Warning! Dr. Cheapvet Could Be Hazardous to Your Pet's Health

Does your vet brag about low, low prices? Imply that "other" vets are greedy while their only motive is love for animals? Boast that they don't do "unnecessary" tests?

Be warned: While you're praising your vet for saving you money, your pets could be paying the ultimate price. 

It sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? A vet who provides competent, ethical medical care, is the nicest person on earth, doesn't recommend all those "unnecessary" tests, and comes out the generous, saintly hero who isn't like all those "greedy" vets. Clients love him. After all, a person like that must love animals because they sure don't care about money, right? 

Not necessarily.

If the wonderful Dr. Cheapvet sounds unbelievable, that's because he might very well be. While animal guardians think they're savvy enough to be wary of a vet who might overcharge -- and some certainly do -- it never occurs to most of us that a vet could put your pet's health and life at risk in order to be known as an "honest" vet. But make no mistake -- it happens.  

Thoroughly check out your vet--especially if he or she is known for "low" prices

If you're a guardian who would do anything for your pet -- almost every animal survey indicates that there are an awful lot of us out here -- and you have a history of pulling out all the stops to make sure your pets get everything they need, be sure you thoroughly check out your vet for a history of complaints, investigations, or disciplinary actions. Dr. Cheapvet may be in more trouble than you know, but that's nothing compared to the trouble your pet could be in.

Dr. CheapVets prey on clients' fears of getting "ripped off"  

How does Dr. Cheapvet pull it off? Simple. When you think about it, it's downright brilliant -- if you're the trusting type. Dr. Cheapvet plays on the innate fear of pet owners who believe that every vet is out to rip them off at an emotionally vulnerable time. Just look at some vet bills to see those costs racked up in the four and five figures, and you are a prime target for a vet who could quickly identify your outrage and exploit it for his own advantage. 

Dr. Cheapvet can spot a mark a mile away. The cost of veterinary care is ridiculous, right? Your friends balk at their vet bills. People gripe about mysterious tests and vague charges. You go into debt to give Fido and Fifi the best. And for what? All vets are rich and greedy and will take you for every cent, right? Of course!

Enter Dr. Cheapvet. He feels your pain.

The worst Dr. Cheapvets are notoriously good actors. They shake their heads and commiserate about all those vets who take advantage of the poor, hapless pet guardian who wouldn't know they're getting rooked without the wonderful Dr. Cheapvet to enlighten them. You listen in rapt attention! You can hardly believe it! A vet who truly loves animals! A vet who doesn't care about the almighty dollar! A vet who isn't out to take your life savings! A vet you can trust!

A vet, in short, who is not like all those other vets.

If you ever find yourself around a vet who is "not like all those other vets," you need to grab your pet and your car keys and head for the nearest second opinion as soon as possible. While you might be tempted to be duly impressed that you've found an "honest" vet, your problems may have just begun. In fact, if a vet is bragging about not being like those other vets, you and your pet may be at real risk. 

Your vet better be like all those other vets.

The statutes of the Veterinary Practice Act that govern the practice of vets in all 50 states were written to guarantee that vets are supposed to be more or less alike, meaning, no vet can treat based on a whim or worse, a personal philosophy that he feels entitled to implement no matter how much it deviates from the standard of care. Vets will certainly have differences of opinion, but they cannot, by law, administer treatment that differs substantially from what any other vet in the same or similar community would do for the same animal in the same or similar condition. (If you suspect your vet has violated the professional standard of humane care, see How to File a Complaint Against A Veterinarian.)

Make sure you're comparing more than just cost.

That's why second and third opinions are paramount. Dr. Cheapvet may have lured you in with the implied promise of standard of care at bargain basement costs, but it's up to you to be informed enough to know there's a possibility that standard of care may be at risk--which means your pet is at risk. As a layperson, it's highly unlikely that you have any idea what the standard of care is anyway. And who knows? Dr. Cheapvet might just like it that way. When choosing a second opinion, look for one who has no connection to the first vet. And be especially careful when dealing with a sole practitioner -- there may not be any other vets around for good reason. Dr. Cheapvets may not want their practices under too much scrutiny from colleagues who might not agree with their peculiar form of bargain-basement medicine.

