Vetting the growing cost of pet care

Jonathan Carter, a 43-year-old IT consultant from north London realised early on that his miniature Schnauzer, Scribble, wasn’t going to be a cheap addition to the family. Within months, Scribble was in an accident that damaged one of his back legs, and the treatment cost more than £8,000 in the first year alone.

Since the accident, Scribble has had a huge variety of treatments, from the initial operation to pain medication and regular hydrotherapy. Carter says: "The amount we are spending at the vets seems to be increasing by about 10% a year."

Iain Richards, president-elect of the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons agrees: "Vet inflation is more than RPI. Last year it was 7%." However, this doesn’t take into account that your pet is likely to be offered increasingly advanced, and therefore expensive, treatments.

YouGov research shows that dog owners spend an average of £144.53 a year on vet fees. So it’s hardly surprising that, according to research by Mintel, 38% of pet owners can’t easily afford it.

These rises are not across the board. Richards says: "There are tremendous variations across the country. Countrywide, consultation fees range from around £9.75 to £33." Of course, there are good reasons for geographical variations. Overheads and salaries vary, and need to be factored into the cost. However, there are differences within geographical areas. According to a report from Which? the prices quoted for spaying a two-year-old female Labrador in London and the South East ranged from £98 to £255.

Nick Blayney, president of the British Veterinary Association, explains: "The Office of Fair Trading made it clear there shouldn’t be a scale of vets’ fees, so each practice has to go through the complex business of costing what they do. They take into account techniques, equipment, and standards they have in place, plus the balance between fees and medicines. So it’s not surprising that they may cost things in different ways."

But if your vet is more expensive for the condition you need treated, this isn’t going to come as a great comfort. You can shop around. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has a find-a-vet service on its website, so you can ring around for quotes. You will be able to get an estimate in advance – although bear in mind that vets may not be able to anticipate the full extent of treatment before initial tests, so your costs could rack up.

There are some simple procedures, such as an annual booster jab, where shopping around makes particular sense. The price difference means it’s worth doing too. The Which? survey showed, for example, that annual feline jabs in Glasgow ranged from £18.72 to £36.71.

For more complex treatments, you can also check whether there are cheaper alternatives. Blayney says: "Often there’s more than one treatment option. Vets see new techniques with improved success rates as a benefit, but they do come at a cost."

Look to pet insurance

If you cannot afford treatment, it’s worth looking at pet insurance, which will cover vet bills. Jennifer Lewis, a 68-year-old product demonstrator from Barry in South Wales, was relieved to have insurance when her golden retriever Heidi tore both cruciate ligaments, and needed surgery costing £2,000. Her Tesco insurance covered all but the first £60 of each operation.

There are some things worth bearing in mind about pet insurance. It doesn’t cover regular expenses such as annual jabs. In addition, the more affordable plans have limits, so there’s a ceiling on what you can claim for each condition, or each year. Scribble, for example, had pet insurance, but went over his limit for a single condition after his first operation.

These limits have not been going up as fast as vet fees, so be aware that the gap between your costs and the cover is likely to grow. Many policies also have excesses, or only pay a percentage of each claim. As your animal gets older you might have to pay a higher excess each year. Look into exactly what your plan offers to make sure it meets your needs.

Alternatively you may be able to get help from animal charities. The Blue Cross, RSPCA, Dogs Trust and the PDSA may be able to help anyone on benefits, while the Tailwaggers Club Trust may be able to help pensioners.

If your pet has had treatment and you’re unhappy with a charge, your first move should be to raise the issue with your vet, especially if you feel fees weren’t made clear up-front. If you are still unhappy, you can contact the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the governing body for the profession.

However, cost may not be your main concern. Blayney says clients, "judge the service on a variety of other things, including customer service, cleanliness and success rates".

Carter agrees: "Our vet is particularly expensive. We started using him because he was based round the corner, but now we’re reluctant to go anywhere else, particularly given the complications Scribble now suffers from. The vet understands them, so I’m more comfortable staying with the practice."

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