Dr. Bill Wagner
Set Your Clients up for Success From the Start
The first visit to the vet is usually a comprehensive one. There’s a laundry list of client education items that the veterinary medical team needs to cover with pet owners during the first puppy/kitten visit, including vaccines, heartworm and flea and tick prevention, spay/neuter recommendations, socialization, all other matters of preventative medicine. All this in addition to addressing any concerns found at the initial physical examination and answering a barrage of questions from an excited new pet parent. However, there’s one area of client education that is often overlooked during this busy appointment: establishing reasonable expectations about the cost of pet ownership and setting clients up for success in budgeting for future expenses.
Pet ownership is expensive. Most pet owners significantly underestimate the cost.
As compassionate veterinarians, we are a pet owner’s mentor and must be good stewards of their money.
The estimated lifetime cost of owning a dog or cat ranges from about $5,000 to $23,000. That is a lot of money that pet owners will need to budget from their discretionary income, and large amounts of it may arrive without warning. Of particular concern, most pet owners significantly underestimate the cost of owning a pet with the average pet owner’s guess at the lifetime cost of their pet falling somewhere between $1,290 and $6,445. This means that the average pet owner is unlikely to be appropriately budgeting and saving for their pet’s medical care. Costly and unexpected medical expenses can arrive for pets of any age, but as is the case with humans, the bulk of medical expenses will arrive in the senior and geriatric life stages which means that responsible pet parents have a long runway to budget and save ahead for those years as long as they have been informed early on in their pet’s life of the importance of doing so.
Some expenses are more predictable than others, and others can be avoided entirely.
It is important to educate clients early on about the base expense of responsible pet ownership: Vaccines, preventatives, spay/neuter, good nutrition, dental care, and annual exams and life stage appropriate diagnostics. Beyond this base cost, there are some expenses specific to each pet that are not guaranteed but their pet may be likely to incur at some point. These can include breed-based genetic predispositions such as cardiac disease, cranial cruciate ligament tears, certain types of cancers, and so forth.
Other expenses can sometimes be avoided entirely with good client education, such as obesity-related diseases, foreign bodies (“puppy-proofing" the home), and toxin ingestions (educating clients about common toxins early). Being able to provide concrete financial benchmarks for clients as much as reasonably possible can be useful in anchoring the conversation, setting future expectations, and motivating clients to be compliant with recommendations.
“I see that Dozer has gained some weight since his last visit. We grade body condition on a scale from 1 to 9 with 5 being ideal, and he is currently a 7 out of 9. Obesity can leave Dozer vulnerable to a variety of medical issues during his life, with damage to the ligaments in his knees being a particular concern as a possibility since he’s an active, large-breed dog. Repairing a tear of his cranial cruciate ligament in his knee with a board-certified surgeon in this area would cost roughly $2000 to $4000, more if he runs into any complications. Let’s talk about what he's getting fed at meals as well as any treats he gets, then let’s build a weight management plan together.”
There are many ways to budget and save money for pet health expenses.
The right answer isn’t going to be the same for every client.
When in doubt, recommending pet health insurance from a reputable company is a safe default. Insured pets receive more medical care and receive medical care more frequently than uninsured pets, demonstrating the value of pet health insurance in reducing cost as a barrier to seeking care. However, as I discussed in a previous blog post, pet health insurance isn’t a panacea. It is still important for clients to budget for wellness/preventative care (some insurance plans cover these, but at questionable cost/benefit as they are relatively predictable expenses) and maintain means to cover cost at the time of services rendered while waiting for reimbursement from their insurance, as most pet health insurance plans operate on a client reimbursement model. Pet health insurance may not be the right choice for clients who have sufficient financial means to self-save for their pet’s care, but it is still important that they set aside dedicated savings for that purpose regardless.
Economic euthanasia is a possibility for pets whose owners haven’t saved for unexpected expenses. This is a difficult, delicate topic but it is important for clients to hear.
Nobody wants to bring negative thoughts into the exam room with a bouncing, healthy puppy, or kitten. However, as advocates for our patients it is important for us to educate clients about what it means to be a responsible pet parent and what the potential consequences are of failing to budget for an unexpected injury or illness of their pet. These aren’t necessarily topics that need to be covered in the first visit itself but should be discussed relatively early on in your veterinarian-client-patient relationship. Ideally, gold standard client education means that your long-term clients are rarely surprised by the number on a treatment plan for their pet because you’ve put the legwork into helping them understand the cost of pet ownership ahead of time and set them up for success in their personal financial planning.
As veterinarians, talking about money is almost universally our least favorite part of our job. For better or worse, it is also one of the most important parts of what we do. How effectively we communicate and educate our clients about current and future expenses sets the stage for our clients to hopefully show up prepared to make the right medical decisions for their pets when it matters most.