Close-up of a veterinarian assisting a cat - a representation of the high vet costs and expensive vet bills in New Zealand.

Why Are Vet Costs So High?


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Ever been hit by an expensive vet bill that made your toes curl? Of late, vet costs in NZ feel sky high for those crucial unexpected incidences, and even sometimes for the not so unexpected. From routine check-ups to unanticipated emergencies, the cost of pet medical care can sometimes feel like a steep mountain to climb.

But, relatively speaking, are vet costs really that high? We spoke to Kiwi vet, Healthy Pets New Zealand Chair and a proud PD contributor Dr Cath Watson, and her insights were very illuminating. Let’s pounce right in …

#1 Expensive vet bills are all relative

Vet bills can feel hefty when you’re choking up all that money in one go – especially when you’ve got the health of your precious pet to worry about on top of everything. So why are vet costs in NZ so high?

“The first thing I’d say to that is that they’re really not,” Dr Watson tells us. “Certainly not relative to our own human health care costs. And part of that’s because we never really see the costs of human health care. It’s covered by our taxes – government pays. Even if we have to pay a surcharge to it we don’t get to see what the true costs are.”

Makes sense. Our perception of expensive vet bills are skewed by the fact that we compare them to our human medical bills, which are subsidised. As a result, we may not be as aware of the high cost of veterinary care.

#2 Vet clinics serve multiple purposes

Another reason for vet bills being high is that clinics are a one-stop-shop for many types of animals.

You know how, in human health, we have different doctors for different things, like specialists for our hearts, bones, and more? Plus, there’s usually one big hospital where they handle emergencies, surgeries, complicated scans and more? Well, in the vet world, it’s a bit different.

In a vet clinic, they have to be ready to treat all sorts of furry, feathered, and scaly friends. So, they invest a bunch of money in all the equipment they need to do that job well. And it’s not a one-time thing; they have to keep that gear in tip-top shape. Just like how you take care of your car, they have to maintain their medical tools too (except those can be used to save lives).

“Your local veterinary clinic is actually set up to do what in the human health world would be the equivalent of being your GP, your dentist, your local imaging centre, your local laboratory, and your ER, as was well as any surgical suite that you might find in a hospital,” says Dr Watson.

In a nutshell, when you walk into a vet clinic you can expect to see some serious medical gear and professionals who know how to use it, all set up to take care of a variety of animal pals.

Close-up of a dog receiving medical attention from a person with a stethoscope - illustrating expensive vet bills and vet costs in NZ

#3 Vets treat multiple species

Another aspect to consider is that vets treat a huge variety of animals.

“The human health world is dealing with one species. That’s us – humans,” says Dr Watson. “In the veterinary health world we most commonly deal with cats and dogs, but also rabbits, birds, mice, rats and guinea pigs. And these are all different sizes, have different metabolisms, and different physiology.”

Each species has different needs, not just in terms of the medicine they require but the materials and equipment that vets use for them.

This means specialist equipment and know-how

Sure, in the human world there are babies and really tall folks, but that’s nothing compared to the range in the animal kingdom. Imagine the difference between a tiny mouse and a huge Great Dane! Vets need special gear for all these critters and what’s needed is often quite different. This all increases vet costs in NZ and across the world.

Take for instance, anaesthesia.

“Usually under anaesthetic we’ll put a tube down the throat of the animal to help maintain their respiration,” says Dr Watson. “So we have to have the full range of tube and face mask sizes for all animals.”

Think about how different the tube size and face mask would look for birds, guinea pigs or rabbits.

The veterinary world is a wild mix of creatures. Taking care of each one means having a whole toolbox of tricks and equipment to make sure they get the best care possible. 🐾

#4 Initial training takes a long time and costs a lot

Another aspect that adds to cost is that becoming a veterinarian is no quick journey.

“As a veterinarian it takes you five years to train,” says Dr Watson. “For veterinary nurses it’s usually two to three years.”

The time spent in education impacts the overall price of vet treatments. Over several years vet students need to cover tuition, living expenses, and other associated costs; these accumulate quickly when they’re not earning an income. Or much of one, while they study.

