Davida Marantz got an unwelcome surprise when she got out of hospital in 2014 and went to pick up her beloved Sheltie Libby from friends.
The dog needed $4,800 dollars in dental surgery while the Edmonton senior was gone, an amount she felt obligated to pay back.
“They were so generous in taking her and caring for her and doing a really fine job that there’s no way I would leave the dog with them and the bill with them,” says Marantz, 70.
But when she checked with other clinics after paying the bill, she found that the surgery could have been done for thousands of dollars less.
That’s why she applauds legislation introduced last week by the Alberta government that cracks down on the way veterinarians communicate their fees.
If passed, veterinarians will be required to disclose their fees up front and get customer approval before any procedures are performed. They will also be allowed to advertise what they charge, something currently prohibited.
“Seniors are so vulnerable because they have these very strong ties to these animals,” Marantz says. “Some clinics may prey on that emotional bond.”
The deputy registrar for the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association is disappointed with the proposed law.
“All procedures that are undertaken by veterinarians are already being done with the authorization of their clients,” says Dr. Phil Buote. “We see this as unnecessary and inappropriate to have this kind of intrusion or overeach into legislation for a self-governing profession.”
Buote says veterinary practices are allowed to set their own fees because they are private businesses and there are no government subsidies.
Stephanie McLean, the minister of Service Alberta, says the majority of veterinarians are “good and trustworthy,” but she says posting their fees and ensuring customers give approval is important.
“Sometimes people have to make the really heart-wrenching choice of putting that animal down or giving it up for adoption because they get slammed with a bill they were completely surprised by,” McLean says.
“It’s a particularly vulnerable situation for folks. There’s a lot of emotions involved if you’re talking about a family member — even a fluffy family member.”
That’s a situation Sara Courtepatte and her husband faced seven years ago after their cat swallowed a sewing needle.
She says she was charged $300 for an X-ray and was told surgery would be an additional $1,200 to $1,500, which she and her husband didn’t have.
Courtepatte was told it would cost $400 to put the animal down or they could agree to another option.
“They said you give us that $400 and we’ll do the surgery and we’ll take your cat. We paid the money and never saw our cat again. It was an absolutely wretched experience,” she says.
“I remember afterwards sitting in the car crying thinking I just paid somebody to take my cat away. What the hell just happened?”
Courtepatte now has two cats and a dog and she says she pays $300 a month for pet insurance.
She’s glad the government is making sure veterinarians have to make it clear how much care will cost.
“There’s going to be more information up front about cost and I think that would be hugely beneficial.”
Kath Oltsher, co-founder of Zoe’s Animal Rescue in Edmonton, also likes the proposed guidelines. The animal rescue takes in unwanted animals and attempts to help those with low incomes pay for the cost of veterinary care.
Oltsher says she’s had positive experiences with veterinarians who provide services to the shelter. She doesn’t want the profession to think that the changes are meant to be adversarial.
“It does come like we’re coming after you,” she says. “But I don’t know how else to make a change happen.”