The Cost of Companionship

Growing up, I remember being told to NEVER ask or talk about other people’s financial situations.  This is just one social rule (among many others) that I have to break on a daily basis as a veterinarian.  Nobody likes to talk about the “business” of medicine, but it is a reality.  Medical care carries with it a hefty overhead, and the medical supply companies, landlords, and reference labs don’t care how much a veterinarian loves animals when she can’t pay her bills.

Veterinarians are often blamed for the cost of pet care today compared to years past, but it has much less to do with our (not so) deep pockets, and way more to do with how much the emotional value of the pet has gone up.  After correcting for inflation, the US expenditure on pet-related products and services has grown at FIVE TIMES the rate of growth for the US economy.  I should also mention that veterinary care makes up less than a quarter of that spending.  It isn’t that vets are charging more for what we are doing, we are actually DOING a lot more to keep your pets happy and healthy for as long as possible.  

Dogs (in particular) have evolved over the past 30,000 years to be the perfect companion to humans, but it was only recently that we started treating them as surrogate family members.  Many people have (sheepishly) confessed to me that the most profoundly intimate bond in their life is with their pet, and there is no shame in that.  There are even academic programs now that investigate the power and utility of this relationship, which has been shown to have many emotional and physical benefits for humans.  

The worst part of my job is watching someone struggle with deciding whether or not to spend a certain dollar amount to save their companion’s life.  Even more often, I see owners having to cut corners on preventive care, which puts their pets at risk, and could end up costing them a lot more in the long-run.  How can we reconcile the emotional value of pets with the very real financial burdens of veterinary care?  We can start by doing a better job of preparing for these costs on day 1 of owning that pet (better yet, several months prior), so the bills don’t feel so, well, burdensome.


Here are some strategies for managing the lifetime cost of your companion’s veterinary care:

  • Find a reputable pet insurance provider, and get your pet covered as young as possible.
  • Pet insurance coverage is typically limited to illness and injury, and ranges from high-deductible catastrophic plans to high premium comprehensive plans.  Your vet can help you choose the right plan for your pet.
  • Find a vet you wholeheartedly trust, and follow his or her recommendations for preventing disease.  Prevention is always much less costly than treatment!
  • For preventive care and to cover the cost of premiums and deductibles, you should have a separate debit card for pet spending, and have a certain amount automatically deposited each month.  Like anything else–if you don’t see it, you won’t miss it!  
  • Ask your vet for an estimate of all of the necessary wellness care for the year so that you know how much to save each month.  A rough estimate is $100 per month per pet for wellness care (including dental cleanings) and insurance premiums, but it all depends on size, breed, and lifestyle.  



2 thoughts on “The Cost of Companionship

  1. We saved for our cat to have his teeth cleaned, not expecting any extractions, but he actually needed to have 6 teeth extracted. The bill came to $771 and we had saved $600. We were okay with the cost because he felt so much better after the bad teeth were gone. Apparently he was in quite a bit of pain and we didn’t even know it. He wasn’t losing weight, he was eating wet and dry food. His breath was kind of stinky but that’s the way he was when we adopted him from Wayside Waifs in Kansas City MO. He lets us touch his mouth and scratch his chin now! And his breath doesn’t smell any more. We only have 1 cat, no other pets. We’ve always only had 1 pet at a time because we know that’s all we can afford. They have a really good life though!!!

    My advice is to find a vet you can trust. We have had many pets and every single one we have been told “this kiddo needs his teeth cleaned”. We have heard it so many times that I’ve learned how to sort through the info to get to the details. Ask the vet (that you trust) to show you why they think your pet needs his teeth cleaned. Show me every tooth you’re concerned about. Don’t just believe them, make them show you. Then give me a bid for how much it will cost. Some vets will even recommend teeth cleaning every year, but that’s ridiculous, expensive, and very hard on your pet. Anesthesia is very hard on your pet. Don’t put your pet or your budget through that. Get their teeth cleaned if it’s necessary


  2. Thank you for your comment, Shawn. You bring up some excellent points, the most important of which is finding a veterinarian you can form a trusting partnership with. A veterinarian who is not willing to answer your questions thoroughly or admit that she doesn’t know something is probably not going to work for the inquiring minds. That same veterinarian may bond wonderfully with people who become overwhelmed with too many choices or information. Neither style is better than the other, but they certainly matter when building trust.

    If you constantly feel like your veterinarian is trying to pull the wool over your eyes, you need to move on to someone else. Not because that veterinarian is actually corrupt (we rarely are), but because important decisions for your pet cannot be made clearly when you don’t know when to believe your adviser. There are too many of us out there to hang around with someone you don’t jive with.

    I would like to clear a few things up though. While I am not necessarily a proponent of shotgun yearly professional dental cleanings without evidence impending gingivitis, there is nothing inherently harmful about going under anesthesia for this procedure once yearly. Some dogs even require cleanings twice yearly to keep from ending up toothless due to periodontal disease. When done correctly, anesthesia does not result in poor long-term outcomes. We are working on a blog post about how dentals are performed from start to finish, and we will show you the equipment we use to ensure your pets are handling anesthesia safely. Veterinarians that recommend yearly dental cleanings on all pets are not wrong, and they are not after your money. They just chose a different direction in the grey zone that is 90% of good medicine.

    Again, I really appreciate your response to this post, and hope to get more discussions going in the future!

    -Dr. Sarah Sims


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