluid analysis are just some of the types of testing used to figure out why FiFi keeps throwing up. Since FiFi can't tell us directly what's going on, the doctor needs the aid of these tools to see what exactly is happening.
Even something seemingly as innocuous as a blood draw has money associated with it that may not be readily apparent. The needle and collection tube may only cost the veterinarian about $7. Paying a skilled technician to make the blood draw as painless as possible might cost another $5. Add in a $5 glass slide manufactured to fit the clinic's blood analysis machine and the energy needed to run in-house lab equipment, and you're looking almost $30 or more.
If FiFi needs medication, there's a cost associated with that. The base price the medication costs the clinic might be $2 per pill. The veterinary clinic needs to maintain a very costly license in order to administer those pills. The veterinary technician has to count, bottle and label those pills specifically for your pet in a childproof container with the exact dosage instructions tailored to your needs - not just anyone can do that, even as simple as it seems. For a week's supply of medication that cost the clinic $14, you may be paying $25 or more to cover those very real and necessary costs.
And for those of you wondering why $4 generic medications similar to those at Wal-Mart don't exist for Fido? The manufacturer of the medications sends the drugs pre-packaged to the pharmacy in handy one-month supplies already in their own containers. All the pharmacist has to do is slap a label on...a task that takes less than five minutes on even the busiest of days. Wal-Mart actually loses money on those prescriptions. They're able to recoup it when you spend the next 30 minutes walking around waiting for your prescription to be filled, possibly buying things in the process.
So you've come to the clinic at 3 AM for an emergency. You're already paying a basic exam fee, diagnostic testing fees and any after-hours fees the veterinarian has to charge in order to wake up the entire team in order to treat your animal. The veterinarian then must decide, based upon the diagnostic procedures, what is wrong with your animal. And that's not always easy. Even the simplest things like heart rate can vary wildly among animals of the same species based on age, gender and size. This is why having a regular check-up is important: it establishes what's NORMAL for your individual pet.
And then, the vet has come to a diagnosis. What now? If Fifi needs immediate surgery to save her life, you're looking at some big fees - the money associated with putting Fifi under anesthesia, monitoring her while she's unconscious, the cost of keeping the surgical suite as free of germs as possible (which takes meticulous attention to even the smallest detail. Not only do most veterinarians wear sterile gloves, but also sterile gowns, masks and headgear. If those things come into contact with something un-sterile, they must be replaced for the sake of keeping Fifi as safe as possible. You may balk, but imagine the fit you would have if you caught your child's surgeon wiping his or her nose while taking out YOUR CHILD'S appendix!)
The surgery has gone well and Fifi is in recovery. More costs are incurred because the staff needs to keep an eye on Fifi to ensure she has a successful recovery - anesthesia stays in the body even after someone wakes up, and although the biggest danger is past, Fifi is still at a life-threatening stage.) Medication might be administered to deal with the pain or anxiety associated with surgery. Fluids might be needed, depending on what the issue is.
Are you tired yet? So are the staff. So is Fifi. Take every moment gut-wrenching emotion of fear and anxiety and multiply it by 100 and that's what the staff of the veterinary clinic has just undergone in a very short span of time. Ask yourself if you can put a price on the love, joy and happiness your pet gives you. If you can readily say what that price is, you may be better off investing in a pet rock or sculpture.
Some key points to remember:
- Don't wait until an emergency happens to start planning for one. It's better safe than sorry and there is no such thing as "too soon." A health emergency can strike any animal of any age at any time. That's why they're emergencies.
- Keep up with your pet's regular care. Prevention may not be the best cure, but it's the best way to detect possible emergencies before they occur.
- Speak frankly to your veterinarian about how much he or she charges his or her clients as an after-hours emergency fee.
- Ask for an estimate. A veterinarian can't provide you with a solid cost because even the veterinarian isn't sure what will be necessary until he or she finds out what is wrong. But most veterinarians should be able to provide you with an estimate to give you a basic idea of the costs involved with the visit.
- Explore other options, such as pet health insurance, to help offset the cost of care for your companion animal.
- Ask about alternate payment plans. If you're a client in good standing, your veterinarian may be able to work out a billing plan. Some veterinary offices also allow you to apply for a line of credit to help cover the cost of your pet's care.
- If you truly cannot afford veterinary care in an emergency situation, the Humane Society of the United States offers a list of organizations that may be able to provide temporary financial aid.