Friday, December 4, 2009

so why is pet care twice as expensive in the city?

anyone with a pet who's moved from the city to the countryside, or the other way around, will have likely been startled to discover that city care can be twice as expensive as rural options. my Halifax Magazine editor discovered this and asked me to get to the bottom of it.

i talked to pet owners and vets across the province and put it together for an article in the current edition. it comes down to the extraordinary care available for cats and dogs these days - in the dartmouth hospital i visited, they could offer care rivalling anything at the QE2 - for pets or humans!

By Jon Tattrie
When Alice Brown took her new dog Guy to the vet for a physical exam, microchip and shots, the rescued poodle racked up a $346.22 bill.
Her niece in Porter’s Lake, 30 minutes down the road from Brown’s Dartmouth home, pays half that. Brown, 75, fosters dogs for Maritime Animal Rescue. She would drive out of the city for cheaper care, but a recent cancer battle made the prospect exhausting.
“I have thought of it, because it’s absolutely ridiculous,” Brown says. “But if you have a dog that you’re particularly fond of, we’re idiots and we spend that money.”
The story is the same across Nova Scotia: animal owners can expect to pay up to twice as much for care in HRM compared to the rest of the province. But experts say the gap points not to price gauging, but to the extraordinary rise of animals from property to furry people, with city owners leading the trend as pet care catches up with that offered to humans.
Annette Armitage works for Animal Rescue Coalition and places rescued animals with owners across the province from her Valley home. There is no regulation governing vet fees, she says, so individual practices set the rates.
“There is a variance: a general office call is $42 (going) upwards of $92,” she says. ARC recently rescued a litter of nine pups. One was neutered in HRM for almost $400; a second had the procedure done on the south shore for $229.
“This is the same dog, because it’s all based on weight,” Armitage explains. She says while cheaper overhead outside of HRM accounts for some of the difference, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
“Pricing aside, shopping for a vet is like shopping for your general practitioner,” she explains. “I have to have a relationship with my vet, vet clinic, level of service and be comfortable with them.”
That’s where the price gap opens up. Armitage compares it to a local ER versus the IWK in Halifax: rural vets offer good, basic care, but if you want the high-tech wizardry of modern medicine, you need to go to the city.
Hope Swinimer has been in animal health care for two decade. She runs Hope for Wildlife in rural HRM and is an administrative assistant at the Dartmouth Vet Hospital.
Forty years ago, a pet was property. “Now, they’re almost like children,” she observes before taking Halifax Magazine on a tour of the hospital, which has almost $1 million in equipment.
The first stop is a packed medicine cabinet. Twenty years ago, it was half the size.
“A lot of the drugs are human, then they come over to the animal world. (Some) start in the animal world and switch over to human use,” she says. Just as improved human health care means people are living longer and therefore suffering more age-related problems, so are pets. Where once arthritic dogs would have been put down, now they are medicated.
Dentistry is another growth area. The hospital’s teeth-care specialist has all the tools you’d expect to see at your dentist, including an x-ray machine. That helps with a range of health conditions, not to mention dealing with dog breath.
Swinimer heads through rooms filled with cats, dogs and even a blue jay. In addition to pets, the Dartmouth clinic treats all the Hope for Wildlife animals – for free. One cat paws through its cage, tugging on a drip.
“Twenty years ago, you would not see a pump with IV fluids,” Swinimer observes, stopping to scratch the cat’s chin.
In the x-ray room, a state-of-the-art machine takes digital pictures of a pug that instantly appear on a monitor. Staff can take multiple angles to get the best shot, zoom in and find out what’s causing the problem. The speed of the machine means pets rarely require sedation. In a recent case, the x-ray showed what was causing a dog stomach troubles: he’d eaten a bra. A wild coyote was brought in the day before in obvious pain, but the source was not obvious. X-rays revealed the poor creature had a bullet in his back, as well as a broken spine. The clinic had to put him down.
The hospital has an ultrasound machine and an endoscope that feeds a tiny camera down the animal’s throat. An attached grabber allows doctors to pull out foreign bodies without surgery.
And then there’s pet acupuncture. Janis Fisher is used to incredulous reactions to her profession. “It works the same as it does in people,” the holistic healer patiently explains. “We use all the same points in animals as we do in humans.”
Traditionally in China, the prized pigs and cattle got the healing needles, but in Dartmouth, cats, dogs, birds, horses, rats and raccoons are all treated with acupuncture. Fisher, who trained in veterinary acupuncture at Tufts University in Massachusetts, even has “a couple of rats clients,” but hasn’t yet used acupuncture on a porcupine. “I haven’t tried anything that pokes back,” she laughs.
Doug Roberts doesn’t have pet acupuncture at his Kentville practice, but the Cornwallis Veterinarian doctor does employ a chicken specialist.
“You won’t find that in Halifax,” he notes dryly. His clinic generally charges at the lower end of the scale, but Roberts says that’s deceptive. “Are you comparing apples to apples? Is that (higher) fee inclusive of other things?” he asks. Rural practices deal with farm animals as much as “companion” creatures, which lowers the costs of business. They have fewer of the high-end tools because they don’t have the client base to sustain it. When a client requires the bigger machines, Roberts refers them to bigger hospitals.
“Our QEII is the veterinary school in Charlottetown,” he says. Not having to buy and update that equipment means lower prices across the board.
“It’s a lot different than it was 50 years ago, when my father started practicing,” he adds.
Back in Dartmouth, Hope Swinimer thinks she knows why some people blanch at the cost of pet health care. “With human care, we never see our bills,” she observes. “In some ways, (pet care) is more efficient than human care. If you went in for an appointment and got your x-rays and blood results in an hour, you’d be blown away. And that’s what we can offer.”
The higher charges are channeled into keeping that machinery top of the line. Education is expensive, too, as staff continually upgrade their knowledge.
“If I was sick, I’d be just as happy to come here,” Swinimer says. She’s only half joking.
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