When is a Dr. Cheapvet okay?

To be fair, there may be competent, dedicated, and ethical vets who, for whatever reason, consistently choose not to charge what the going rate is. Perhaps they don't need the money. Perhaps they inherited it, invested it, won it, or married it. They may have no expertise or interest in complicated or chronic cases and refer patients to specialists when the need arises. But here's what you need to watch out for: Is your pet being cared for competently with proper monitoring, testing, accurate diagnoses, record keeping, and informed consent? Or is Dr. Cheapvet throwing all that by the wayside because they tell themselves they're not charging you enough for you to have any "complaints." Think about it. 

When is a Dr. Cheapvet NOT okay?

Some of the worst Dr. Cheapvets could be charging less simply because they feed off the hero worship of ignorant, trusting people who equate "cheap" with "honest," running around town spreading the word about how "great" this vet is when they have NO clue whether their pets are receiving proper testing, monitoring, treatments, and records.

Dr. Cheapvet could be raking in the bucks in other ways that you know nothing about. 

Like surgery, for example, typically the most expensive thing on the menu. Dr. Cheapvet could be doing an inordinate amount of surgeries or receiving tons of surgical referrals from his friends and colleagues, while yawning over "boring" routine patients who don't provide the adrenaline rush of cutting into flesh. Some vets might even avoid long term chronic care cases because they are labor and time-intensive (like IV fluids that require consistent patient monitoring) and don't bring in the fast revenue of assembly line hack medicine where quantity supersedes quality. And sometimes it's simply because some Dr. Cheapvets just don't give a damn. They've gotten away with their laissez-faire attitude because they have perfected a routine that allows them to do the minimum amount of work in exchange for the maximum amount of ego food.

The only thing worse than a Dr. Cheapvet is a lazy Dr. Cheapvet. 

So before you run and recommend that "wonderful" cheap doctor to all your friends, waxing poetic about how he doesn't charge thousands and thousands of dollars like all the other moneygrubbers that Dr. Cheapvets are sure to bash (as if they are bringing you into some private "club" where you trust Dr. Cheapvet because he's "protecting" you from the real con artists)--make sure you know what you're talking about. Dr. Cheapvets LOVE ignorant, trusting clients who don't do their homework.

Should you listen to friends' recommendations?

Not if they include the words, "Oh, they are so nice and so cheap!" Actually, you don't know if they are either one of those things. But worse than that, you don't know if your friends' companions are receiving standard of care because they haven't done their homework and are simply believing whatever Dr. Cheapvet tells them.  Do your own research, independent of any emotion or "feel good" anecdotes from people who might not care about your pet if they are helping out their Cheapvet friend.. Then you can decide if your friends are choosing a Dr. Cheapvet because he or she really is good or simply because they are cheap--and "nice." 

Referrals from friends are fine, but be wary of any friend who tells you that all vets are alike--the only difference being cost. By law, vets are supposed to provide more or less the same treatment for the same animal with the same condition within the same or similar community--this is the definition of standard of care--but we as consumers have no way of enforcing those laws and veterinary boards dismiss complaints against vets more often than not.  

So what can you do to make sure your pet is getting proper standard of care at fair prices?

- FIRST, DO YOUR HOMEWORK -- online and off.  Check out every aspect of the vet's professional life. Does he or she have a history of professional problems, complaints, investigations, and/or disciplinary actions? The cheapest vet on earth is worthless if they have been under a cloud of suspicion, no matter what the outcome. Dr. Cheapvet may have had to lower his prices considerably because of bad publicity. Check court files, including small claims court, for hints of veterinary malpractice claims or other legal entanglements.  Dr. Cheapvet may have needed to downshift his prices in a hurry to boost his "good guy" image. After all, nobody can resist a bargain and if a vet is cheap enough, owners might happily overlook a checkered past to save a few bucks.

