Home Entertainment Last year I spent £19,000 on my pets’ health, says LIZ JONES....

Last year I spent £19,000 on my pets’ health, says LIZ JONES. Vets have pushed up prices – and are bleeding animal lovers like me dry

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April last year. My 15-year-old border collie, Gracie, was reluctant to get out of bed. Not unusual: she is rarely roused until my second carafe of coffee. This time, though, she hovered near the edge, squirming, embarrassed.

I went downstairs and, a few moments later, Gracie appeared writhing by my feet. She had crawled down the stairs and couldn’t stand. She had been fine the previous day: cheerful, sprightly. I scooped her into a dog bed and called my local vet, insisting on a home visit.

I rescued Gracie as a puppy. She was born in Wiccaweys, a collie charity near Nottingham. Like me, she was born anxious. She never did stop chewing (she ate the interior of my car, several sofas) so could never be left alone; I didn’t have one bath in 15 years without a brown and white pointy nose peeking over the rim.

If you even gently admonished Gracie, she would lie on her back and do a stress wee. But the day she could not stand up? All I knew was that I couldn’t lose her.

The vet arrived. The only cheering note here is that it wasn’t a bank holiday, Christmas Day or the middle of the night — even so, the call out alone cost £75. Gracie was given pain relief and blood was taken. I sat with her and waited to be called with the results. The news wasn’t good. ‘You need to come in, now.’

Liz Jones with her 15-year-old collie, Mini. During Mini's CT scan last year, a small tumour was found on her thyroid

Liz Jones with her 15-year-old collie, Mini. During Mini’s CT scan last year, a small tumour was found on her thyroid

Liz with her 30-year-old pony Benji who died from a burst tumour last year

Liz with her 30-year-old pony Benji who died from a burst tumour last year

My assistant Nic (who looks after my animals when I’m working) helped me carry Gracie to the car and we sped to the vet. It turned out Gracie had severe anaemia and internal bleeding. I was told to rush her to a referral clinic called Swift, over an hour’s drive away near York.

As soon as a vet says ‘referral’, ice courses through my veins. A referral clinic is a specialist centre for animals when they need greater medical expertise: it means the diagnosis is both serious — and expensive.

In 2018, I’d rushed Gracie to Wear Referrals, a clinic near Teesside and part of the Linnaeus Group, the owner of more than 180 practices in the UK and Ireland (motto: ‘A better world for pets’). She was crouching in pain. A scan revealed a slipped disc.

Surgery and after-care came to £9,000. At that time, I had so many animals (three horses, four dogs, several cats), it was too expensive to insure them all. Gracie made a full recovery, but it took until August 2023 to pay off the credit card bill.

This time, April 2023, I knew I was in a better place financially because Gracie was now insured (each dog costs £78 a month).

As I arrived at Swift — which is owned by Independent Vetcare Limited (IVC), a global veterinary care provider, with shareholders including EQT Private Equity and Nestle — I handed over details of my Petplan policy, which covers her up to a maximum of £3,000 per procedure, less 20 per cent as she is over nine years old and less an excess of £95.

And yet I still had to pay a £2,000 deposit there and then, or she would not be treated.

Unlike a family vet (mine, Swale Veterinary Surgery, is independent, a rarity these days), referral clinics require payment before they will even start treatment.

It is harsh but understandable given the 24-hour staffing, high-tech equipment and specialist expertise which all need to be paid for.

And yet the insistence upon an immediate credit card under such terrible pressure — with a beloved pet on the cusp of life and death — feels uncaring. And what if you don’t have a large credit limit?

I could only think, thank God I don’t need to dip into the house deposit.

Gracie was scanned and operated on the next day. I was called while she was still under anaesthetic: cancerous masses in her throat, and on other organs including her heart.

The tumours were inoperable. She was put to sleep without being woken up. I never got to say goodbye, to tell her I loved her.

With her collies Mini, left, and Missy. Liz says that with 60 per cent of UK adults owning a pet, our addiction to animals has become a huge consumer business

With her collies Mini, left, and Missy. Liz says that with 60 per cent of UK adults owning a pet, our addiction to animals has become a huge consumer business

Her treatment cost £3,785.40. Despite being covered, I still ended up paying £1,731. And she died!

Last year was not good. My other 15-year-old collie, Mini, stopped eating. Again, the vet! Again, a referral! This time to VetDentist, near York. Her teeth were cleaned, one removed (total cost £4,730, of which I had to pay £2,455), and during her CT scan a small tumour was found on her thyroid.

This meant a different referral, Wear again, which found the tumour to be cancerous, while also discovering a mass on Mini’s spleen. Both were removed. Cost of treatment, £8,528. I had to pay £4,451.28 of it.

Oh, I then had to return four months later for the all-clear, a scan that cost me £2,000, as her insurance cap had been reached.

Pet insurance will never, ever cover all your costs. Not in a million years.

Vets fees have long been out of control, it seems to me. The Office for National Statistics estimates they have risen by about 50 per cent since 2015 — far more than inflation.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has now launched an official investigation into concerns the sector has been sewn up by a handful of big players who may be pushing up prices.

From 10 per cent in 2013, today almost 60 per cent of the UK’s 5,000 practices are owned by six corporate groups: CVS, IVC, Linnaeus, Medivet, Pets at Home and VetPartners.

None of this comes as a surprise to me, or my bank manager. I’m not even finished with 2023. Two weeks before Christmas, I checked my 30-year-old pony at 9pm, as I always do.

He was sweating and laid down in his stable. I called my vet, who administered pain relief and a muscle relaxant. Suspected colic, which is pain in the gut.

