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By sheer coincidence, I had my twice yearly dental cleaning on Tuesday-the same day that I took my 12 year old cat to the vet to have his teeth cleaned. The bill for my cleaning was $115.00. Karma’s was $598.01. This is not really a fair comparison because, unlike me, who white knuckled it through the scraping and polishing, Karma had to be anesthetized. For Karma there was pre –surgery blood work, an electrocardiogram, cardiac monitoring, and pain control. And he had goopy ears-my vet determined the nature of the goop and cleaned them- as service that Vicki, my dental hygienist, did not undertake in regards to my own ears. And to be fair, Karma’s teeth were much worse than mine-I brush and floss-he won’t.

While many of my friends and family would be aghast that I shelled out almost $600.00 to have my cat’s teeth cleaned, let me be clear that I do not begrudge the animal hospital a penny. Karma is a fine little pussy cat that has been a part of my life for a long time, I would not want any corners cut that would jeopardize his well being. But what I find incredibly hypocritical is that when I am in the unenviable position of taking on a veterinarian for malpractice, which occurs more often than I wish, the lawyers for those same veterinarians that are happy to collect $600 for a kitty dental, or $3,000 for a hip replacement will argue that “like it or not your honor, animals are property under the law and even if my client was negligent, poor Mrs. Jones is only entitled to the fair market value of Boots.” Vets charge like our pets are “members of the family” but when their own negligence results in their non-human patient’s death, they insist that your pet should be valued like a sofa or toaster oven and that the grieving pet owner should be entitled to replacement value only.

Karma is a rather unremarkable looking solid black cat, thousands of which await new homes in animal shelters nationwide. The average adoption fee for an adult neutered domestic shorthair cat is about $65.00. Obviously it would have been much more cost effective to replace Karma with a new cat than to have his teeth cleaned. But of course I did not even consider that option, because Karma is a unique individual with a personality of his own. There will never be another cat quite like Karma, to whom my emotional attachment motivates me to provide needed veterinary care at a price far in excess of his “fair market value.”

Veterinarians and their insurers are vehemently opposed to any legislation that would explicitly allow a pet owner to collect more than the fair market value of a negligently killed pet. They rhetorically spout a parade of future horrible that paralyzes even the most animal friendly of law makers. Malpractice premiums will soar, which of course vets must pass on to their clients, thereby pricing the average Joe right out of pet ownership. Vets will have to do all sorts of currently unneeded diagnostic tests just to cover their asses, and the courthouse steps will be clogged with greedy attorneys anxious to file frivolous suits and collect their whopping share of the astronomical verdicts to be awarded to allegedly grieving pet owners. It will be the end of the world as we know it.

For a little reality in response to “the sky is going to fall” scenario, I would point to the well measured work of a handsome young lawyer named Christopher Green, who in his last year at Harvard Law School scrutinized the veterinary community’s repeated assertion that valuing pets as more than a used sofa will cause insurance premiums to sky rocket. His research revealed that, as of 2003, the average price of basic liability coverage was $147, and for $41 more, small animal veterinarians could increase their policy limit to the highest coverage tier of $1,000,000 per claim and $3,000,000 in total annual claims. He found that the price for veterinary malpractice insurance had not risen once in over a decade, and that premiums actually dropped in each of the two prior years. According to Green, adjust for inflation and the average price of veterinary liability insurance was actually 44% lower in 2003 than in 1989. This price decrease was verified by the country’s largest veterinary liability insure, ABD Insurance.

Veterinary malpractice premiums are cheap because the handful of awards in veterinary malpractice cases have been nowhere near the available policy liability limits, and therefore insurance companies have little or no risk when issuing policies, no matter how incompetent their insured. The largest verdict in a veterinary malpractice case ever was $39,000; most are only a small fraction of that.

By dividing the average premium by the average number of clients per veterinarian, Green found that American pet owners were each paying less than 12¢ a year for their portion of veterinary malpractice insurance coverage. ABD Insurance, focusing on California, calculated exactly how much they would have to increase veterinary liability premiums if emotional damages for companion animal loss were allowed, and capped at $25,000. Each veterinarian’s annual premiums would about double, rising by $212. By dividing the predicted price increase by the average number of clients per veterinarian, each pet owner’s annual veterinary costs would increase by less than 13¢, going from less that 12¢ a year to almost a whole quarter a year. The 13¢ rise in the cost of annual veterinary care is hardly enough to price anyone out of pet ownership.

Of course that predicted 13¢ rise is with a $25,000 damage cap. Green points out that even if each veterinarian’s liability insurance premium increased to 10 times its current amount, if this increase is divided by the number of each veterinarian’s clients, it adds up to an average annual care cost increase of $1.15 per pet household. Even if veterinary liability insurance rates truly skyrocketed by 100 times their current level (an amount that is 3 times what the average human family practitioner pays for malpractice coverage), that total premium would result in a veterinary care cost increase of $11.50 per pet owning household per year.

Unfortunately, regardless of the truth, groups like the FVMA and AVMA have powerful lobbyists that have made the “premiums will sky rocket” rhetoric their mantra, and our legislators fall for it hook line and sinker. Holding veterinarians accountable for their mistakes is as popular a notion as making nun-beating an Olympic event.

Veterinarians make their living only because there is a special bond between a companion animal and his or her guardian. But for that bond, people would go get a new cat or dog rather than pay for a dental or a hip replacement or even an annual wellness exam with vaccines. And if you are going to make a living off that bond you’ve got a lot of nerve to turn around and denigrate it the moment something goes wrong.



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