- Compare prices. Call around to at least three different practices to ask about costs for specific procedures. If your pet is already hospitalized or in a care setting, make sure you get cost breakdowns of each procedure, including injections, tests, medications, surgery, etc.

- Don't wait until your pet is in critical condition. Get regular routine care to familiarize yourself with how much your vet costs and if he or she is in line with other vets' prices -- extremes on either end could indicate a problem. Once you are in an emergency situation you are vulnerable in either extreme--an overcharging vet taking advantage of you, or a Dr. Cheapvet who may manipulate you into euthanasia. A Cheapvet can also do such inferior work or use "quick fixes" (like juicing a dying animal on steroids) that you'll end up spending more at an ethical vet trying to fix the substandard care given by a cheapskate. 

- Get second and third opinions -- yes, it bears repeating and they are absolutely essential with geriatric animals, those with chronic conditions, or a pet who needs surgery. You need to distance yourself from "liking" your vet or caring what he or she thinks of you. Do what is best for your pet, not what is best for the vet. Believe me, Dr. Cheapvet is taking care of himself FIRST, no matter his "saintly" image.

- Watch for any signs of manipulation (and some of them are EXTREMELY subtle), so take along a friend who can witness what is being said and done to you and your pet at a vulnerable time.

- Watch your own "poormouthing" talk. Some vets are masters at zeroing in on your weak points in order to justify doing whatever they want to your pet and patting themselves on the back later for doing you a "favor" even if "making things easier on you" meant killing your pet.  Did you just lose your job? Do you have a lot of unexpected medical bills?  Did your kid get into trouble at school? Are you worried about money? IRRELEVANT. Be careful how much personal financial information you give to vets who may act as if they want what you want. You don't really know what they want. But guess what? THEY know. And your pet may suffer as a result.

- Some Dr. Cheapvets blatantly brag about how they are saving their clients money by not running any unnecessary tests. How do you know they're unnecessary? Because the wonderful Dr. Cheapvet says so? Get another opinion, fast. Your pet could need any number of tests and treatments that you know NOTHING about. Make sure that when Dr. Cheapvet brags about how he's saving you money that your pet is also being properly tested and diagnosed. Don't just automatically gush with gratitude at a vet who may be very practiced at controlling patient outcome through insufficient testing, monitoring, and treatment while you have no clue what is really going on. 

- ALWAYS get copies of all test results AND copies of your pet's records after every visit. Records are a big part of what you pay a veterinarian for--not just cutesy-poo baby talk or shooting the breeze about the state of our society don'tcha know, or any other BS that some of these people engage in in order to deflect you from the issue at hand--namely your pet's health.

- This goes double If a vet is doing in-house testing of any kind -- GET COPIES OF THE RESULTS. Dr. Cheapvet could be bragging that his latest gizmo or gadget is more economical than sending it out to some "greedy" lab. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but like any other test result, you should get copies of it. Lab work is part of the entire patient record that you are paying for, no matter where it's coming from. Once, again--get copies of your pet's medical record including the written and/or computerized chart after every visit. If and when something should go wrong, the first line of defense for the vet will be tampering with patient records. If you get copies at each visit, it will make it harder for them to start rewriting your pet's medical history.

- Finally, never, ever, ever EVER equate "cheap" with "honest." They can be synonymous, but not always, and how would you know anyway? Although it may be a tremendous sacrifice to pay those vet bills, veterinary care may not be the best place to cut corners. Trusting Dr. Cheapvet could be the biggest mistake you make in the life of your pet. Once your beloved companion is gone, no amount of money will bring him or her back. 

--Julie Catalano

Graphic: N Kamil Money, clker.com

In memory of Suki the Cat, victim of Edward Nichols, Crestway Animal Clinic.

Read Suki's Story.


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