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Are UK veterinary bills « outrageous »?

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Are UK veterinary bills « outrageous? » | Casual discussions with UK pet owners, whether on or off duties, often inform they are concerned with their vet bills. A quick search on Google also provides insight in the matter: as far as pet owners in the UK are concerned, it seems they find their vet bills « outrageous » (quoted), often reporting « being ripped off by vets » (quoted). 

 

So, in this blog we look up several UK vet pricing lists to provide an explanation, from a professional viewpoint, as per why UK pet owners may sometimes perceive their vets as « money-grubbers » (quoted). We also come up with tips to help UK pet owners dealing with both expected and non-expected costs associated with pet ownership. 

Are UK veterinary bills outrageous
Are UK veterinary bills "outrageous"?

Price lists for most common pet care at UK veterinary practices

Let’s face it, 2020 has not been a great millesim for the majority of people worldwide. In the vet world the struggle with the pandemic came from juggling the duty of care for vets to attend their patients with that of avoiding catching Covid-19. This is far from an easy exercise. 

 

Added to the equation, an increasingly dwindling economy saw many workers suffering the direct consequences of unemployment, furlough schemes and redundancy, meaning that buying power and disposable income have been affected.

 

For those individuals finding themselves responsible for the welfare of their pets, it has been more difficult to cope with the unexpected vet care bills, for pets do not chose when they may become unwell.

 

Nonetheless, the pandemic is only one side of the story as it is not unusual for veterinarians to be faced with clients complaining about their fees on a regular basis.

 

Truth of the matter: vet practices are private businesses entitled to charge for pet care. Their prices are not regulated, hence, they are free to charge what they consider necessary to:

 

  1. Recoup the costs and expenses engaged in the provision of vet care to patients and their owners (goods, services, utilities)
  2. Reward vet practitioners and vet staff for their time and professional expertise (qualification and labour)
  3. Potentially turn a profit, so vet practices can keep existing to provide services to their local communities
Veterinary practices are in essence no different than let say accountants and law firms or any other small private businesses: they simply provide and charge for their professional services to clients who own pets. For more info on this, please check out this section of the RCVS Code of Professional Conduct.
 
Different veterinary businesses operate differently, in different locations across the country, hence one would expect veterinary practices to display different set of prices.
 
So, we have looked up several vet practices pricing lists directly available online, to further understand the tangibles. 
Average veterinary costs for routine treatment of pets in the UK
Table 1: Comparison of most common routine pet care prices at four UK vets (info available online)
Average veterinary costs for initial treatment of a new pet
Table 2: Average costs involved in the initial care for a new pet in the UK

Additionally, the estimated costs (initial, monthly, annual and lifetime) of keeping a medium size pet dog in the UK, as of 2017, is estimated as follows, by the PDSA:

 

  • Basic lifetime cost: £10,750
  • Minimum annual cost: £960
  • Minimum monthly costs: £80
  • Initial set up: £390 (which does not fall too far off the prices found online in 2020, Table 2)

Furthermore, one can pay particular attention to variations in pricing across different types of businesses (independent, corporate, not for profit) and across regions to understand the significance of those price gaps on average.

 

Data in Table 1 suggests that, overall, veterinary practices belonging to a corporate group, tend to practice lower prices than that of an independent veterinary practice / not-for-profit, due to the fact they benefit from bulk buying offers from suppliers (economy of scale). However, it is not a given that corporate vet groups automatically apply cheaper pricing, when compared with average prices. 

 

Data in Table 2 indicates that pet owners should expect their budget being swayed by the duties pertaining to responsible pet ownership. Whether the pet has been purchased or gifted, there are ongoing costs to consider and veterinary bills are only one part of the story. 

 

According to statistics, pet owners in the UK/USA tend to spend 25% of the budget allocated to their pets on vet bills. The remainder of the budget is used to buy pet supplies such as food, toys, treats and other pet related services, should they become necessary (boarding facilities, grooming, training, insurance). 

 

Note 1: there is no pricing provided for London, although we would expect salaries are reflecting the higher living costs in operation in the capital. 


Note 2: another limitation is the amount of data collected (publicly and directly available), hence those values aim to provide a general indication only.

Variation in price from average pricing for a UK independent veterinary practice (%)
Table 3: Variation from the average price for a UK independent veterinary practice (percentage)

Why pet owners perceive UK veterinary bills "outrageous"

According to data pulled from UK statistics (2017, 2018 survey by You Gov and PDSA) it is interesting to note several points pertaining to UK people’s perception towards costs and associated feelings of keeping a pet when asked about the following:


  • How much do you think your pet will cost you during his or her lifetime?
    • up to £500: 12%
    • £501 – £1,000: 16%
    • £1,001 – £5,000: 46%
    • £5,001 – £10,000: 18%
    • £10,001+ : 8%
  • Which, if any, of the following did you do before you chose your pet?
    • Looked on the internet: 36%
    • Have previous experience of pet ownership: 32%
    • Advice from friends and family: 20%
    • I didn’t do anything: 19%
  • What feelings do owners experience as a result of owning a pet?
    • Makes me happy: 93%
    • Improves my life: 88%
    • It’s a privilege not a right: 88%
    • Makes me mentally healthier: 80%
    • More rewarding than expected: 66%
    • Makes me physically healthier: 61%
    • Harder work than I thought: 22%
    • Makes me stressed: 11%

As mentioned previously, pet owners should expect lifetime costs of keeping a medium size dog in the region of £10,750. Although, when surveyed it appears that only 8% seem actively aware of that being the case. 


