In the blogosphere, there are quite a few controversial topics regarding animal health. Some of the most common controversial topics include pet food diets, vaccines, spay/neuter, declawing and medications. While I am not too bothered by those who have different opinions on the subject, my pet peeve is when they bring up as an absolute fact that veterinarians only think a certain way about the controversial subject because of money. So I thought I would share my perspective on how veterinarians really make money.
Let’s start with the common myths
Selling kibble makes veterinarians rich
Anytime there is a debate about pet food diets, this sentiment always seems to come up. It often seems in response to a veterinarian stating their position on a particular diet or diets. This especially occurs when there is a battle against kibble diets. I have talked about this in other articles (The Raw deal on Raw diets) so I will repeat it here. Veterinarians are generally paid in three ways. We are either paid by salary, commission or production plus a base salary, or just straight production. As far as maintenance diets being sold in clinics, majority of clients will purchase these out of convenience when in for a visit vs from a recommendation of a veterinarian. When they purchase the food, most veterinarians (outside of the clinic owner) make little to no commission on these products because the price of the diets would have to be higher than the cost of the maintenance diets in retail stores . This is even the case with prescription diets which we prescribe to help treat a specific medical condition. I also often hear how pet food companies also offer continuing education for us. But what many don’t realize the purpose of these continuing education courses are to provide us with information on how we can incorporate diet with treatment of various medical conditions. Also, they are used to promote their products over their competition because a veterinary clinic will typically use just one company for all prescription diets.
Pushing unnecessary laboratory tests
The biggest challenge in veterinary medicine is that our patients can’t talk to us. So we end up relying on the owners giving us a good history, our previous experience, physical exam findings and what signs our patients show us. Sometimes it is obvious what is wrong such as in cases with wounds, or a pet who may be limping. But in other instances the signs may be ambiguous as in cases where they are just lethargic or have a decreased appetite. So we have to perform various diagnostics such as lab work and x-rays to find a diagnosis. Sometimes we can find out the problem and hopefully a solution. But in others we may be left scratching our heads of why a pet is sick. In most cases pet owners understand this , but there are some who deem these tests unnecessary especially if we can’t find out a diagnosis after performing them. Does this mean you should accept every test that your vet recommends? No not necessarily, it is important that you have a dialogue with your veterinarian what information can be gained from each recommended test and you make the ultimate decision. If you decide not to pursue those further diagnostics and treat instead, then you have to be comfortable that your veterinarian is providing treatment without all the information available to them. Sometimes it may not be an issue and the signs may be resolved. But in other cases you may need to return for those additional tests if the treatment is not effective.
Performing controversial surgeries (declaw, tail docks, ear cropping etc)
As many of these surgeries become more and more controversial, it seems like less and less veterinarians are performing them. Also, they are less pet owners who have a desire to have these procedures performed. Despite this, there are clinics that still offer this service for clients who are interested. As far as clinics using this as an income booster, I don’t see many promoting or even advertising they perform these procedures. Most clients have to call around to several places to determine if they can be performed or discover from word of mouth. Also, I don’t know of too many veterinarians who encourage or promote this directly to their clients even if they perform these surgeries themselves.
Pushing unnecessary vaccines
Just as in human medicine, it seems like the vaccine debate is picking up steam in pets. I am one to believe that vaccines should be given based on risk of the individual pet. Pets that have more exposure to other animals may need more vaccines vs pets that stay indoors most of the time. While I understand why some owners may be wary of vaccines especially after their pet has had a reaction, it bothers me when people state our recommendations are based on purely profits vs a pet’s health. Because if we wanted to make money regarding vaccines, we would recommend less of them. Some of the most expensive veterinary treatments are due to diseases related to lack of vaccination. A good example is the parvo virus which is seen in puppies not current on vaccines. The average cost to treat this disease is easily anywhere between $500 -$1000 dollars and this treatment does not even guarantee survival.
Not performing pro bono work
This is a little different from the other topics but still relevant. There are a few pet owners who feel that just because we won’t offer our services pro-bono when their pet is experiencing an emergency we must just be in our field just for the money. Believe me, if most veterinarians were just looking for a career based on money, being a veterinarian wouldn’t be the number one choice. For all the stuff we have to put up with between getting urinated on, exposed to excrement, getting bit and scratched by our patients, there are other well paying jobs with a lot less stress associated with them. There has to be a love or compassion for animals over money for anyone to deal with this.
Real ways veterinarians make money
Developing a good relationship with clients and pets
How most veterinarians make the money is with repeat business. There are many clients willing to travel great distances and only have their pets seen by a particular veterinarian because they have developed a great relationship. This happens when veterinarians take their time and listen to their clients and understand their pet. So if you run into a veterinarian who makes this effort to get to know you and your pet then he or she is a keeper.
Emphasizing good customer service all around
Even though other factors play a role , most pet owners respond most favorable to an overall experience at a veterinary clinic. If they have a positive experience from the phone call to the office, the check in process, visit with the vet, and the check out process, then they are likely to tell their friends to add referrals. So the general point I am trying to make is that emphasizing service is more important than trying to push a particular product for increasing profits.
Taking part in continuing education to learn special skills
If you examine most income reports from any veterinary clinic you see that professional services such as hospitalization, surgical procedures, and consultations are what maintain the clinic. Many times these professional services can make up for at least %80 of the hospital income. So if veterinarians are wanting to improve their income, there is the incentive to take continuing education classes to learn complicated procedures such as specialized surgeries, ultrasound, and other specialized diagnostic testing procedures. Many times veterinarians as myself will use money out of their own pocket to take these classes. This also may mean time away from family during these training sessions just to improve convenience for their clients.
As in every career there are people who have bad intentions and show these while performing their job duties. The point of this article is to point out that people shouldn’t apply a broad brush to a particular career just because of bad apples. This is especially irritating when the criticism comes from people who have no experience, or education in the field they are criticizing. Often these critics rely on just superficial knowledge they obtain from the internet claiming it to be the gospel truth.