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Published: Jul 07, 2023 13 min read
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When a beloved pet falls ill or gets injured, pet parents want to ensure their furry friend gets the care they need to heal fully and quickly. Depending on the nature of a pet’s illness or injury, proper medical attention may come at a steep price. Routine veterinary services like check-ups and regular vaccinations are also important — and even these can add up to significant expenses.

Many pet parents hesitate before seeking medical care for their pets. The most intimidating part can be the high cost of vet bills.

Why are vet bills so expensive? Let’s take a look at some of the reasons. Knowing the facts behind the figures may help you feel less frustrated next time you’re faced with a major veterinary expense.

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Why is taking your pet to the vet so expensive?

If you’re young and healthy, you may be very surprised when your pet’s annual vet bills exceed the cost of your own medical expenses for the year. As counterintuitive as it may sound, there are a lot of ways that can happen. For one thing, preventive care for humans is often covered by health insurance, while the number of pets covered by health insurance is very low — less than 3%.

What makes veterinary care so expensive? There are several inescapable realities that drive pet health care prices up. Let’s run through the most significant ones.

The Cost of Education

The educational level and experience of the veterinary professionals treating your pets play a significant role in determining the cost of a vet visit. A young, newly-minted veterinarian may charge less than a vet with more gravitas and experience. But veterinary costs are also determined by how much a vet had to spend on his or her education — in other words, how deep a hole they have to dig themselves out from.

Veterinarians in North America must attend two to four years of college, followed by another four to five years of vet school, and then pass a certification exam in order to become licensed to provide medical care to animals.

A solid veterinary education costs a lot of money: somewhere between $160,000 and $400,000 depending on which school a student attends. Like recent graduates in any field, vets often enter practice under the heavy weight of student loan debt.

Veterinary school not only involves a substantial financial investment, but also a significant time commitment. That’s important, because time spent in school is time not spent earning a living. Some vets choose to take on internships or go through residency programs to prepare themselves for practice. Doing so further delays the time when they can finally begin earning a good living and paying off their debts.

Cost of setting up an office

General practice vets require quite a bit of expensive equipment at their disposal to be able to diagnose and treat a wide range of illnesses. Veterinary specialists typically need different, but equally expensive gear to ply their trade. According to the Independent Veterinary Practice Association, outfitting a small veterinary clinic for everyday operation costs an average of $1,000,000. Yes, you read that correctly. So you see, much of the money we pay for vet care goes towards paying off life-saving diagnostic and surgical equipment.

The range of equipment and technology available to veterinary professionals rivals what doctors who treat human patients use. Vets and veterinary clinics are multi-service providers: they’re primary care docs, surgeons, radiologists, ER physicians and pharmacists all rolled into one. In other words, vets need to be prepared for anything. So investing in sophisticated equipment and technology, and maintaining a large medication inventory, is pretty much mandatory not only so they can provide comprehensive care, but also to remain competitive.

Types of medical treatment and procedures

In addition to the costs associated with outfitting a veterinary clinic, certain veterinary interventions can be quite costly. Surgery is one example. When your pet undergoes surgery, you’re billed for all of the time spent by all of the people in the OR. The same is true of everyone who provides post-surgical care. The simple act of sedating your dog can cost as much as $200. During serious surgeries, your pet may require a blood transfusion. All of these elements can drive your vet bills skyward.

Likewise, if your pet requires extensive or ongoing treatment, such as dialysis or cancer therapy, or requires daily medication to treat a chronic condition like diabetes, costs can quickly add up.

Overhead costs

No matter how you feel about vet bills, vets — and all of the staff members that assist them — have to earn a living. When you’re looking at your vet bill, bear in mind that veterinary clinics need to earn enough money to cover their labor costs, including benefits like health insurance. They also need to keep the lights on and pay other utility bills. Your vet may have a mortgage or pay rent on his or her facility. And veterinary clinics must carry professional liability insurance. Once you understand the non-optional expenses your vet must pay, perhaps you won’t suffer so great a shock next time you’re handed a hefty bill at checkout.

When considering veterinary bills, it’s also important to keep in mind that, unlike doctors who treat people, veterinarians are not reimbursed by government programs like Medicare. Unless you have pet insurance, vets have to pass along the entire cost of care to you, the pet parent.

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How much does a vet visit cost?

The cost of a vet visit can vary significantly based on a number of factors. These include the type of exam your pet needs, whether lab tests are ordered or medication is prescribed, and whether your vet performs any procedures during your visit. The cost of veterinary care also varies significantly depending on where you are located. Vets located in large cities have higher overhead expenses and have to charge more just to break even.

Though the cost of a vet visit can range into thousands of dollars for specialized care, a routine vet visit for your pet will typically cost between $50-$300 depending on the clinic and services provided.

Shopping around for a vet with lower pricing can never hurt. So do a little research. Ask your friends for vet recommendations or read local reviews to find a few likely vet practices. Then give each one a call and inquire what their wellness visits and sick visits cost. Ask how much it costs to neuter a dog, even if you don’t need that service. The quotes you get will serve as a point of comparison. And if your pet needs a major procedure performed, be sure to ask for an estimate of what it will cost.

What if you can’t pay your pet’s veterinary bills?

