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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘We’re still paying’: How pets became a big business



Dr. David Roos, a retired veterinarian, with his dog, Chester, in Los Altos, Calif., June 4, 2024. Roos said he decided to retire one day in 2014, when longtime clients could not afford the tests and other procedures that another vet ordered for their dog. (Mike Kai Chen/The New York Times)

By Katie Thomas


Heather Massey brought Ladybird to the veterinarian when the 9-year-old mutt began having seizures. A scan from an MRI machine revealed bad news: brain cancer.


With the prognosis grim, Massey decided against further treatment at the animal hospital near her home in Athens, Georgia, and Ladybird died four months later. The MRI scan and related care had cost nearly $2,000, which Massey put on a specialty credit card she had learned about at a previous vet visit.


That was in 2018. She is still paying off the debt, with more than 30% interest.


“Could I afford to do that? Not really,” said Massey, 52, who is disabled and does not work. “Was it worth it to me? Yes.”


Massey’s experience illustrates the expensive new realities of owning a pet. For decades, veterinarians typically operated their own clinics, shepherding generations of pets from birth to death. They neutered, vaccinated and pulled thorns from paws and noses. When animals became seriously ill, vets often had little to offer beyond condolences and a humane death.


But in recent years, as people have grown more attached to their pets — and more willing to spend money on them — animal medicine has transformed into a big business that looks a lot like its human counterpart. Many veterinary offices have been replaced by hospitals outfitted with expensive MRI machines, sophisticated lab equipment and round-the-clock intensive care units. Dogs and cats often see highly trained specialists in neurology, cardiology and oncology.


This high-tech care has spurred a booming market. Veterinary prices have soared more than 60% over the past decade, according to federal statistics. Private equity firms and large corporations have bought hundreds of facilities around the country, an acquisition spree reminiscent of the corporate roll-ups of doctors’ offices.


Veterinarians from around the country told The New York Times that their corporate managers were pushing clinics to become more efficient profit centers. Vets were often paid based on how much money they brought in, creating an incentive to see more pets, order more tests and upsell wellness plans and food.


In 2015, Claire Kirsch was earning less than $10 an hour as a veterinary technician in Georgia when her own dog, Roscoe, and her horse, Gambit, each had medical emergencies, resulting in bills that totaled more than $13,000. Kirsch said her animals would have died had she not opted for additional care.


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


Kirsch maxed out a credit card, tapped 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 complained about care costs don’t appreciate the difficulties of running a clinic. Veterinarians make far less money than human doctors and are often in debt from years of education. Their prices have gone up partly because of the rising cost of drugs, vaccines and other supplies, as well as paying workers in a tight labor market.


And because of more advanced medical offerings, pets today can survive serious illnesses, like cancer, that would once have been unthinkable. They have access to surgeries and drugs that can vastly improve their lives.


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


With a growth in pet ownership and surveys showing that Americans are willing to go into debt to pay for their animals’ care, vet clinics have become increasingly attractive to investors. About one-quarter of primary care clinics and three-quarters of specialty clinics are now owned by corporations, according to Brakke Consulting, which focuses on the animal health industry.


In 2015, one major player, Mars — known for selling candy and pet food — acquired a specialty veterinary hospital chain, BluePearl, for an undisclosed sum. In 2017, it nabbed another hospital, VCA, for $9.1 billion. The trend peaked in 2021, with more than 200 private equity deals, according to Pitchbook.


Several veterinarians who have worked in corporate practices said they were pressured to drive more business. One vet from California 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 per day. A third, from Colorado, said she was taken aback when she overheard a manager saying some of the vets at her office needed coaching on “getting the client to a yes.” These vets asked to withhold their names because they worried that speaking out could jeopardize future job prospects with private-equity practices.


Other vets said that corporate ownership had no influence on the care they provided. Still, Dr. Andrew Federer, medical director of a clinic in Mentor, Ohio, that is owned by a chain called National Veterinary Associates, said that when someone’s pay is tied to how many procedures and tests they perform, the incentives could be difficult to ignore, especially for vets who are just starting out.


“The more they bring into the hospital above their current salary, the more of a production bonus they will receive,” he said.


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


Companies can also change the terms. This spring, insurance company Nationwide notified thousands of pet owners that it was discontinuing their coverage, leaving them scrambling to enroll in new plans that excluded the pets’ preexisting conditions. About 100,000 plans are being discontinued, said Kevin Kemper, a Nationwide spokesperson.


Stephanie Boerger of Royal Oak, Michigan, said that Nationwide had been covering her cat’s chemotherapy but told her it would not renew her plan when it expired in August. The treatment, which costs about $1,000 every other month, will not be covered under any available plan.


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


In a statement, the Nationwide spokesperson cited the rising cost of veterinary care. “We are making these tough 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 Kirsch and Massey. Last year, the Biden administration warned that these medical credit cards — which were also promoted by doctors and dentists — drove many consumers into debilitating debt. A spokesperson for CareCredit said that about 80% of cardholders paid off their debt before the no-interest introductory period expired.


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


For many people, a pet’s companionship is priceless.

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