Yorkshire vet Julian Norton's frustrations with profession brought to fore by Labrador bill

Gemma the Labrador came off worse in the skirmish that occurred on her Sunday morning walk. What was described over the telephone as a small gash on her shoulder turned out to be a large gash that would need stitching.

Gemma the Labrador needed close attention after a bite. Picture by Julian Norton.

The teeth of Gemma’s usually best friend had left a flap of skin that I would need to debride to give the wound a decent chance of healing. Dog bite injuries tend to be complicated by squashed, bruised and devitalised tissue, so they need to be treated correctly.

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I explained to her owners that surgery would be required and what was involved. By coincidence, Gemma’s injury was almost identical to the one sustained by my cousin’s Labrador the previous weekend, while my cousin was away (meeting up with us) and her daughter was in charge.

Gemma the Labrador needed close attention after a bite. Picture by Julian Norton.

She had messaged me about the dog’s treatment and, more contentiously, the size and extent of the invoice, which ran to two sides of A4.

But for now, the Labrador in front of me was my priority. I sedated her, clipped and cleaned the wound and injected some local anaesthetic before debriding the damaged skin and putting in some sutures. I injected her with antibiotics and pain relief and took a few moments to admire a tidy, clean wound before a phone to call her owners.

As I typed the details into the computer, I scrolled back through the messages on my phone to the photo of the bill for my cousin’s dog. It was nearly five times the amount I had charged for Gemma and full of extras: 1x Dog GA (obviously not an extra), 1x emergency operation surcharge (I didn’t have this on my bill), 1x Suture wound dog moderate (more than twice as much as mine), 7x additional 10 minutes (70 minutes in addition to the suturing wound time).

There were others too, 1x surgical instrumentation, 3x suture materials, 1x surgical cap, 1x surgical gown, 1x surgical drape, 1x flush wound major.

It raises an interesting point. Vets are skilled professionals and our salary should reflect this. At the moment there is a huge exodus of vets from the profession. Poor pay, long hours and disillusionment with the corporate takeover of the profession are just some of the contributing factors.

I have just worked three nights on call and over a weekend, going straight into a full week including two nights on duty. The finances of mixed practice do not allow for sufficient veterinary staff to enable everyone to have Monday and Tuesday off after a weekend on call. So, maybe practices like the one where I work should be charging more?

But adding surcharges to a bill for items and procedures that are integral to the process is like adding a washing up surcharge to a restaurant bill.

The bill of nearly five times my own came from one of the largest veterinary groups in the country, where surely at least some economies of scale should be passed to the clients, rather than to the CEOs with large watches.

The Labrador gets similar treatment, but the credit card of the owner takes the extra hit, or the insurance companies, who must be feeling squeezed, if not to say ripped off.

Their response? Premiums go up, excesses rise and co-payments are added making insurance unaffordable. And for many, without insurance, these veterinary fees are also unaffordable.

Meanwhile, the veterinary governing bodies sit on their hands oblivious to (or choosing to ignore) the huge disparity in fees between practices. Sadly, it does little to promote the image of veterinary practice to the general public.