It’s not unusual for people not to be able to pay their vet bills. Illnesses and accidents are, by their very nature, unplanned events that take us —and our budgets— by surprise. If you find yourself unable to cover your vet bills, your vet will probably work with you on a payment plan. But that’s strictly a goodwill gesture. Your vet’s not obligated to extend you the courtesy. Vet clinics can’t operate as charities. They have their own expenses, as outlined earlier, to pay.

Buying pet insurance is an excellent option if you want to be sure you can afford medical treatment for your pet even for serious illnesses and other emergencies. As the pet insurance field has grown more competitive, pet insurance premiums have become more affordable. Insurance for a one-year old cat can cost under $10 per month, for example. You can find a policy for a small mixed-breed dog for about double that. Check out our article on the best pet insurance companies if you’d like to learn more about your pet insurance options.

There may be some local nonprofit organizations and other resources you can turn to for help if you’re anticipating a large vet bill. That may be especially true if you rescued your pet. In larger cities, you may also find a not-for-profit, free or low-cost vet clinic to treat your pet. These clinics do a high volume of business and offer few frills. But they’re very experienced in such procedures as neutering and spaying and can be a great alternative to private vet practices when you’re on a tight budget.

It’s worth mentioning that some pet parents have raised money to pay for vet bills through crowdfunding on GoFundMe, Facebook, FundRazr and similar social platforms. Help may be closer than you think. Friends and family may be happy to pitch in and help cover your pet’s treatment.

How to know if your vet is too expensive

Vet prices can range considerably depending on the nature of your pet’s illness or injury and the available treatment options. Determining what may be a reasonable amount for a vet visit cost can be challenging, but there are resources you can turn to. You can find estimates for standard procedures on websites for pet owners, or you can call around to vets in your area and ask what they would charge for routine services.

It pays to do your research before committing to a particular vet. Reach out to friends or family to see which practice they use and whether they would recommend them. Ask if they feel they’re getting good value for their money, and consider checking online reviews and contacting the practice directly with any questions or concerns you may have.

Ultimately, it’s important to find a vet who you feel comfortable with and who can provide the best care for your pet at a reasonable price.

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Why are vets so expensive FAQs

How much are vet bills for dogs?

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Because dog breeds vary so much in size and physical characteristics, there is typically a more significant variance in the cost of veterinary bills for dogs. Like any vet bill, vet bills for dogs can vary depending on the services needed. The average cost of a vet visit for a dog may be anywhere between $50 and $300. The most expensive dog vet bills are those involving emergency procedures or more extensive treatment for chronic diseases or conditions. These vet visits can be costly, ranging from a few hundred dollars to $2,000 or more.

Are cat vet bills expensive?

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As with vet bills for dogs, veterinary costs for cats may range quite a bit, from a few hundred dollars for a standard vet visit up to $2,000 or more for critical care. But cat medical costs tend to be less expensive than dog medical costs, with lifetime veterinary expenses that are thousands of dollars less than you'd pay while caring for a dog. This is partly due to much greater physical similarities between cat breeds, which results in fewer breed-specific health problems compared to their canine counterparts.

When comparing the cost of keeping dogs and cats healthy, remember that indoor cats will live between 13 and 18 years on average, while dogs have an average life expectancy of 10 to 13 years. That makes dogs more expensive to care for on an annualized basis. Bear that in mind when you budget for veterinary care.

Are emergency vets more expensive?

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Should you ever need to take your pet to an emergency vet, there's a good chance you'll be facing a very hefty bill. The cost of emergency vet services tends to be relatively high because of the level of care and the costs associated with keeping qualified veterinary services available after normal business hours.

Emergency vet visits can also be more expensive than regular vet visits due to the nature of care provided, as most people seek out these kinds of services to deal with unexpected injuries, instances where a pet may have ingested something toxic or a sudden and unexplained health episode that may require immediate attention. A quick diagnosis can save your pet's life. But getting one may require rushed, middle-of-the-night lab tests, which can increase your costs dramatically.

Are holistic vets more expensive?

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The cost of services at a holistic vet practice can vary by clinic, but overall they are usually higher than the cost of services at traditional vet practices. This can be due to the specialized nature of holistic veterinary care, among other reasons.

Holistic vets typically spend more time with their animal patients. They may also call on treatments and medications that are not commonly used in conventional veterinary medicine, leading to higher costs.

Summary of Money’s Why are vets so expensive?

While all pet owners want to ensure the animals they love have access to the medical attention they need, no one looks forward to sky-high vet bills.

The high cost of veterinary care can be attributed to several factors, including:

  • Expenses associated with veterinary education and specialized training
  • High start-up costs
  • Fixed overhead costs
  • Upgrading to high technology solutions
  • The availability of new, sophisticated procedures and cutting-edge drugs

When it comes to helping cover the cost of veterinary care for your pet, a number of organizations and resources are available for pet owners who find they can’t afford their pet’s veterinary bills. Pet insurance is also an option that provides the tremendous peace of mind that comes with knowing you can afford to give your pet the best care even in an emergency.

We recommend that you research your options before taking your pet to a vet for serious care. Start with a routine visit. Or see if you can schedule a site visit or even a brief interview with a prospective veterinarian. Find someone forthcoming, with whom you feel comfortable talking. Don’t be shy about asking about routine care costs. A vet should appreciate your wanting to budget properly for pet healthcare. And remember, if you’re ever unhappy with the way you or your pet are being treated by one vet or clinic, you can always find someone new.

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