Need to know
- Almost seven in 10 Australians own a pet, but pet ownership can also come with hefty vet bills
- There are no standard fees for vets' procedures and services, and prices can vary widely, so shop around in different postcodes
- There are different payment plans for veterinary care if you're experiencing financial hardship, but do your research and never sign up to anything on the spot
In Australia, we love our pets – almost seven in 10 (69%) of us own at least one. In fact, more households have a pet than dependent children, and COVID-19 has only seen an increase in dog and cat adoptions as people spend more time at home.
Pets are also important members of our families – we spend an estimated $13 billion on their care every year, with about 20% of ongoing costs associated with vet care. According to Ibis World, the Australian veterinary industry generated about $3.7 billion in revenue in 2019, mostly from tending to household pets.
But with advances in pet medicine, more treatments on offer and some individual veterinary practices being more profit-driven than others, how do you know if you're paying too much or receiving unnecessary treatments? Will pet insurance save you money? And how can you keep costs down if you're on a budget?
CHOICE shadow shop
We decided to investigate pricing a little further. In July 2021, we conducted a small shadow shop of vets in NSW, where we compared prices for a general consultation, and for feline F3 and F5 and canine C5 and C7 vaccines.
We also asked for the starting cost for a grade 1 dental scale and clean, and a dental X-ray. We did this by randomly selecting vets from urban and rural areas and giving them a call.
Unlike with human medicine, there are no Medicare subsidies when it comes to vet care. Owners are on the hook for the cost of their pet's medical expenses.
It doesn't help that there are no standard fees for standard services either, and the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) does not provide recommended fee schedules.
Dr Melanie Latter from the AVA says individual vets set prices in line with their overhead costs, and that such costs "are determined on a case by case basis".
General consultation and vaccinations
- There was some variation in prices for all surveyed procedures, with differences up to $60 for some vaccines.
- Rural vets were slightly cheaper than their urban counterparts.
- Vets in upmarket Sydney suburbs were the most expensive, so it may pay to shop around outside your postcode if you're on a budget.
- The general check-up cost was the same for cats and dogs for all vets we surveyed.
- Vaccinations for dogs were slightly more expensive than for cats.
- Some vets offered a discount on consultations if you took in multiple pets at the same time.
Things got a bit trickier when we asked about dental costs:
- Quotes ranged from an estimated $300 all the way up to $2000 for a grade 1 scale and clean.
- Some vets wouldn't give out a starting price for a dental procedure without having seen the animal's teeth first.
- Dental X-rays started at $50 for a single exposure on a quadrant of the mouth, and were up to $450 for a set.
Differences in costs at a glance
The table below shows how much a vet visit costs, based on our shadow shop:
|Procedure||Consultation||Dog C5||Dog C7||Cat F3||Cat F5|
Table notes: Vaccine cost also includes the cost of a consultation. Figures rounded to the nearest dollar.
Dental prices difficult to get upfront
All vets were able to disclose prices for a general consultation and vaccinations, but many wouldn't give prices for dental work.
This is partly a result of a lack of standard pricing regulation, which makes it challenging for pet owners to shop around if their pet needs more complicated care.
Being required to take the animal in for a consultation before a quote can be given also adds to costs if you want to shop around or get a second opinion, and it adds barriers to competition.
The reason given for not disclosing prices was due to the varying conditions the animal's teeth could be in
But the reason given for not disclosing prices was due to the varying conditions the animal's teeth could be in, with procedures for bad teeth being more complicated (and thus more expensive). So not giving a quote over the phone was probably an exercise in caution, rather than any attempt to hoodwink us.
Some veterinary practices also offered us free dental health checks where they could assess the teeth in person and give a more accurate quote. This is a great option if you want to shop around or get a second opinion.
Companion animal: in Australia, more households have a pet than dependent children.
According to the AVA 2018 workforce survey, there were about 13,000 registered vets working in Australia and more than 8500 (70%) of these are also registered with the AVA. Vets who register with the AVA are also bound by its code of conduct.
It is up to individual vets to set prices, prescribe treatments and monitor care based on an animal's particular circumstances. Practices also have to keep up with equipment and technology advances, as well as rents and other overheads.
"The costs of providing veterinary services can be very high, given that veterinarians have to maintain a fully-equipped and staffed hospital, and there is no equivalent of Medicare in the veterinary sector," says Dr Latter.
"Due to the high overheads, treatments can be expensive to provide."
