Our survey respondents spoke glowingly of their vets in general, but they were far more critical of the vets' efforts to keep costs down. Because veterinary care is an infrequent, sometimes emergency expenditure, it's difficult for consumers to gauge what constitutes a fair price for any of the hundreds of services their pet might require. The best time to comparison shop is when your pet needs a routine checkup, not when you're stressed out by a sick or injured animal.
Our suggestion is to call at least two or three nearby vets and ask what their physical-exam fee is. Nationally, it can range from roughly $35 to $46, according to a 2008 survey of 826 U.S. vets by the American Animal Hospital Association. That difference might seem like small change, but the exam fee forms the cornerstone of every vet bill, and vets often set their other fees as a percentage or multiple of that charge. Consequently, the range of fees to, say, repair a midsized dog's tibial fracture can grow significantly wider: $726 to $1,207, according to the 2008 survey.
It's more difficult but still possible to shop in an emergency, which is what sends one of every 10 patients to a vet each year. Except in the most life-threatening cases, vets usually stabilize an injured or ill animal with painkillers and other first aid, then schedule any necessary procedures for later. When possible, ask the emergency vet whether your pet can be treated the next day by its regular, probably less expensive vet. Get a written diagnosis and cost estimate of the treatment plan from the emergency vet, then use it to comparison shop.
That's what Hugh Brooks, a nurse anesthetist in the Indianapolis area, did after his black-and-tan Yorkshire terrier, Jackson, decided to snack on metal staples late one afternoon. By the time Brooks found out, it was evening, Jackson's regular veterinarian couldn't do the surgery, and an emergency hospital said it would cost $5,000.
Brooks made sure surgery wasn't needed immediately, then called three or four other vets for estimates, ultimately saving $2,000 with the one he chose. Jackson came out of his ordeal just fine.
If your pet faces a major health problem, ask your vet these questions before making any decisions: What are the treatment options? What are the immediate and long-term costs of each? What's the prognosis for recovery? What will the pet's post-treatment quality of life be like?