Price Shopping: To Be Avoided at All Costs

I recently exchanged emails with a woman who was feeling frustrated while searching for a new veterinarian.  Her search included some “fee shopping” and she was disgruntled to find that some vets had the nerve to mark up lab fees more than others.  She wrote to me to find out how she might gain access to the fees charged by commercial veterinary laboratories so she could figure out how much mark up each veterinarian applied. She mentioned that she’d found one vet she really liked, but she was “out of the running” because her office charged double the lab fees (exact same test) as two others she’d investigated.

Here’s how I responded.  I encouraged my email buddy to consider reasons why fees are not uniform from hospital to hospital. In some cases, laboratory testing is run “in house” requiring on site technician time and costs involved in maintaining equipment.  Certainly charges to the client for this should be higher. The expertise a veterinary specialist brings to interpreting laboratory test results may be greater than that of a general practitioner.  Shouldn’t a client pay more for this? Additionally, every clinic must pay its overhead to continue to provide good service, and the more “bells and whistles” the hospital has, the higher that overhead will be.  For example, if the hospital employs sophisticated equipment to monitor anesthesia, that’s a really good thing, right?  Chances are, the fees for surgery there will be higher in order to cover the costs of this advanced level of care.

I went on to explain that I truly discourage people from price shopping when it comes to veterinary care unless it is an absolutely necessity.  A sweet six-month-old Labrador is currently being treated at my hospital because she sustained a horrific thermal burn all along her back from a faulty heating pad used during her surgery at a low cost spay/neuter clinic. This has necessitated major reconstructive surgery over her back- a tremendous price to pay both in terms of money and what this poor dog is going through. By the end of our email thread my correspondent seemed convinced- she told me that she’d decided to use the vet she really liked in spite of more expensive lab tests. Hurray!

Now, I’m not completely naïve when it comes to how our current economy is influencing delivery of veterinary health care.  I realize that for many folks, price shopping has become a financial necessity.  When this is the case, I encourage the following:

-Do your best to avoid sacrificing quality of medical care.  The old cliché, “You get what you pay for,” is often true.  Be thorough in your investigation: don’t make up your mind based on brief over-the-telephone price quotes.  Visit the clinic, tour the facility, and meet the staff to feel confident this is a place you and your pet will feel comfortable.

-Watch for “hidden” fees.  Some clinics may offer an extremely reasonable quote for a surgical procedure, but then charge additional fees for the initial office visit or for post-surgical necessities like removing stitches.

-Keep in mind the potential for complications.  If a significant complication occurs due to substandard care (such as occurred with the Labrador mentioned above) you will end up spending a great deal more money treating it, not to mention associated emotional energy, than you would have spent at the better more expensive clinic to begin with.

When you chose your veterinarian, how did fees enter into your decision-making?  If so, how did things turn out? I’d love to hear about your experience.

Now here’s wishing you and your loved ones (including those who are furry or feathered) for a peaceful and healthy holiday season.   

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook 

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller. 

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10 Responses to “Price Shopping: To Be Avoided at All Costs”

  1. Beth Says:

    When I originally chose a veterinarian, I chose by location. When I became concerned about vaccination issues and wanted to learn more about the Lyme’s vaccine, I asked my vet who joked that she couldn’t possibly share all she had learned about it at the latest convention she’d attended (but still wanted me to be comfortable with my choice)

    Calls to other vets went unanswered – there was no vet who would actually get on the phone to speak to me about this issue. After a traumatic incident at the vet in which my dog was given the wrong type of test, I started using a house calls vet for both my dogs. Her services are much more expensive and she never takes phone calls, but having a house call is so much less stressful for my dog (and me) that it’s the best thing for me to do for my dog.

    I have now switched to the homeopathic model and use the house calls vet for one dog only, and I’m back to the original vet for the other dog because the price is less and the second dog doesn’t mind going there. I use these vets only for diagnostics and work with the homeopathic vet via telephone.

    Being a pet sitter I have an ear out and have learned by word of mouth what different vets in the area are like. I believe that many sell unneeded services and products to make their bottom line. People should question their vets, and get second opinions if they don’t like what they hear.

    I’d never want to cut costs when it comes to vet care, but in these economic times I can understand why many people do.

  2. Ingrid King Says:

    Wonderful post – bravo, Dr. Kay! As a former veterinary hospital manager, training staff to communicate your points to clients who are price-shopping was one of my biggest challenges. I just recently had to find a new vet because my wonderful cat vet retired. The process was hard enough without price being part of my decision. Having worked with some of the best veterinarians in the profession, and knowing what can go on behind the scenes at a veterinary clinic, my standards are very high.

    I will admit to a bit of “sticker shock” when I took Allegra for her first appointment at our new vet’s – after all these years of getting employee and professional courtesy discounts for my cats, I had kind of forgotten the true cost of veterinary care for regular pet owners! That’s why education is so important – the cost of veterinary care is part of the cost owning a pet, just as much as buying food and toys is.

  3. Barbara Saunders Says:

    I agree with most of this, but there is a factor that makes it reasonable to consider price: real estate. I go to a veterinary hospital that is one of the cheapest in the area. I’ve been going to this group of doctors for over ten years and have been satisfied with their work. They charge so much less because they own the building free and clear. They have up-to-date equipment for the services they provide, and refer out for specialty care to several, highly qualified colleagues in the area for what they don’t do. In this case, I’m happy not to pay the overhead for other facilities that are only equally as good!

