How pet care became big business

Heather Massey took Ladybird to the vet when the 9-year-old mutt he began to have convulsions. A scan from an MRI machine revealed some bad news: brain cancer.

Given the poor prognosis, Ms. Massey decided not to undergo further treatment at the animal hospital near her home in Athens, Georgia, and Ladybird died four months later. Her MRI scan and related care had cost nearly $2,000, which Ms. Massey had put on a special credit card that she had learned about during an earlier veterinary visit.

This was in 2018. He is still paying off the debt, with over 30% interest.

“Could I afford to do this? Not really,” said Ms. Massey, 52, who is disabled and doesn't work. “Was it worth it for me? YES.”

Ms. Massey's experience illustrates the new, expensive realities of owning a pet. For decades, veterinarians have operated their own clinics, treating generations of pets from birth to death. They have neutered, vaccinated and removed the spines from their legs and noses. When animals became seriously ill, veterinarians often had little to offer beyond condolences and a humane death.

But in recent years, as people have grown fonder of their pets — and more willing to spend money on them — animal medicine has morphed into big business that looks a lot like its human counterpart. Many veterinary practices have been replaced by hospitals equipped with expensive MRI machines, sophisticated laboratory equipment and 24-hour intensive care units. Dogs and cats are often seen by highly trained specialists in neurology, cardiology and oncology.

This high-tech cure has spurred a booming market. According to federal statistics, veterinary prices have increased more than 60 percent over the past decade. Private equity firms and large corporations have purchased hundreds of facilities across the country, an acquisition spree reminiscent of medical practice business combinations.

Veterinarians across the country told the New York Times that their corporate managers are pushing clinics to become more efficient profit centers. Veterinarians were often paid based on the amount of money they brought in, creating an incentive to see more pets, order more tests, and sell wellness plans and food.

The result is an increasingly untenable situation for pet owners, most of whom do not have pet insurance.

The Times asked readers to share their stories about expensive veterinary bills, and hundreds responded. Sophia McElroy of Denver said she donated blood plasma and took on extra freelance work to pay for her dog's living expenses.

Nancy Partridge of Waynesville, North Carolina, said months after her cat was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor, she was still chipping away at the $1,500 bill. “We have a dead cat and we're still paying,” she said.

In 2015, Claire Kirsch was making less than $10 an hour as a veterinary technician in Georgia when her dog, Roscoe, and her horse, Gambit, each had medical emergencies, resulting in bills totaling more than $13,000. Ms Kirsch said her pets would have died if she had not opted for additional treatment.

“I knew I would never be able to forgive myself if we didn't try,” she said.

Mrs. Kirsch maxed out her credit card, dipped into her husband's retirement account and took out a personal loan. Roscoe lived another three years and Gambit is still alive.

In interviews, veterinarians said pet owners who complain about the cost of care don't appreciate the difficulties of running a clinic. Veterinarians earn much less than human doctors and are often in debt from years of education. Their prices have risen in part because of the rising cost of drugs, vaccines and other supplies, as well as workers' pay in a tight labor market.

And thanks to the most advanced medical offerings, pets today can survive serious illnesses, such as cancer, that would once have been unthinkable. They have access to surgeries and medications that can dramatically improve their lives.

“We live in the most technologically advanced era in human history, and how wonderful is that?” said Dr. Tracy Dewhirst, a veterinarian in Corryton, Tennessee. “But it comes at a cost.”

Even the most mundane visits can rack up large bills. Dr. David Roos, an 86-year-old veterinarian in Los Altos, California, said he decided to retire one day in 2014 when he checked on a dog whose owners were longtime clients. The animal had been hospitalized for vomiting. Dr Roos said he would normally have told the owner to take the dog home and give it a drink of water. Instead, another vet ordered x-rays, blood tests, intravenous fluids and a hospital stay. Dr. Roos knew the owners couldn't afford the bill.

“I realized at that stage that veterinary medicine had changed to the point that I no longer wanted to be a part of it,” Dr Roos said.

With the growth of pet ownership and surveys showing that Americans are willing to go into debt to pay for their pets' care, veterinary clinics have become increasingly attractive to investors. According to Brakke Consulting, which focuses on the animal health sector, about a quarter of primary care clinics and three-quarters of specialty clinics are now owned by companies.

In 2015, a major player, Mars, known for selling candy and pet food, acquired a chain of specialty veterinary hospitals, BluePearl, for an undisclosed sum. In 2017 he acquired another hospital, VCA, for $9.1 billion. According to Pitchbook, the trend peaked in 2021, with over 200 private equity deals.

Several veterinarians who worked in corporate practices said they were pressured to increase business. A California veterinarian said she quit her job after she was told her “cost per client” was too low. Another, from Virginia, said she was told she needed to see 21 animals a day. A third, from Colorado, said she was surprised when she heard a manager say that some veterinarians in her office needed coaching to “get the client to a yes.” These veterans asked that their names not be revealed because they feared that speaking out could jeopardize future job prospects with private equity practices.

Other veterinarians said corporate ownership had no influence on the care provided. However, Dr. Andrew Federer, medical director of a clinic in Mentor, Ohio, owned by a chain called National Veterinary Associates, said that when someone's pay is tied to the number of procedures and tests performed, incentives could be difficult to be ignored, especially for vets who were just starting out.

“The more they bring to the hospital beyond their current salary, the more production bonus they will receive,” he said.

Only about 4% of pet owners have insurance, and even for them, options are limited. Pet insurance often excludes pre-existing conditions and costs more for older pets who are more likely to get sick.

Companies can also change the terms. This spring, insurance company Nationwide notified thousands of pet owners that it would end their coverage, leaving them scrambling to sign up for new plans that exclude pets' pre-existing conditions. About 100,000 plans will be discontinued, said Kevin Kemper, a national spokesman.

Stephanie Boerger of Royal Oak, Michigan, said Nationwide had covered her cat's chemotherapy but told her it would not renew her plan once it expired in August. The treatment, which costs about $1,000 every two months, will not be covered by any available plans.

“Now I feel like I have to choose between paying for my cat's chemo or letting her die,” said Ms. Boerger, who managed to find new coverage through a competing company.

In a statement, the national spokesperson cited the rising costs of veterinary care. “We are making these difficult decisions now so that we can continue to be here for even more pets in the future,” he said.

Many veterinarians offer specialty credit cards sold by outside companies, such as the CareCredit card used by Ms. Kirsch and Ms. Massey. Last year, the Biden administration warned that these medical credit cards — also promoted by doctors and dentists — have led many consumers into debilitating debt. A CareCredit spokesperson said about 80% of cardholders paid off their debt before the introductory interest-free period expired.

Some groups, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, are studying how veterinarians can perform common procedures more affordably. And many vets say they try to offer a “spectrum of care,” a nonjudgmental way of discussing the least expensive options.

For many people, the company of a pet is priceless.

After Ladybird's death, Mrs. Massey adopted Lunabear, a lab mix who, she jokes, is “allergic to the very air we breathe.” Lunabear requires prescription food that costs $6 a can and takes a $3 allergy pill three times a day. Last year she underwent surgery on her leg.

These costs totaled nearly $4,000, much of which was charged to the high-interest credit card. But Ms Massey, who suffers from severe depression and lives alone, said her dogs were top priority. “I pay the bills and then buy the food,” she said.

Ben Casselmann contributed to the reporting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *