Low-cost Spay/Neuter Clinics vs. Your Local Vet

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mixed breed dog in cone on leash

Over the past decade, low-cost spay and neuter clinics have dramatically increased in number; they have even placed some heat on private practice veterinarians for the local vet’s inability to compete with spay/neuters clinics’ rock bottom prices. Both sides have their strong (and loud) advocates, but what is all the fuss about?

As a veterinarian who has practiced both as a shelter veterinarian and a private practitioner, I understand both perspectives, and agree with many of them. While I largely feel that for the pet parent that can afford to do so, allowing your vet to do the spaying or neutering is the safest option and in the best interest of your pet, there are misconceptions on both sides that deserve debunking. Allow me to set straight the lies and myths that surround this subject that is so touchy with many in the animal world.

1. Low cost means low quality.

While there is usually a correlation, this just isn’t the case with every low-cost clinic and is an unwarranted generalization. Many spay-neuter clinics are heavily supported by local donations and grants to allow for surprisingly high-quality surgeries. Did you know that pharmaceutical and surgical supply companies frequently offer products to low-cost clinics to help support low-cost surgeries? These generous cost cuts and donations help keep these clinics running but private practitioners help absorb this generosity by paying full price and high mark-ups for the same goods, which takes us to myth number two.

2. Financial profit is the only reason your vet charges so much for spays and neuters.

If you had the opportunity to review a veterinary hospital’s financial statements you would see how ill rooted this lie is. In private practice, many vets typically lose money on many aspects associated with surgeries, include anesthetic drugs. Using the highest quality drugs available is important to many vets and these drugs are oftentimes the same anesthetics used in human hospitals. Quality costs when you don’t have grants and volunteers.

To Put Things in Perspective: A hysterectomy surgical fee for a woman is $30,000 to $70,000 but for your adult Rottweiler it is $200 to $500 dollars including anesthesia and post-operative care. Still think the vet’s fee is too much?

3. If you have a surgery done at a low-cost clinic, your pet has a good chance of experiencing surgical complications.

This all depends upon the veterinarians performing the surgeries and what kind of care they have access to. It is true that some shelter vets are pressured to pump out over 50 surgeries a day per vet, in which case the quality of care is bound to decrease. Imagine a small shelter trying to monitor 50 animals post-operatively and you can begin to imagine the chaos. With that said, some spay-neuter clinics focus more on quality and quantity. You simply have to find out what the clinic’s main goal is.

4. Spay and neuter clinics are out to steal veterinarians’ business.

Spay/neuter veterinarians represent a noble cause to end pet overpopulation and the needless euthanasia of healthy dogs and cats. There is plenty of room in the industry to support both general veterinarians and low-cost surgical clinics. In fact, most spay-neuter clinics don’t offer routine services that private practitioners do to try and dissipate the tension between the two groups.

It is important to remember that the differences that can occur during routine sterilization surgeries are not limited to the two distinct providers of private practitioner veterinarians versus low-cost clinics. There is great variety within each of these categories. Here are some questions to ask to find out if a veterinarian, whether in a shelter setting or private practice, is operating under the best quality surgical methods.

  • What type of maintenance anesthesia is used?

    Injectable drugs are cheaper but far less safe than inhalant anesthesia, which can be adjusted continuously throughout surgery. Recovery from inhalant anesthesia is also smoother and safer for the pet.

  • Is pre-surgical blood work required or an option?

    You would be hard pressed to find a human hospital that will perform elective surgery on you without baseline blood work.

  • Are pain medications required?

    If not, this is a red flag. Surgery is painful and there are no excuses for not prescribing pain meds.

  • How is the pet’s progress monitored before, during, and after the surgery?

    Few low-cost clinics have blood pressure and EKG monitoring available, and as a result, this is an area where private pet hospitals will typically excel over many spay-neuter clinics. This continuous monitoring helps keep complication rates low.

  • Is an IV catheter placed before surgery, and are IV fluids provided throughout surgery?

    Using IV fluids is a sign of a high quality surgery. At the minimum, I would strongly encourage pet parents to use a clinic that at least places an IV catheter for all routine surgeries. This gives the veterinary team immediate access to the patient’s blood supply should an emergency arise.

  • Will a sterile environment and supplies be used for each unique pet?

    Many low-cost surgical programs just don’t have the funds to provide their surgeons with basic sterile gowns and gloves for each surgery.

Both of these facilities have their advantages and different situations where they are more appropriate. Spay-neuter vets are focused solely on combating pet overpopulation; they continue to fill a much-needed role of providing low-cost sterilization to pet parents who could not otherwise afford it. Most spay and neuter vets would even agree that if you have the means and ability, having your pet spayed or neutered at the veterinarian you have a continued relationship with is usually the best option for your pet.

Know someone waffling between a low-cost spay-neuter clinic and a local vet? Please consider sharing this information with them. In life, we all you know you get what you pay for, and the $30 spay is rarely any different.