What price would you pay to keep the family pet healthy?
The sky's the limit, say America's veterinarians, who are providing the increasingly extensive — and expensive — services to meet the growing demand.
And it's those sweet, sweet profits that have attracted candy maker Mars to the industry. The food giant recently acquired animal hospital chain VCA Inc., expanding its veterinary portfolio, which already includes Banfield Pet Hospital and BluePearl Veterinary Partners, by another 800 locations to a total of 1,700.
Another reason for the uptick in kitty care and puppy pandering? Animals have become a much closer part of their owners' lives over the past 30 years.
Pets Are People, Too
The pet veterinary industry was once an offshoot of livestock care. Today, an overwhelming majority of owners, 98 percent, say they consider their pets as "family members or companions," compared to 2 percent who still consider them "property," according to a recent survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
And, as we treat pets emotionally more like people, we're also doing so medically. Technology first developed for people is now being used on pets.
In today's world, you can treat a dog for depression. You can give a cat a CAT scan. Pet clinics are buying used MRI machines from traditional hospitals. There's even underwater therapy for cats and dogs to treat arthritis and injury.
But the more advanced procedures and increased diagnostics also are also bumping up bills.
Consumer spending on veterinary care rose from $4.9 billion in 1991 to $35 billion in 2015, according to Bloomberg -- more than triple the rate of inflation. (The AVMA did not respond to an NBC News request for comment).
No Expense Spared
It seems pet owners will pay almost any price for the best care for their beloved animal friends. According to the organization's press release, "AVMA research has not found evidence of price sensitivity among most pet owners."
No wonder big money is moving in.
But with consolidation comes controversy. Prior to Mars' acquisition, complaints had racked up online against individual Banfield hospitals, accusing them of upselling and poor care.
So we decided to see for ourselves.
A Visit to the Vet
NBC News' Jo Ling Kent followed Ileah Branning and her dog Finley, a chocolate red nosed pit-bull, on two price comparison visits. NBC News covered the costs of their visits.
One was to the independently run McGee Street Animal Hospital in Norman, Oklahoma. The other was to a Banfield clinic inside a nearby PetSmart. (Note that prices can vary depending on the type of veterinary facility and by region, and the two we found aren't necessarily representative of the entire industry).
The vets at McGee Street suggested Finley get an annual exam plus several vaccines, including rabies, heartworm, and lepto for a total of $153.
"They just explained everything, gave me price sheets and did not make me feel obligated at all today," said Branning.
Next up, the clinic inside PetSmart.
They recommended Branning should sign up for a $300 yearly subscription program that includes vaccines, unlimited office visits, extra bloodwork and a 10-20 percent discount at Banfield services not included in the plan.
"They were pushing a lot for getting vaccinations today," said Branning.
The price for a spaying was also higher at PetSmart: $435. The local vet? $380.
In a statement, Banfield said its spay and neuter pricing includes the cost of additional diagnostics which are "in alignment with professional organization guidelines and standards," and "mitigate the risk of surgical and anesthetic complications."
"We deeply believe preventive care is critical to the health of a pet," said the company of its wellness plans program, calling it "an affordable and accessible option for pet owners."
When asked about the price difference we saw, Logan Jordan, an expert in veterinary management at Purdue University, said, "One reason they might be more expensive is [they might have protocols in place to] require more testing, and maybe even tests that would be too difficult for a smaller practice to perform."
"You have choice and you can decline tests and ask questions about those tests," he added.
Tips for Selecting a Vet
It's all about picking the right place for your pet. Experts recommend following these tips:
1. Pick a place in this order of criteria: recommendations from friends and family, online reviews, license searches on the state board website, and emergency services offered. Lastly, price.
2. Make sure you're comparing the same kind of facilities. A vet office in operation for 35 years isn't the same as a new practice which might offer more services and hours, but also cost more.
3. Know that recurring "wellness plans" can be more expensive in the long run than as-needed services. Weigh the costs and benefits.
The key is do your research ahead of time -- before your animal friend needs care.
"The worst time to make a decision is when you're in an emotional state and not thinking clearly and are eager to do whatever it takes to save the life of your animal and keep it healthy," said Chris Green, executive director of the Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School.
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