With 46% of pet owners surveyed thinking the lifetime cost of keeping a pet sits between £1k – 5k, we are far off  the reality of life.  Pushed further, the survey indicates that 74% of pet owners do not actively realise their pets will cost them between more than twenty times and more than the double of the figures they may have in mind.


These insights can be linked to the fact that a reported 19% of pet owners have not done any research into pet ownership before acquiring a pet. With 20% taking advice from family/friends and 36% looking up the internet instead of talking directly with a veterinary professional, this behaviour might lead to a bias in the relevance and quality of information received at the time.

 

Generally, it seems that pet owners report positive feelings associated with pet ownership. However, it is still worth noting that 11% report associated stress and 22% feel it is harder than what they had imagined it to be.


To push data investigation further, the pet care market has never shown sign of slowing down over the past decade. The following data indicate significant growth in the industry, suggesting that demand for pets has not ceased to grow, hence triggering product development and market competition for customer attention. 


  • Consumer spending on pets and pet related products in the UK:
    • £5B in 2018
    • +94% between 2005 – 2018
    • Source: ONS
  • Consumer spending on vet and other pet services in the UK:
    • £5B in 2018
    • +145% between 2005 and 2018
    • Source: ONS
  • Number of enterprises in veterinary activities in the UK:
    • 4,058 in 2018
    • +26% between 2008 and 2018
  • Annual turnover of veterinary activities in the UK:
    • £4.3B in 2018
    • +72% between 2008 and 2018

As for veterinary care prices in the UK, it is not so clear if the marketing of pet insurance in the UK has triggered a justification for a potential increase in vet fees or if the increasing demand for pets has justified needs to insure pets, thus enabling higher fees on the market.  


Furthermore, within a context of increased demand for pet companionship and pet care, technology has enabled the development of new medical devices, thus shifting prices: veterinarians are able to use equipment and diagnostic tools that did not routinely apply two decades ago.  


This trend seems to have followed that of the humanisation of pets by their owners, who seek the same quality of care and attention for their pets than for themselves, if not better.

What UK pet owners can do about their veterinary bills

So, as we have seen, anyone gearing up to adopt a pet or who already owns one is bound to face numerous pet related expenses. It is inevitable, from food to unexpected veterinary bills. Hence, it falls under the sense to say that, if finances are already a source of struggle for individuals, it would be advisable to refrain from adopting a pet. 

 

Besides, different pets have different needs and careful consideration must be paid to the type of housing, environment and social interaction one has to offer to a future four-legged companion. In other words, we are talking about a huge responsibility, especially towards animal welfare.

 

For those who have carefully considered the pros and the cons of welcoming a new addition, it is worth bearing in mind that personal circumstances might change, especially as we have seen in the context of the pandemic. So, what could be done to manage it in the best possible ways?

 

  • First of all, it is worth considering which area one is living in and what are the nearest vets around. Are they corporate vets, are they independent vets? Do they attend their own out of hours and emergency calls or do they outsource those consultations to other businesses? Will you have to travel to a vet you don’t know at time of heightened stress or will you prefer dealing with someone you are familiar with?
  • What are both online and offline reviews saying? Are existing clients happy with the service they receive? Could one benefit from friends’ referral and ask to meet the staff of different veterinary practices in your location? Could one find out about different practice policies and their price list? 
  • Secondly, in term of financing, pet owners could opt to save money the year round to face unexpected pet related expenses, especially veterinary bills. They may want to spare up to 2k – 3k per year to address unforeseen circumstances. Many practices offer health plans to cater for those routine appointments and pet care, such as vaccination, worming tablets and elective surgeries although anything else will come at an extra cost.
  • Thirdly, pet owners could weigh the pros and cons of subscribing a pet insurance. Many different policies are available on the market, so a thorough research applies to make sure the policy will do what it says on the tin. It is not unheard of that pet owners only find out, whilst at the vet for an emergency, that their cover was never relevant or does not cover such or such conditions.  It pays on the long-term to be mindful that not all pets are equals, some breeds tend to be prone to particular conditions which will mean spending even more budget on veterinary bills.

Those questions can help determine what type of veterinary practices and what type of services one expects to receive. This will likely have an impact on the price, however, pricing is not the sole part to consider here. 

 

If you would like to receive more advice, feel free to contact us as we provide veterinary video consultations to help pet owners with all their queries and non-urgent situations they may face when owning a pet.

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