When Surgery is Required, Your Pet Depends on You

By Tom Lloyd

Choosing your own doctor, regardless of how you feel about Obamacare, can be tough. Choosing the right doctor for your pet, however, can be even tougher and if your animal suddenly needs surgery, that selection process can quickly become a nightmare.

It really doesn’t matter what type of animal shares your life. The fact is that our pets rely on us to make these decisions. Canine or feline, the bottom line is that we’re the ones with the credit card.

My dog, Gentle Ben, recently injured his right knee and needed anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery. Some of the most popular dog breeds in the country are genetically predisposed to ACL injuries. Labradors, golden retrievers, German shepherds, poodles and even bichon frises lead that list with Rottweilers close behind. Since Ben is a rottie, I started searching for surgeons right away.

Two things quickly became clear to me.

First, to paraphrase George Orwell, while all ACL surgeons may have been created equal, some have apparently become far more equal than others. That is, they charge up to five times more than their colleagues.

Second, I realized my credit card was in for a serious workout.

Speaking with seven different vets resulted in seven different diagnoses and seven disparate cost estimates. Five of the seven presented me bills of about $50 for the three minutes they spent examining Ben’s knee and looking at the X-rays I’d brought with me.

The fur can really start to fly when the relative merits of three different procedures are debated, but the more I learned, the more I started to favor the lateral suture stabilization (LSS) procedure for Ben. There was one simple reason.
Ben had torn his left ACL five years earlier and had the LSS procedure then. I’m no Euclid, but I worried that either of the “geometry-changing” surgeries (TPLO or TTA) might have risks above and beyond the drilling, bone sawing and mechanical implants. Changing the geometry of Ben’s right leg, I reasoned, might change the geometry of the whole dog. That is to say, I feared a mechanical rebuild of Ben’s right leg might put too much pressure on the monofilament cord in his previously repaired left knee. Not a single vet I spoke with was able to show me it wouldn’t.

Still, no matter which way you slice it (pun intended), surgeries of any kind have become something of a cash cow for the veterinary community. Those three-minute exams that billed out at $16.67 a minute or just over $1,000 an hour, were pure chump change compared to surgery. Depending on which doctor you choose, prices for an ACL surgery can range anywhere from $1,200 to well over $6,000. In other words, a procedure that takes about 45 minutes to perform, bills at between $26 and $133 a minute or $1,560 to almost $8,000 an hour.

Because of this, veterinary surgical specialists groups have sprung up all across the country that do nothing but ACL procedures all day, every day. Each specialist can, in theory, generate well over $100,000 a week or nearly $5 million a year in revenue for the practice. So the pressure to funnel you into one surgery or another is high. Just how high a priority your animal’s well-being ranks in such a setting is open to some debate and requires serious research on your part, asking a lot of questions and relying on your own intuition.

In my search two vets stood out from the pack: Dr. John Wight at Veterinary Surgery Service and Dr. Ron Stone at Veterinary Trauma Center. Both had experience with large dogs. (What’s good for the goose may well be good for the gander, but what’s right for a seven-pound Yorkshire terrier probably isn’t going to translate well to a 110-pound Rottweiler.)

Both vets were willing to go into details, explain the various procedures and both asked multiple questions about Ben’s history, personality and exercise habits. I felt they cared. Incidentally, they were also the only two vets who did not charge me for their consultations.

While they were not the least expensive, they were nowhere near the $6,000 level. They were, however, the only two who made a point of saying their prices were all-inclusive. That is, pain medications, antibiotics, removal of sutures and everything else would be included in the numbers they gave me. That was significant to me. Ben’s former vet was infamous in my eyes for quoting one price and then adding hundreds of dollars for medications and assorted other fees onto the bill. As a retiree, I need to know up front what’s going onto that credit card.

Call it anthropomorphizing — attributing human characteristics to an animal – but I knew that if I were about to undergo major knee surgery, I would expect to receive post-operative physical therapy. Why shouldn’t Ben? Dr. Stone was the only vet I spoke to who included post-op physical therapy sessions in his quote.

Two weeks ago Ben had his surgery. Today he is already walking well and putting more and more weight on his right leg. His stitches and staples have been removed and he has had his first physical therapy session.

The decisions made weren’t easy, but having taken some time to research the procedures, meet the various vets, compare their services, online reviews and prices, made it easier. Ben was relying on me.

Ben is now doing so well he may be free to hit the local dog parks in three more weeks and resume his normal athletic life again.

I can’t even begin to put a price on that.

Tom Lloyd spent the past 35 years writing for newspapers and magazines in the Mid-Atlantic region. A longtime resident of Berlin and Ocean City, MD, he is now living in Florida but says he’s looking for a way to get back to the Eastern Shore.

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