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The costs (and benefits) of veterinary care

Access to veterinary care is the number one animal welfare issue for pets in Canada. Each year,
more animals suffer because of inadequate access to veterinary care than from intentional acts
of cruelty or neglect.

At Paws for Hope, we believe that access to veterinary care is a social justice issue and that
animal welfare agencies have a duty to approach protection work through a social justice lens.
And an important part of this work is understanding the true costs of veterinary care and the
role the animal welfare sector can play in reducing the amount of suffering caused by the
economic barriers many people face when it comes to accessing veterinary care.

Many people who reach out to our organization for help are both desperate to provide care for
their pets but exasperated or terrified by the cost of veterinary care. And while I understand their
feelings and concerns, I also understand the requirements and budgets of my veterinary

Because of the work Paws for Hope does to support low-income pet guardians, we have a
unique view into the very real costs of veterinary care as well as the commitment veterinary
professionals have, their determination to provide the best care possible, and the significant
mental and physical toll of this work.

The costs of veterinary care

Unlike our health care system, the veterinary profession is not subsidized by the government. As
such, it must be run as a business where the only source of revenue comes from the fees paid
for providing direct service to pets. But while there is only one source of income, operating a
veterinary hospital comes with many, many expenses.

Most veterinary hospitals are equipped with anesthetic machines, monitoring equipment,
intravenous infusion pumps, digital radiology equipment for dental procedures and full body x-
rays, dental equipment and surgical instruments. They are also stocked with laboratory and test
supplies as well as food and cleaning materials for animals that have to stay for extended
periods. They have to meet and uphold rigorous standards and maintain certifications to operate.
As with everything else, inflation causes utilities and rent and product prices to increase. In
addition, staffing costs have also significantly increased in BC—especially over the past few
years due to staff shortages and our province’s high cost of living.

What won’t work: Payment plans

In order for veterinary hospitals to be able to provide quality care sustainably, all of these costs
must be recovered through the fees paid by clients. And they must be able to receive payment
at the time service is rendered. Calls for veterinarians to provide things like payment plans are
out of touch with the reality of running a clinic. While this may work for large companies and
corporations with huge budgets and overhead, deferring revenue would place most veterinary
hospitals (many of which are small, independently-owned businesses) at risk. Nor should we
expect veterinarians to provide their services for free. Some have accused veterinarians of “not
caring” when they have been denied service because of an individual’s inability to pay. Such
claims are callous and incredibly harmful and only exacerbate the expectations that contribute
to the extremely high rate of suicide in the veterinary profession.

What won’t work: Tax deductions

There have also been recent calls for the federal government to make veterinary care a tax-
deductible expense. However, most low-income earners (the people who struggle most to
access veterinary care) pay little to no income tax because they are below or just slightly above
the income threshold. That means while well-intentioned, a tax deduction would only benefit
people with higher incomes, rather than those the tax deduction would be aiming to help.
(Moreover, such deductions would only result in a potential refund at tax time; they would not
directly support low-income earners when seeking veterinary care.)

However, the situation is not hopeless. Some solutions can come from the government, the
veterinary profession and the animal welfare sector.

What will work: Remove the GST

If veterinarians did not have to charge GST for their services and treatments they prescribe and
deliver, the cost of veterinary care would be automatically and significantly reduced. And most
importantly, these savings would be passed directly to the pet owners.

Other healthcare professionals such as dentists, physiotherapists, chiropractors and others do
not have to charge their clients with GST. Veterinary medicine should be included as well.

What will work: Incremental Care

Incremental veterinary care is patient-centred, experience-based medicine. It is an approach that
focuses on problem-solving to achieve the best possible outcomes for the family and it
safeguards the human-animal bond when there are limited resources. It is a model that
balances and manages what is needed based on the practitioner’s experience and judgment. In
other words, the veterinarian informs the client about the most pressing issues and provides
guidance in terms of how to allocate their money towards what would be most helpful for their

While many veterinarians already practice incremental care each and every day, there is often an
expectation that there is a “best option” or “gold standard” when it comes to providing
veterinary care and anything less is inadequate or not good enough. But this is not always the
case and in situations where there are financial constraints, an incremental approach is by far
the most humane thing to do.

What will work: Support veterinary care in animal welfare

For the vast majority of families with pets, their animals are considered members of the family.
The health and well-being of those animals are a priority. When a family needs help accessing
necessary veterinary care, animal welfare and protection agencies can partner with veterinary
services providers to ensure that care is provided. More animal welfare organizations can make
this part of their mandate and raise money specifically to support keeping families together.

Paws for Hope’s Better Together program does just that. We use what is called a ‘One Welfare’
approach to supporting families over the long term. Like a new family member would gain
access to a health care system, low-income families enrol into the Better Together program to
access subsidized veterinary care for the lifespan of their pets for as long as they qualify.

Thanks to this ongoing support, families can also access preventative care which helps to
reduce the likelihood of serious (and expensive) veterinary interventions for their pet.

And by partnering with veterinarians, the Better Together program provides a model that
uniquely serves the needs of low-income clients. As a result, we are significantly reducing the
rates of euthanasia due to unaffordable treatment, alleviating pressures on veterinary staff, and
helping to ensure that all pets can remain with their families.

Healthy communities and healthy families require access to veterinary medicine. It is
increasingly important that animal welfare organizations find ways to work together to support
our veterinary colleagues, increase access to low-income families, and ensure that we continue
to have a high-quality care system for the animals we share our lives with.

Kathy Powelson
Executive Director, Paws for Hope Animal Foundation

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