December 7, 2023

For immediate release
Johannesburg, 12 September 2023

Don’t skimp on veterinary care, warn South African vets as animal owners feel the financial pinch


As cash-strapped South Africans cut back on perceived luxuries such as veterinary care, local veterinary and para-veterinary professionals have urged pet and animal owners to explore other options such as insurance and preventative care to make looking after their “best friends” more affordable.

The South African Veterinary Council (SAVC) echoes this call to ensure responsible pet ownership in a time of economic hardship – and hopes to create awareness around the valuable role veterinary and para-veterinary professionals play in the healthcare chain.

“No one is disputing the fact that veterinary care is expensive,” says Dr Greg Irvine-Smith, a specialist surgeon at a Johannesburg veterinary hospital and a representative of companion animals on the SAVC’s Specialisation Committee.

“But owning a pet is a privilege and a responsibility. So, when you take on that animal, you’re taking on that responsibility, and you have a duty of care to them.”

He says while top-class veterinary care can be expensive in South Africa, our local vets deliver value for money compared to similar procedures elsewhere in the world at triple or quadruple the cost.

Adds Dr Brendan Tindall, SAVC vice-president and the owner of a veterinary clinic on the Garden Route, “There is a perception that healthcare for pets is really expensive. And I don’t think the perception is incorrect. We would love to be able to do things for a lot cheaper, but our baseline cost as practitioners is extremely high.”

The cost of qualifying and practising as a vet is soaring – from the premises and salaries to medicines, medical supplies and millions of rands worth of sophisticated equipment, much of which has to be imported at an unfavourable exchange rate.

These escalating input costs, which are passed on to the public to keep a practice sustainable, mean that many South Africans are struggling to afford veterinary care.

“The average veterinarian is not only just a general practitioner but is also an anaesthetist, pathologist, radiologist, surgeon and gynaecologist. Not only is that really demanding on the person, but it’s also demanding from a financial point of view,” says Dr Tindall.

He says it’s a sensitive issue because people demand the best service – but high-quality care unavoidably comes with a price tag.

Medical insurance – a grudge purchase that gives you peace of mind

Taking out medical insurance for your animals can help prevent “bill shock”. “Insurance is one of those necessary evils; it gives you that peace of mind and if the time comes when you have to fork out a large lump sum, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief,” says Dr Tindall.

He says it makes a vet’s life so much easier when he or she can run the tests the patient needs and be able to make an accurate diagnosis without fear of compromising on care.

“At the end of the day, it’s hugely beneficial to the patient and it’s more cost-effective to the owner. Because if you can’t afford an expensive procedure, your pet ultimately suffers, as the veterinarian will probably not be able to make a definitive diagnosis.”

However, it’s important to read the fine print because “when it comes to crunch time and you claim, some policies don’t deliver. Investigate properly what you’re paying for and what you’re going to get.”

No cutting corners with specialist care

Dr Irvine-Smith says that while the veterinary hospital he works at deals with everything from spinal surgery to arthroscopy and ligament reconstruction, which are expensive specialised procedures, animal owners should focus on primary and preventative healthcare to lower the risk of expensive surgery down the line.

This includes taking animals for regular check-ups, vaccinations and deworming, looking after their diet and ensuring they lead a healthy lifestyle. Just like with humans, prevention is better – and cheaper – than cure.

“It’s important to educate the public about what top-class veterinary care means and what it costs,” says Dr Irvine-Smith.

To spay an animal, for example, requires a dedicated operating theatre staffed by a professional vet and nurse, kitted with sterile gowns, gloves, masks and caps, and with equipment to administer anaesthetic and monitor blood pressure and other metrics. Done properly, it’s not a cheap procedure – you can’t cut corners. If the spay is offered at too “good” a price, it is time to start asking questions.

“While I sympathise with the public because times are tough, to provide that level of care costs money,” he says.

Vet physios – more than a ‘nice-to-have’ add-on

According to veterinary physiotherapist and SAVC councillor Jessica Mousley, who runs her own para-veterinary practice caring mostly for small animals and horses, clients are definitely cutting corners.

“They get necessary surgery done on their animals, but often see physiotherapy as a nice-to-have add-on. They book less-frequent physio sessions or, when they start to see some progress, they say, ‘You’ve got us started – we’ll take it from here.’”

She says to save on costs, some clients try to bypass veterinarians and go straight to the veterinary physiotherapist: “The best care your pet or your animal can get is when the whole veterinary healthcare team is able to work together and utilise the specific skills that each profession has – that’s when you get optimal results and the quickest recovery.”

Labour of love for true animal lovers

Says Dr Tindall, “The bottom line is that running any practice to uphold quality veterinary and para-veterinary standards comes at a cost. Currently, the rate of bad debt is something that I think every practice owner has nightmares about.”

All three professionals go out of their way to accommodate clients who are feeling the pinch – often to their own financial detriment. Frequently, they are subjected to emotional blackmail, and are accused of not caring about animals and just being in it “for the money”.

Given such stresses, why do they persist? For Mousley, it’s a labour of love. “Our end goal – and I think it’s the same for anyone in the veterinary professions – is that we want the best for the pet,” she says.


December 7, 2023

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