Some treatments, preventative care, or a holistic approach may seem unnecessary to some pet owners. And although over-servicing can happen, "the line between over-servicing and high quality servicing is not actually a line, it is a very fuzzy region," says Dr Peter Radvan, a veterinary surgeon.
"What one practice might consider unnecessary, another practice might consider normal procedure, and both could be right!"
What one practice might consider unnecessary, another practice might consider normal procedure, and both could be rightDr Peter Radvan, veterinary surgeon
According to Dr Radvan, most vets have the animal's (and owner's) best interests at heart.
"As vets, we spend a lot of our time trying to do the best we can for people's pets, within the constraints of their budgets," he says. "A client failing to appreciate how expensive good pet care can be is far more likely to happen than over-servicing.
"Part of the problem is that more and more pet owners have higher and higher expectations of the quality of care their pets receive, without thinking about what this means in costs.
"As an example, a vet hospital might charge $50 a night to keep an animal in. But if an owner wants that animal to be checked on regularly through the night, the same 24-hour stay could cost $500 to $800."
The AVA doesn't conduct regular surveillance of the industry to determine if vets are providing unnecessary services or over-vaccinating (which can be a health risk to your pet).
It says it hasn't been given any reason to believe vets aren't following the guidelines. The AVA position statement for cat and dog vaccinations states that "for some adult animals, boosters for 'core' vaccines will be given every three years rather than annually. The core vaccines are distemper, hepatitis and parvovirus in dogs and herpes, parvovirus and calicivirus in cats".
According to Dr Radvan, "recommended vaccination schedules are something that vet organisations have spent years discussing and thrashing out, and this information is quite readily available".
When you might need more frequent vaccinations
Under some circumstances, such as if an animal didn't receive their full course of puppy or kitten vaccinations, or if they live in high-risk and pet-dense areas, vaccinations may need to be given more often.
Boarding services, daycare facilities, group training and pet insurance may also have their own requirements for how often – and which – vaccinations need to be given to use their services or receive cover. If you're unsure about your pet's vaccination schedule, talk to your vet.
Most vet practices will directly sell some premium foods and pet care products. Some of these product offerings may be targeted to pets facing oral health, food sensitivity and weight control challenges, and could seem unnecessarily niche to some animal lovers.
Yet some prescription diets may also be especially formulated for animals with more serious health conditions such as kidney disease and may be necessary to maintain your pet's health.
Your vet recommending one of these diets is unlikely to be 'upselling' in most cases
Your vet recommending one of these diets is unlikely to be 'upselling' in most cases, and if they were trying to coerce you into buying a product, that would be a breach of their code of conduct. You are also under no obligation to buy these diets directly from a vet – you may find the same diet cheaper elsewhere.
According to Dr Radvan "some vets are more keen on prescription diets than others, but profit margins on those are very small, so even if a vet sells lots of them, the return is marginal at best".
It may make more sense to start a bank account for vets' costs, rather than take out insurance.
Unexpected accidents can happen and insurance can give you peace of mind. Pet insurance can save you from making a tough decision if you can't afford costly treatments.
But pet insurance may not cover you for routine or preventative care such as vaccinations, many pre-existing conditions and dental.
Premiums can be costly and vary depending on the provider, the age and breed of your pet, and the level of cover. For example, a Staffordshire terrier will be cheaper than a French bulldog, and cats can often be cheaper than dogs.
Pet insurance may not cover you for routine or preventative care such as vaccinations, many pre-existing conditions and dental
Some brands will also only cover a portion of the cost of care, such as 75%, leaving you to pay a gap of 25%. They may also charge an excess, have low limits or sublimits on certain treatments, and increase premiums as the pet ages or after you've made a claim.
However, pet insurance can definitely save you money in case of a serious accident or illness, says Uta Mihm, CHOICE insurance expert.
"Talk to your vet about the accidents or illnesses your pet is likely to have and how much the treatment would cost, then shop around for a policy that covers those," says Mihm.
1. Be upfront about your budget
Have a frank discussion with your vet about your budget and what treatments you can afford. There may be some options that are 'nice to have' but may not be strictly necessary, and some treatments may be able to be delayed temporarily. Make sure you ask lots of questions and raise any concerns.
2. Get costs upfront for routine treatments
If you're unsure about how much routine treatments will cost, call your vet in advance so you can budget for them and reduce the risk of 'bill shock'.
3. Get a cost breakdown
"If a specialist gives you a very large estimate, ask for a full breakdown of what they plan to do, and be prepared to go through it carefully, asking about items to see if there are things that can be reasonably safely left off the treatment," says Dr Radvan.