There are also misconceptions about how much vets and vet nurses make. The reality is, it’s often lower than what most people would think. Here’s a startling titbit: only around 20% of the bill you pay for your pet’s healthcare goes toward covering the salaries of the people who take care of your furry pals.

So, the next time you’re thinking about asking for a discount on your vet bill, keep in mind this surprisingly small portion that goes to the hardworking folks who are doing all the important work to keep your animals healthy and happy. 🐶🐱💰

#5 Upskilling contributes to expensive vet bills

Upskilling is another cost driver. Once you’re a vet or vet nurse you need to keep learning as medical technologies and techniques continue advancing.

Think about how crucial it is for your pet’s medical care professionals to continue researching, studying, attending conferences, etc etc, even after they graduate. They must stay updated with the latest info to provide the best quality care and that means more training.

Sometimes, the training they need isn’t here in New Zealand and even when it is there are usually travel expenses. Plus, the actual education itself can be pretty pricey. So, all these costs start piling up. 📚💸

A veterinarian attending to a pet dog - depicting the financial challenges of expensive vet bills and vet costs in NZ

#6 Transport costs to clinics add up too

New Zealand is a beautiful but somewhat remote place. This means shipping stuff here can be a bit of a hassle and often costs more. Plus, accessing certain off-site medical facilities and other services can be a bit tricky.

“It also means for specific tests we may have to send stuff away overseas. So there’s more shipping costs involved with that,” says Dr Watson. “And then you’ve got exchange rate costs as well. All of these things start adding to vet costs in NZ. “

Communicate with your vet about potentially expensive bills

“I fully understand that it can be a shock to get a bill for a certain procedure,” says Dr Watson. “But please make sure you ask your vet every time to provide an estimate so you know what to expect.”

“In emergencies we don’t always have the time to consider those costs as well as we’d like. But generally a lot of stuff that we’re doing to help to treat problems for cats and dogs, pet parents get some time to think about whether those costs are acceptable and what their options are.”

Veterinarian using a stethoscope to examine an animal - symbolizing the financial strain of expensive vet bills and vet costs in NZ

Manage vet bill expense with knowledge and insurance

Pet insurance is good for vets and good for pet parents. It can really help take financial stress out of pet medical decisions and soften the blow of expensive vet bills.

“Another reality is doing your research beforehand to understand what you’re likely to be up against when it comes to the common health problems to expect in your particular breed or species of animal,” says Dr Watson.

“So you know in advance what you might have to expect in the worst or best case scenario. “

Responsible pet ownership helps vet mental health

“One thing I would please ask is to not take it out on your vet when costs aren’t what you expect,” says Dr Watson. “We’re not out there to rip anybody off, we’re a business. We do have to pay our staff, we do have to pay GST, income tax, and all that other stuff that everybody else does.”

Vets are regular folks doing their best to care for pets and their community. If you’re worried about expensive vet bills, shop around, get quotes elsewhere, but don’t assume vets want to fleece you. Every clinic has its own pricing and they’re just trying to keep the lights on while taking care of your furry family members.

On a serious note, vet mental health is a huge concern in the industry. New Zealand’s vets say they’re struggling, with a recent survey finding some big challenges are vet burnout and mental well-being. Let’s extend the same love and understanding we have for our pets to the hardworking staff that keep them healthy!

Be sure to check out the below conversation between Dr Watson and Dr Meg Irvine, founder of Vet Lifeskills. They discuss what it’s like to have difficult conversations around bills and other industry challenges:

Insurance to soften the blow of expensive vet bills

As Dr Watson mentioned, insurance is a valuable way to prepare for unexpected vet bills and vet costs in NZ. Speaking of price, it’s not as expensive as you may think (read our How Expensive Is Pet Insurance Really? article).

Taking out pet insurance means everyone in the equation, from you, to your veterinarian and everyone in between, can focus on doing their job well.

PD Insurance is an award-winning, value-rich insurance provider that offers every new customer one or more months of free cover. Plus, our month-to-month payment option doesn’t have any lock-in contracts. Why not get a quote today?

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