Essay: Time to stop discounting?

Why do veterinarians persist in discounting surgical sterilisation of dogs and cats? This practice is so entrenched that I doubt anyone stops to consider why we do it.

I can think of three possible reasons for discounting surgical sterilisation of dogs and cats:

  • Every other clinic does;
  • It’s a “loss leader”; and
  • It’s a community service to help reduce the number of unwanted companion animals.

The only valid reason, in my opinion, is the last one – it’s a community service. Unfortunately, the community does not recognise this. The perception in the community is that the value of surgical sterilisation is the price we charge. There is no acknowledgement by the general public that the veterinary profession has been performing this community service since the beginning of time. In fact, we receive bad publicity if we do not give further discounts in hardship or welfare cases. We also receive bad publicity if we expect to be paid appropriately for a difficult procedure such as an ovariohysterectomy on an overweight, mature Labrador.

No matter how important a service might be to the welfare of the community, can you think of any other service provided by any private business for which, without any government subsidy or public fundraising, the standard fee charged is below the cost of providing that service?

When we state that if people can’t afford to pay for basic veterinary care, they shouldn’t have pets, we are accused of being heartless and only concerned about money. If I decide to put in a swimming pool, but can’t afford a pool fence, no-one is going to subsidise the cost of that fence, even though children’s lives are at risk without it. No-one expects the pool fence man to provide his services at or below cost as a community service to prevent children drowning. However, veterinarians are regularly asked and expected to further discount an already heavily discounted procedure in order to save puppies and kittens from being euthanased in animal shelters. At the 2nd National Summit to End Pet Overpopulation, held in 2007, there was a comment from the floor: “The vets are no help because they insist on charging for desexing.”

Two years ago, I stopped to consider why I was discounting surgical sterilisation. I decided that if I really wanted the discount to be an effective deterrent to casual breeding of dogs and cats, I should only discount the procedure if it was done before the animal reached sexual maturity. To save any arguments, I decided the cut-off would be when the permanent canine teeth were completely visible.

I outlined my proposal at staff meetings. The initial reaction of veterinarians, nurses and receptionists was the same: silence, while they processed what I had proposed. The idea of NOT discounting surgical sterilisation required such a paradigm shift, it took a while before anyone knew what to say.

Once the idea sank in, the most common question was whether we would discount in a case where someone had adopted a mature animal that was still entire. Well, if that animal had chronic otitis externa, would we discount the treatment for the rest of the animal’s life? If it had Grade 4 dental disease, would we discount that treatment? Would we discount its vaccination?

Once we reassured ourselves that everything we do, we do for the benefit of the animal but only one thing do we feel obliged to discount, it was easy to draw the line at “permanent canines fully through”.

To minimise the anticipated backlash from some clients, we had a twelve month notice period. Signs were placed in the reception area and consulting rooms: “DESEX BEFORE THE PRICE RISE”. Information sheets explaining our decision were available from the receptionists. Two months prior to No-D(iscount) Day we sent letters to all owners of entire animals that had visited in the last three years. One month prior to No-D Day, our surgery schedule was filling up. We decided that anyone who phoned to book-in prior to close of business on No-D Day would get the discount as long as they took the first available appointment. We filled up another two weeks.

So twelve months later, how is it going? There were grumbles from some clients but it took about two months to get a significant backlash. How could we justify $700 for a bitch spey when a practice in Adelaide was quoting $80? Well, better they lose money than me! Problems really started when the local radio station picked up the story and gave every whinger in town a platform to air his or her grievances. Please, could someone set up another vet clinic in Alice Springs to take these clients off our hands!

Some clients were just plain ridiculous: “I hope you’re happy. You’ve just ruined Christmas for my children. Now I won’t be able to buy them any presents.” When this client came in two weeks later, in early December, the pre-surgery consultation finished with: “You are putting my children’s lives at risk. I am driving to Adelaide for Christmas and can’t afford new tyres. It will be your fault if there’s an accident.” This woman wanted to wait until February, after Christmas and the family holiday, at which point her pup would have been seven months old. We stood firm. She wasn’t happy. Apparently, it didn’t occur to her to cancel the holiday. It certainly didn’t occur to her to ask Bridgestone for a discount on the tyres, in the interest of protecting her children’s lives.

In spite of this, the negative response has actually been less than anticipated. Most clients book in for the desexing of their pet as they are paying for the final puppy or kitten vaccination.

It’s too early to tell whether our new policy has had any impact on the number of unwanted litters born in Alice Springs. It is quite likely we have just brought forward the time of desexing for those animals that would have been desexed anyway.

Had there been another practice in town, I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to risk losing clients with this policy. However, I am confident that we will not reverse this policy when another practice starts up in the Alice. Eventually I would like to stop discounting for immature animals. I’m not sure when I will be brave enough to tackle that!

Deborah Osborne

This essay was a highly commended entry in the In The Black Essay Competition for 2012.

Deborah Osborne is the owner and principal veterinarian at the Alice Springs Veterinary Hospital.

John Heath of Boehringer Ingelheim, Mark Amott of Southern Animal Referral Centre and the AVBA and Susan Halloran of In The Black judged the competition.

Visit www.avba.com.au for information about the In The Black Essay Competition for 2013.