As the vet was leaving, Benji suddenly urinated a stream of pure, bright red blood. Suffice to say, the vet returned many times over the next 24 hours, blood tests were done, but finally we were forced to put him to sleep; the most likely diagnosis was a burst tumour.

Total cost, including cremation: £1,880.11. He was not insured. I could only find two companies that will insure a horse up to the age of 25, and none beyond it. NFU has a policy up to 30, but only for accident. No wonder so many horses are dispatched to abattoirs.

In fact, in all, I spent £13,717 on vets’ bills that weren’t covered by insurance for Gracie, Benji and Mini last year. The latter alone cost £10,106. Given I insure two more collies (Missy and Teddy) and one more horse (Swirly) the total amount of money I spent on my animals’ health in 2023 equals a staggering £18,713. And that’s not including flea treatments, worming tablets or farrier’s bills.

When I was growing up in the Sixties, we had a labrador retriever, Pompey, who barely cost us anything. In all his life, I only remember one visit to the vet, when he cut his paw.

My mum used to give him table scraps and cook him food; she wouldn’t dream of giving any of us processed food, and that included Pompey. He wasn’t even vaccinated.

Liz's dogs Gracie, Mini and Missy make themselves at home

Liz’s dogs Gracie, Mini and Missy make themselves at home

But today, with 60 per cent of UK adults owning a pet, our addiction to animals has become a huge consumer business. Go into a vet and you’re offered not only flea treatment and worming tablets, but supplements for stiffness, confusion, anxiety. You’re offered myriad specialist dry food mixes, plus treats, toothbrushes, toys.

When I spayed Mini, in 2009, the cost was £75. Today, that would cost £255 to £345 depending on breed. The cost of pet insurance has also gone up. When I got my ex-racehorse in 2015, I paid £89 a month. Now, it’s £156.35!

Of course, we all want to do our best for our animals, but faced with the choice between a huge bill, or putting a perhaps elderly animal to sleep, it feels as though we’re being blackmailed.

Costs for vets have risen, of course: staffing, equipment, drugs. The only number that has gone down is newly qualified vets, from 1,132 in 2019 to just 365 in 2021. But trust in an admirable profession is eroded when you look at the cost of, say, Thyronorm (for hyperthyroidism in cats), prescribed by a vet and the same drug purchased online: £99.43, compared with £51.98.

A common drug for dogs and cats is Loxicom (an anti-inflammatory and painkiller): £65.10 at the vet, £20.48 online. Of course, online pharmacies order in bulk and have lower overheads. But still, the mark-up is staggering.

To order online you still need a prescription, of course, and again the costs are high. Even a repeat one, when the vet doesn’t need to see the animal, has an average cost of £21.29, according to data from 1,600 practices.

Going to the vet with a poorly animal is frightening: that overwhelming desire to do our best for them, combined with the feeling of intimidation when faced by an expert, can lead us to spend more than we need to.

At a talk given by a homeopathic vet a few years ago, I was surprised to hear him point out that a human only needs five doses of tetanus booster in a lifetime — so why does a horse need a booster every one or two years?

Animal vaccination schedules are surely driven by the pharmaceutical industry’s desire to make money?

The CMA tells us its investigation will look into the disparity in the cost of drugs and procedures, and the immediate rush to a referral clinic (many seem in cahoots, as both the surgery and the clinic are owned by the same conglomerate), which all sounds promising, until you hear any changes could take up to two years to be put in place.

The British Veterinary Association welcomes the scrutiny but denies corporatisation is driving up prices.

What can be done? Insurance should be compulsory (make sure the policy says ‘lifetime’), but when you buy a pet, it should also be made clear you’re going to need an emergency fund or credit card too.

Any government which promises to abolish VAT on veterinary care would get my vote: surely animals, the most vulnerable members of society, deserve healthcare. A vet that offers a discount to an animal rescued from a bona fide charity would get my custom, too, as would a vet who gives pensioners a government-funded discount; a cat or dog is surely the best antidote for loneliness in later life.

Charities — the RSPCA, Blue Cross, People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals — are helping the very poorest with the costs of pet-owning, but to access food banks and treatments for animals you need to be on benefits. No wonder rescue centres are overflowing with abandoned pets.

I’ve worked out that since 2012, when I moved to North Yorkshire (let’s draw a veil over my sojourn in Somerset), I’ve spent in excess of £30,000 just at my local vet.

Even a routine visit from the equine dentist costs £85, while a firm that counts the parasite eggs in my horse’s poo costs £8.86 a month (don’t get me started on feed, grazing and the farrier for a horse, while a tin of Lily’s Kitchen dog food is a staggering £3.35! My newest rescued collie, Teddy, eats three a day! Plus mini sausages).

One idea is to shop around for routine treatments: not easy in rural areas. Besides, it’s hard to know whether vets are in genuine competition or not.

Four of the big six corporate vet owners, says the CMA, tend to retain the name and branding of an independently owned practice when they buy it, which may create an ‘illusion of competition’ for consumers.

I’ve tried to economise, buying drugs online. Mini, recovering well, needs daily iron tablets.

I went to Boots to buy ‘human’ iron tablets, as they’re infinitely cheaper. ‘Have you had a blood test recently?’ the pharmacist asked me. Stupidly, I replied: ‘No, they’re not for me, they’re for my collie.’

‘Then I’m not allowed to sell them to you.’

Those of us who exhaust every option for our poorly animals are doing the right thing by them. They’re not a luxury, they’re family. And they are very certainly not cash cows to be milked by greedy venture capitalists.

I look forward to the CMA testing the market vigorously and finding a way to keep our adored pets healthy — without bleeding us dry.



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