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  5. Jill Morstad Says:

    Brilliant post, Dr. Kay! I hear it a lot too (‘dog training costs too much!’) But every dog trainer has a funny little story to tell about the cost of training vs. the cost of not training. Mine concerns a client who bought Cocker Spaniel pups (littermates) and happily ignored everything they heard in the puppy kindergarten class (where I first met them). It’s been a little more than a year now, and these clients call regularly to tell me about the latest act of domestic terrorism perpetrated by this merry pair of Cockers…who are neither trained nor managed, never confined or reprimanded, and who spend their days at home alone together, peeling back the molding, pulling on wallpaper and carpet, and tugging on curtains. The client is (no kidding) on his fourth couch. One of the dogs had to have surgery to remove upholstery tacks from his GI tract. But dog training costs too much. And besides, we wouldn’t want to be ‘cruel’..(?)

    So, let’s do some math. Estimate the costs of the home repairs, add in the cost of three new couches, fold in the price of major abdominal surgery….the cost of not training far exceeds what the cost for puppy kindergarten and/or a few private lessons. And these Cocker puppies are still young (18 months old or so) with years of home remodeling projects left in them. In fact, these dogs are SO good at demolition, so practiced, and work so well as a team that they could have their own show on the Home & Garden network.

    I tell this story often and then try to assure whomever I’m speaking with that their dog will never be so expensive as this. It usually changes their perspective on the cost of training — and who really pays the price for not training.

  6. Marlene Johnson Says:

    I believe it is important for pet owners to educate themselves as much as possible about how to evaluate a good veterinarian, price isn’t everything, but at the same time can be an issue. I have 9 dogs, 5 of which are young and I like to get baseline thyroid panels on all of them. My local vet charged me 280some dollars for a thyroid panel, my vet that is farther away, charged me 145 dollars for the exact same test at the same lab. I then had another one of my dogs tested, different lab, but also a full thyroid panel, this time I asked for an extra tube to be drawn when we did other labwork, I sent it out myself to the lab, it cost 70some dollars and 5 dollars for the shipping. Since I am fortunate to have two vets that I like, one local and one farther away, I do take cost in consideration together with my dogs’ needs. One dog I took for various x-rays requiring sedation, plus the thryoidpanel, 830 dollars, the other one I took to the farther away vet, full anesthesia, removal of retained testicle via laser surgery, vasectomy of remaining testicle via laser surgery, various x-rays while he was under, thryoid panel, pain meds, alltogether 830 dollars. In his case I had no idea it would cost me less to go to this particular vet, I went there for the laser surgery and because I trusted this vet to do a good job with the vasectomy, which was his first. I do understand that my local vet needs to make the money to pay for his new hospital and the best equipment in our town, but at the same time, I can’t afford paying 280 dollars for a thyroid panel. To me that is a routine blood test that I do on all my dogs, rescues included at least once when they are young or when they first come to me, and on breeding dogs I do it more than once in their life. I try to balance what I pay, I want to support his business.

  7. Jana Rade Says:

    When we found our new vet, fees were not on a list of deciding factors at all. What we wanted was somebody who can finally do something effective for our dog.

    That said, his fees did turn out being lower than most other places, particularly he doesn’t mark up anything he doesn’t have to.

    He runs a small hospital but his equipment is where it needs to be to provide quality care for his patients. His waiting room might not be as fancy but it is clean and cozy.

    His exam rooms are small and not fancy at all, but he has hydraulic exam tables with non-slip surface that make for better safety and comfort of both patients and the staff.

    He cares about the animals above all else, and he has everything needed to take good care of them. He does surgeries too. Having fees as affordable as possible allows more animals to actually get the treatment they need and the quality of treatment does not suffer at all. I think sometimes it’s about what really matters.

    When we went to an orthopedic specialist, for example, they had a huge fancy lobby with fancy chairs and fancy reception desk and fancy everything. As fancy as it was, it had horrible flow and didn’t do anything for the comfort of the animals.

    So what am I saying? I guess I’m saying it’s all about balance. Yes, usually you get what you pay for. But sometimes you pay for things you really don’t need, such as marble in a lobby.

  8. Tammy Says:

    I’ve never been a price-conscious shopper – for groceries, vets, or anything else. I find what I like and I choose it.

    My situation now is a little strange though. My cat, Henry, had a medical emergency not long after we moved to our tiny little town. There was only ONE vet clinic in the town, and when I tried to take him in, they wouldn’t or couldn’t make room to fit him in. I was forced to drive 40 minutes to the next closest town. The vet I took him to literally saved his life. So now, we drive 40 minutes each way to take them to this vet even though we now have two vet offices in our town. I’d rather pay more in gas and time to take him to the vet who saved him. (I also think the vet is likely more expensive too, though I haven’t compared. They have a wonderful facility with on-site lab and pharmacy.)

  9. Jana Rade Says:

    Dear Tammy

    We too undergo an hour drive each way to see our vet, even though there is a whole bunch of animal hospitals in the town we live in.

  10. Dr. Tony Johnson Says:

    Thanks for this interesting and informative article. Working in the ER, we receive many, many calls about fees for various services, and even requests for estimates on how much certain illnesses cost – most times without us ever having seen the pet!
    I completely understand the desire to be informed about the potential financial responsibility of a sick pet, (and there is a lot of variability in fee structures between clinics) but in order to get the best estimate, you have to have a doctor examine the patient beforehand.

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