When shopping for a new one, ask yourself if a more economical model will meet your needs. And before you buy, be sure to check how often the brands you're considering are likely to break down.
When repairs are needed, shop aggressively to find less-expensive alternatives, and buy any necessary parts and maintenance supplies from discount retailers, catalogs or Internet merchants, not from the person who's doing the repairs.
And remember: Sometimes it's cheaper to buy new than repair old.
This is all great advice when you're talking about a car, but it doesn't ring true when you're talking about a member of your family. And "family" is exactly what many people consider their pets to be.
And yet, in the July edition of Consumer Reports, a package of articles attempting to help pet lovers save money on their veterinary bills takes just such an approach. Treat your pet like your car, and treat your veterinarian like a mechanic.
It's bad advice for the health and well-being of your pet.
It's not a bad thing to make money -- this is America, after all -- and veterinarians ought to be able to earn a living that's somewhat in line with the years of hard work and education that went into getting their degree. Consumer Reports says that veterinary costs have been rising, but the fact is that they've been low for decades.
The tone of the article suggests that procedures costing thousands to tens of thousands of dollars in human medicine are a rip-off at a price of several hundred dollars when performed by a veterinarian. But the procedures, and some of the costs that go into performing them, can be the same.
The magazine also suggests that veterinarians push diagnostic tests to increase the bottom line. In some cases and in some places, the magazine may be right. But I shake my head when people complain to me about a veterinarian who wants to screen for disease before anesthesia or prescribing powerful medications with side effects that have been known to be lethal to animals with certain health conditions.
If your physician didn't insist on such screening and something went wrong, he'd be facing a lawsuit or even prosecution. But too often when a veterinarian attempts to practice a good standard of medicine, he's accused of padding the bill.
If you want good medicine for your pet, you need to know what it is, and you need to be willing to pay for it. On the other hand, there are some trends in veterinary medicine that every pet lover needs to know about.
Veterinarians who own their own practices are constantly pitched by consultants who want to teach them to be more businesslike, often by adding to the bottom line by pushing procedures and products. There's even a magazine -- Veterinary Economics -- dedicated to making veterinarians better at making money. I've read it, and sometimes it makes me cringe. I do know, however, that a lot of what's promoted by these sources sometimes makes good veterinarians cringe, as well.
Know too, that for veterinarians in some practices there is no option to pushing these bottom-line enhancers, and they don't have the power to cut costs. They're relatively low-paid employees of practices managed by people far removed from the heartbreak of someone with a seriously ill pet and little money. These employee veterinarians are often given revenue targets they must meet -- or else.
So what should you do? Some of the information Consumer Reports offers is absolutely right, especially when it comes to preventive care. Choose purebreds from reputable breeders or mixed breeds to minimize the possibility of congenital health problems. Keep your pet at a proper weight with good nutrition and exercise, and make sure the animal stays free of parasites. Alter your pet to prevent certain cancers, communicable diseases and injuries related to fighting or roaming. Prevent accidents by keeping your cat inside and your dog on leash or behind a fence.
As for a veterinarian, find one who deserves your respect, and then show some respect. Educate yourself about good medicine and build a trusting relationship with a veterinarian who's trying hard to practice it. Make each conversation with your veterinarian about medicine first and money second, and you'll get a better result, both in the short term and in the long. Your veterinarian knows costs matter, and you don't have to hammer him over the head with that fact again and again.
But if all you care about is money, then Consumer Reports sums it up for you at the end of its piece: Euthanasia will cost you about $50. Less if (as the magazine pushes so strongly) you shop around.
One thing Consumer Reports is dead-on right about: It's time for veterinarians to get out of the pharmacy business. A convenience for pet lovers and a part of the revenue stream for veterinarians, the practice of selling both prescription and nonprescription medications (along with food, leashes, chew toys, etc.) has long appeared a conflict of interest, even in the best of practices.
Veterinarians will argue -- and they're absolutely right -- that the markups on these items help keep down other costs. But outside pressures from superstore retailers and Internet pharmacies are forcing an end to this business model, and veterinarians need to seize the opportunity for change.
You should indeed look to pay less for the products your pet needs, but the tradeoff is that you must also be willing to pay more for your veterinarian's advice, which has long been subsidized by markups on medications, vaccines and the like. Veterinarians ought to be happy to shed the conflict of interest that selling drugs presents, and put their efforts toward getting their clients to see them as the professionals they are, not the marketing machines practice-management consultants are pushing them to be.
PETS ON THE WEB
Knowledge is never a bad thing, which is why I glad to see the Consumer Reports package include a note about one of my favorite pet-related Web sites. The Merck Veterinary Manual (www.merckvetmanual.com/mvm/index.jsp) is an incredible resource that's even more remarkable because it's absolutely free. When I started writing this column, I had to drive to the library at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine to look up information of this caliber. Now, it's a few keystrokes away. Wow.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I am part of a breed-specific rescue group. While in foster care we work with each dog in an effort to evaluate temperament and improve upon the skills they are missing, which frequently include lack of proper socialization and obedience training.
Occasionally we have been criticized by adoption candidates because we were being too intrusive. When we explain that our goal is to make a good match between dog and adopter, and that doing so requires information about each of them, they usually accept the process.
We consider ourselves to be educators. When a dog is placed, we maintain contact with the adopter in order to support them during the transition period, and are always available to offer guidance related to health and training. -- Leanne Loza, DogWorks Canine Rescue (www.dogworks.org), Sacramento, Calif.
Q: I was rejected for adoption of a dog from a rescue group. I am a veterinary technician with eight pets. I was never given a reason for the denial, only told that I didn't qualify. The whole process took about a month. There was a five-page application, then a home inspection and an interview by phone.
I felt humiliated that a person with my background would be denied. I now have a bad feeling about adopting through rescue. I just can't believe I would have to go through all that work to adopt when I could spend roughly the same amount of money to buy a puppy and not have the hassle. -- D.U., via e-mail
A: The rescue debate rages on! I'll be writing a follow-up to my rescue column soon. In the meantime, read what other pet lovers are saying and let me know what you think on this subject. You'll find the link on my Web site, at www.spadafori.com. (The longer versions of both of these letters are there, as well.)
In the meantime, in reading all the letters that have been sent me, it's clear that a little tact and understanding -- on both sides -- would go a long, long way toward better serving the animals who need help.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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