Dr. Christy Corp-Minamiji, a veterinarian living in Northern California, wrote a particularly poignant piece for the April issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care that I want to share with those who might not have seen it.
It was a dream job, a forever job. In vet school I swore I would never practice small animal medicine or do research. I would be a large animal vet. The universe laughs when we say "never." My first job was in small animal practice, the second in research/technical services. Then after a year at home with my oldest daughter, I received the magic phone call offering me an associate position at the perfect clinic. It was an established large animal practice, about 70% equine, with just enough other species to add spice. The RVT (registered veterinary technician) had been with the practice for years, the office staff knew the clients as well as their own families, and my boss had a sense of humor.
But no job is perfect. My first truck was a stick-shift with questionable steering and a cantankerous transmission. For two years my boss and I alternated emergency call--every other night and every other weekend. The work was physically and mentally exhausting. You haven't been tired until you've floated seven sets of teeth on a spring day while eight months pregnant.
Our equine clientele filled the spectrum: We treated ponies and drafts, racehorses and Western pleasure horses, Friesians and Arabs, hunters and reiners. We visited patients in show barns and in tumbledown backyards. I learned never to equate budget with appearances: A millionaire might balk at the cost of bloodwork, yet we had one client who lived in her car so that her Social Security check could support her horse.
The ugly secret of veterinary medicine is that cost drives care. No one wants to look at this too closely--not the veterinarian for whom career is avocation but who still must pay bills, nor the client who feels the guilt of the choice between groceries and her horse's surgery. Horses are expensive. A dog or cat owner might readily afford a veterinary bill in the hundreds or even thousands. I have had equine clients turn pale at a $300 bill.
In the middle of this last decade, cost concerns faded briefly. We had eager, affluent horse owners with budgets for care, from the routine to the emergency. In 2005 our practice supported two technicians, two office staff, five DVMs, and grossed more than $1 million. By 2010 we had cut back to one office manager, one technician, and three DVMs. As feed and diesel prices rose and real estate values and salaries plummeted, the horse industry in our area fell into the abyss. I once averaged three to four prepurchase exams per week during the spring/summer. I performed two prepurchases in all of 2010. Clients with a lame horse were more likely to "kick him out to pasture" than to spend money on diagnostics or treatment beyond a few grams of Bute. Dental exams were postponed "to next spring." Clients brought horses for vaccination, asking for "just West Nile." When I pointed out that their horse was at equal risk for tetanus or equine encephalitis, not to mention rabies, I heard, "How much will that cost me?" I wanted to mention that rendering is more expensive than vaccination and did just that once or twice. But ultimately, arguments about the long-term costs of skimping on preventive care were ineffective.
Nothing made a dent. As I write this, it is the middle of goodbye. Our 33-year-old clinic closes in a few weeks. The decrease in revenue proved too drastic to sustain the practice. Clients ask, "What are we going to do when we need a vet?" I don't ask, "Where were you when we needed clients?" Each horse I vaccinate, each float, brings me closer to the last. I won't continue in clinical veterinary medicine. There are few jobs in the area and I haven't the resources to begin my own practice. But, money aside, I leave with the scars of a broken hand and the less visible scars of a broken heart. I never told my clients the thing I wish every owner knew, that when the veterinarian tallies the bill she isn't looking to rob a wallet, she is signing a love letter to the animals in her care and to the people whose passion for those animals makes the job more than a job.
How has the economy affected you, horse owners around you, and your area equine veterinarians? What have your experiences been in efforts to "penny pinch" during this time?