‘You vets do know how to charge, don’t you? Our last cat cost us a bloody fortune on treatment when it got cancer’, the barber told me, the clipper blade vibrating on my temple as he neatened my sideburn. ‘And they had the cheek to charge us when we had to have it put to sleep anyway’. I thought it wise to leave the seal unbroken on that can of worms. I had only had my hair cut two weeks prior, but being the eve of my wedding day, thought I would nip in for a quick tidy up, though I was beginning to regret my decision. Luckily my upcoming nuptials sufficed as an alternative topic of conversation.
What is for certain is that the people of Britain love their pets. We are gripped by the emotional stories of poorly pets on the various popular vet television shows that seem to be on at all times of the day. The iconic James Herriot made a return to screens last month in a brand new remake, achieving viewing figures Channel 5 has historically struggled to reach. ‘SuperVet’ Noel Fitzpatrick has sold out arenas with his live show. But I find that in reality, the public have a rather more ambivalent attitude to the veterinary profession that cares for their furry companions. For many, their opinion of the profession is coloured by resentment at fees paid for treatment.
This was reinforced for me by a piece written by Rachel Johnson (sister of Boris) in the Spectator last week available here. In the article subtitled ‘are we being sold a pup when it comes to pet care?’ she told the story of how her adorable designer-crossbreed Cockapoo (the most ill-considered portmanteau ever?) became seriously unwell after making the unfortunate decision to swallow a peach stone. Undigestible, and too large make its way out the other end, it caused an obstruction in Ziggy’s intestines, requiring her to have emergency surgery and racking up a bill of £2500.
‘There is no market mechanism, no mix of public or private to keep any sort of lid on fees. Vets have you over a barrel’. My heart sank, because the allusion, put bluntly, is that vets are greedy. Do pet owners really feel like this – as if they are being held hostage in some way by their vet. That presented with an unwell pet and distressed owner, a vet’s intention is to extract as much money as possible? I really hope not.
Private vet fees are not cheap, but this does not mean they are poor value, or over-inflated. The trouble is, most of the UK population has no yardstick in terms of medical fees – we are blessed in this country to have the NHS and so most Brits will thankfully go their whole life without ever being presented with a bill for their own healthcare. Veterinary medical fees are significantly lower than what we would pay to ‘go private’. For the sum paid for Ziggy’s op, Rachel couldn’t have afforded much from Nuffield’s menu of procedures if it were herself being treated; it wouldn’t cover half of the cost of a bunionectomy. It would enable Rachel to have 1.5 moles removed. Gall bladder removal would set her back £6415, and a hip replacement the princely sum of £13985. By comparison, Ziggy’s enterotomy was a steal.
The crux of the matter is that healthcare for a dog is not automatically cheaper to provide, just because the patient has a tail. While it still lags behind human medicine, the standard of veterinary care provided by your average local practice has advanced massively in the past couple of decades, and expectations of the general public have similarly soared. Running a vet practice is a costly endeavour.
Ziggy would have been looked after by a large team of nurses and vets, staffing the practice 24 hours a day during her hospitalisation. Part of the fee Ms Johnson paid would have gone to pay their modest wages, as well as those of support staff such as cleaners, receptionists and administration staff (for reference, most veterinary nurses earn little more than minimum wage, and the average vet salary package [which includes covering the cost of professional fees, insurance, and training] is £42K; substantially less than the £60-90K a human GP earns). There is the cost of all the consumables – catheters, bungs, fluid lines, syringes, needles, suture materials, drapes, sterile gowns for the surgeons, all of the drugs. The hospital will have been kitted out with all of the expensive equipment utilised in her treatment – the X-ray machine, plates and processor, blood analyser machines, blood pressure monitors, the anaesthetic system, breathing circuits, anaesthetic monitoring equipment, suction, surgical instruments, theatre lights. £2500 sounds like, and is, a lot of money, but the practice is unlikely to have made much of profit margin on the cost of treating little Ziggy
Spending more time than ever confined to their homes, Brits have gone dog-crazy this year. The RSPCA reported earlier this month that Google searches of ‘puppies near me’ increased 650% during lockdown, and imports of dogs from abroad more than doubled over the same period. With dog breeders swamped with demand, there seems to be no ceiling to what prospective dog owners will pay; a client I saw last week parted with £2700 for a poodle crossbreed puppy. For me, every day in August felt like a puppy-vaccinating groundhog day. And the wave of puppies continues to roll.
But a dog is not just for lockdown. Next year, when we with any luck reach a time when everyone is spending less time working from home, we are waist deep in a recession and the lockdown puppies are no longer puppies, the RSPCA anticipates we will be facing a welfare crisis, triggered by many being no longer able to afford, or having the time to care for their pets.
More times than I care to remember, I have had to manage heartbreaking situations where pet owners have been unable to pay for the cost of their pet’s treatment when they have fallen very ill. Economic euthanasia is an awful reality all vets have had to deal with on occasion. But it is wrong to lay the blame at the door of the vet profession. A dog is a luxury, not an entitlement. Nobody is forced to get one. If your dog eats a peach stone, and has to have it removed from its gut, it is your responsibility to pay for the surgery. There is no doggy NHS, and no such thing as free treatment, though it would make my job much easier if there were. So if you don’t think you can afford to pay for private healthcare for a dog, then you need to think twice about getting one in the first place.
The cockerpoo owners of 2020 want supervet standards for a bargain price, and meeting those expectations is a near-impossible, emotionally exhausting task, such that many disillusioned vets are calling it a day on their careers after just a few years. As a result of the high dropout rate, the profession has arrived at a situation where many vet practices are chronically understaffed. The drivers are complex, but tragically the suicide rate amongst vets is a shocking four times the national average.
Veterinary fees are expensive, and are likely to keep on rising. But let’s be clear; your average vet is not motivated to do their job for money. They do it, because they love animals – the same reason they dreamt of a career fixing poorly pets when they were bandaging teddies aged nine. Sadly, it transpires that money makes being a vet a very tough job for an animal lover.
An extract from this piece was included in The Spectator this week as a letter, responding to Rachel Johnson’s article.