On Monday at 8:30 a.m., I found myself at the veterinarian's office — where, unknowingly, I would spend the next three hours.
The night before, my cat Mia threw up at least five times. In the morning, I found her wedged into a corner of the bathroom. I could tell how she felt just by looking at her.
I called the vet's office near my house right when they opened, hoping to get her an appointment as soon as possible. I was relieved when they said they could see her in an hour.
The veterinarian wanted to run complete lab work on her and either do an x-ray, which is less expensive but provides less information, or an ultrasound, which was almost $300 but could tell them more.
What's really necessary?
I'm not an expert, but an ultrasound for a cat with Mia's spotless medical history seemed a bit excessive.
She didn't have a fever, this was the first time this had ever happened, and she's never been ill before. All the vet found during the initial exam was “a little bit of plaque” on her teeth. She recommended teeth cleaning at a later date, which would involve general anesthesia for a high-strung cat like Mia. (They recommended this procedure for my other cat, and quoted it at $300, plus.)
But even though the ultrasound seemed excessive, the vet threw out words like “pancreatitis” and “cancer.” And nothing jacks up anxiety and guilt like the possibility of cancer. It turns out, however, that some vets even profit off that fear.
“As a young veterinarian working at a clinic in British Columbia, [Andrew] Jones said he got an early lesson about upselling after telling a pet owner whose dog had a lump to just monitor it. At the time, Jones said he was fairly certain the dog's lump was a benign fatty tumor, but said the clinic owner quickly clued him in on the effectiveness of using the dreaded ‘c' word: cancer.
“The practice owner… said, ‘no, that's not how you do it… what you need to do is get that dog back in… It's going to be much more profitable for the practice,'” Jones said. “He said that it might be cancer. And it's — usually the ‘c' word, pet owners get really concerned and they say, ‘do whatever you need to make sure it's not serious.'”
The article goes on to say that over-vaccinating and unnecessary dental services are two other common ways that less-ethical vets overcharge. Regarding dental work, Dr. Marty Becker, a leading expert in veterinary care, said, “If [a pet] does not have periodontal disease, there's no use putting it through the risk of anesthesia.”
See, that's kind of what I was thinking, too.
Now, I'm not saying my veterinarian was trying to overcharge me. She seems genuine enough, and maybe she's 100 percent right. Or maybe there's a gray area and she's just recommending this stuff based on the current school of thought. But what I wonder is, how do you know? And how do you decide what to do?
As a pet owner, I'll do whatever I can for her; but I don't want to subject my anxious, sick animal to anything that's unnecessary. And while I'm fortunate to be able to afford this stuff, or at least to have the choice, I'd rather not pay hundreds of dollars for unnecessary tests and procedures.
The bill … so far
Back in the exam room, I waited while they did the lab work. They also called the ultrasound techs to see when they could come by. (It's a procedure they outsource.)
The lab work showed no issues other than dehydration, which was to be expected. The ultrasound, it turned out, couldn't happen until tomorrow morning. So they gave Mia fluids, antibiotics, an appetite stimulant, and anti-nausea meds, then we went home and she slept all afternoon. Total cost: $464.
That evening, she started acting like her normal self. So I decided to postpone the ultrasound, mainly because I didn't want to stress her out again when she was just starting to feel better. Also, the techs were just “fitting us in,” so they wanted me to drop Mia off at 8:30 a.m. and they wouldn't do the procedure until sometime between 9 and 11 a.m. I thought it best to wait until we could get an actual appointment.
So that's where we're at today. Mia seems completely fine, and I'm still wondering whether we really need another vet appointment and another test at this point. After doing some research online, sure, there's a chance that it's pancreatitis or even cancer; but also, like humans, sometimes pets just get sick and then they recover.
So readers, I'm curious. How do you make decisions when it comes to vet bills? Do you follow the vet's recommendations, if you can afford to? Also, have you ever felt like a vet was upselling you?
Author: April Dykman
As a freelance writer, editor, and blogger, April Dykman specialized in personal finance, real estate, and entrepreneurship topics. Her work has been featured on MSNBC, Fox Business, Forbes, MoneyBuilder, Yahoo! Finance, Lifehacker, and The Consumerist. Now she does direct response copywriting but, in her free time, April is a wannabe chef, a diehard Italophile, and a recovering yogi.