4. Shop around!
While not all of the vets in our shadow shop gave out prices for all treatments, many did, so it's worth picking up the phone and checking. Where appropriate, get a second opinion before agreeing to any expensive or invasive products or procedures for your pet.
5. Ask about a multiple pet discount
Some vets offer discounts if you bring in multiple pets at the same time – it may work out cheaper to take Fido and Mr Fluff Fluff in together.
6. Ask about free dental checks
If your pet's teeth need some care, see if your vet offers free dental checks for a quote on work first. This is also a great option if you're looking for a second opinion.
7. Ask for generic medicines
As medications for pets aren't subsidised on Medicare, their cost can add up. Generic medicines will offer the same benefits to your pet while also being lighter on your hip pocket.
8. Shop around for products
If your pet is prescribed a particular vet diet or parasite control, you don't have to buy this directly from your vet. Instead, you can shop around for the best price. There are online stores such as Pet Circle or Pet Barn that sell many of these products at discount.
9. Review your pet insurance
If you have pet insurance for your pet, make sure you're getting value out of it and getting cover for the things your pet needs. You may be better off putting the money aside yourself in a savings account for future use at the vet. Also, make sure you're meeting all of the minimum requirements for cover (such as recommended check-ups and vaccinations) so that if you need to claim on your policy, you're not denied cover.
10. Payment plans, financial help and subsidised treatment
Many clinics may offer payment plans for people experiencing financial difficulties or on low incomes. It's worth asking upfront before you take your pet in. The RSPCA, some local councils, and charities such as Pet Medical Crisis in Victoria and Safe Pets Safe Families also offer subsidised treatments, desexing or financial assistance to cover some vet bills for people experiencing financial hardship.
11. Prevention is often cheaper than cure
Keeping your pet fit, happy and in the best possible health can help reduce health problems. Giving your dog or cat raw bones or dental biscuits can also help keep their teeth clean, reducing their risk of major dental issues. Ask your vet about preventative measures and care options that are within your budget.
Many clinics offer VetPay payment plans if you can't pay for the whole bill upfront. This is a line of credit specific to costs you may incur at the vet and it lets you pay off the bill in instalments over a set period of time. It functions in a similar way to a credit card, not a buy now, pay later (BNPL) service like Afterpay.
How does it work?
VetPay performs a background credit check to help determine if you can afford the repayments, and you may not be approved if you have low income or a low credit score. You can apply to VetPay in advance or at your vet. VetPay claims to respond within 15 minutes.
If approved, you then pay a 10% deposit to your vet and the remaining balance is debited by VetPay from your bank account in fortnightly repayments. You also pay a $49 yearly fee, a $2.50 fee per fortnightly repayment and 18.4% interest, which is high. All this does add up, so this may not be the best option.
You also pay a $49 yearly fee, a $2.50 fee per fortnightly repayment and 18.4% interest, which is high. All this does add up, so this may not be the best option
For example, if your vet treatment cost $500, you'd pay a $50 deposit, borrowing $450. VetPay's repayment calculator says the minimum fortnightly repayment over 12 months is $23.42, which would total $608.92 over 12 months – this amount includes the yearly fee of $49, plus 26 x $2.50 payment fees and interest. That's an extra $158.92, or 31%, above the original vet cost.
Terms and conditions
VetPay is also less than transparent about its terms and conditions. They are not available online and you won't receive them until you apply and receive your contract. This limits your ability to fully understand the product, especially if you've applied while waiting at your vet.
Buy now, pay later (BNPL)
Some vets also offer BNPLs such as Openpay, Zip and Afterpay as payment options.
Be aware that BNPLs are not regulated in the same way as other lines of credit and don't fall under safe lending laws. This means they generally don't conduct a proper background check on your ability to pay. They often have high fees instead of interest, and weak hardship policies if something does go wrong. For these reasons we think people should avoid using BNPL wherever possible.
Make sure you do your research before using any BNPL or VetPay to cover your vet expenses. Don't just sign up for them on the spot at your vet. Do your research first to make sure that they're the best option for you and that you can afford them.
How to make a complaint about a vet
Each state and territory has its own acts, regulations and government veterinary body that oversees the registration, licensing and monitoring of vets.
If you're unhappy with the treatment your pet has received from a vet, you should first try resolving the matter directly with the treating veterinarian or practice.
If you're unsatisfied with this process, or you don't feel comfortable trying to resolve the matter with them directly, your next step is to contact the Veterinary Board in your state or territory.
If you have concerns about the costs of your pet's care, contact your state's Fair Trading Office.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.