The Costs of Caring for Pets

Pets these days are just like us. They get birthday cakes, day care and rubber boots to wear in the snow. Their health care is becoming more human, too — for better and for worse.

Decades ago, animal care was relatively rudimentary. Veterinarians usually owned their own clinics, and the options to treat a sick or injured pet were limited. Today, animal hospitals are equipped with expensive magnetic resonance imaging machines, round-the-clock critical care units and teams of specialists in cancer, cardiology and neurology. For pets and the people who love them, the advances are welcome.

But as animals’ health care has changed to more closely resemble our own, it has also taken on some of the problems of the human system, including the biggest one: cost. The price of veterinary care has soared more than 60 percent over the past decade, outpacing inflation. Private equity firms have snapped up hundreds of independent clinics, in a trend reminiscent of corporate roll-ups of doctors’ offices. Veterinarians around the country told me that they worry this is changing the way that they practice, as they face growing pressure to push costly treatments and order more tests.

The changed landscape means that even as veterinarians can do more for dogs and cats than ever before, pet owners face sometimes heartbreaking decisions about whether they can afford the care. (Read more in our story on the topic.)

About one-quarter of primary care clinics and three-quarters of specialty clinics are owned by corporations, according to Brakke Consulting, which focuses on the animal health industry. Sometimes, the corporate ownership is not obvious: Many private equity firms do not change the name of the vet clinic when they take it over.

Most veterinarians are paid, at least in part, based on how much money they bring into a practice, whether that is by ordering tests, selling prescription dog food or performing procedures. One veterinarian said she quit her job after she was told her “cost per client” was too low; another said she was told she needed to see 21 animals a day, about a half-dozen more than her current workload.

Other veterinarians said the pressure had no influence on the care they provided. In interviews, they said they bore the brunt of pet owners’ complaints, even when they have little to do with setting prices. Veterinarians make far less money than doctors for humans, and are also often in debt from years of education. Prices have gone up partly because of the rising cost of drugs, vaccines and other supplies, as well as worker salaries in a tight labor market.

One veterinarian I interviewed, Dr. Pam Nichols of South Jordan, Utah, has seen the transformation firsthand. When she was starting out in the 1990s, she said she used to sneak dachshunds into the human hospital where her father was a radiologist to give them M.R.I. scans. If the dog needed surgery, the bill would be about $2,000. Now, she said, a similar dog might get an M.R.I. and a CT scan, and will probably be operated on by a specialist who is assisted by several nurses. The cost could reach $10,000.

Veterinary care differs from human health care in one big way: Most pet owners pay out of their own pocket — and in full — before leaving the vet’s office. While pet insurance is available, only a small percentage of pet owners have it.

A generation ago, pet owners with a seriously ill animal may have had little choice but to opt for euthanasia if they wanted to relieve their pet’s suffering. Now, they must choose between extending the animal’s life and going into what can be debilitating debt, or letting an animal die. I spoke to some pet owners who were still paying off credit card debt years after their animals had died. And animal welfare groups said owners frequently relinquished their pets to shelters because they couldn’t afford veterinary bills.

For many people, though, the sacrifices are worth it. That was the case for Claire Kirsch, who was earning less than $10 an hour as a veterinary technician in Georgia when her own dog, Roscoe, and her horse, Gambit, each had medical emergencies, resulting in bills that totaled more than $13,000. The animals would have died if she had not opted for the additional care. She took a higher-paying job, maxed out a credit card and tapped into her husband’s retirement account to pay off the debt.

“I knew I would never be able to forgive myself if we didn’t try,” she said.

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No. The Ten Commandments offer values and edicts that are universal across religions and faiths. “Prohibitions on murder, theft and false accusations hardly constitute controversial ‘religious’ ideas,” Miranda Turner writes for Patheos, a religion news site.

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This week’s subject for The Interview is Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who is a co-chair of the Biden campaign. We talked about her new book, “True Gretch,” her hopes for her fellow Gen X politicians and President Biden’s challenges this election.

Something you write a lot about in the book is the power of messaging. In 2017 and 2018, your slogan was “Fix the damn roads.” I learned a lot about Michigan roads reading your book. [Laughs.] But my editor had to Google to find out what Biden’s slogan is, and it’s “Finish the job,” which I have to say is not much of a humdinger. I’m curious if you have sharper ideas, because you seem to be good at this. And right now Democrats nationally are really struggling with messaging about where the party stands.

National message is always a challenge. Washington, D.C., is so far away from the average person’s life that to conceptualize what a $3 trillion investment in onshoring supply chains means to your everyday life is darn near impossible to discern. That’s why I’ve always learned, when you show up and ask people, they’re going to tell you what they want. “Fix the damn roads” was not something that we poll-tested or focus-grouped. It was just conversation after conversation. What do you need me to do if I’m elected? Fix the damn roads.

It’s ironic because President Biden passed an infrastructure bill. He is fixing the damn roads. And bridges! And internet!

Right, but he’s not getting credit for it. Why do you think that is? For that same reason. I think the pandemic’s taken a toll. People are stressed out. They’re just trying to pay the grocery bill, get the kids off to school, show up at their job and maybe get a little bit of sleep at night. They’re not consuming everything. They can’t discern what the CHIPS Act has meant. And so we’ve got to tell that story better.

Read more of the interview here.

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