One of the last things most people think about when they bring home a new pet is the cost of vaccinations, but any long-time pet owner knows that yearly boosters can add up, especially if you have more than one animal.
When you get the bill after a routine visit to the veterinarian, it’s easy to wonder where exactly the total came from. There are a lot of factors that go into determining that final bill, and several things to consider as you decide where to take your pet for his or her yearly shots.
Vaccines for Dogs and Cats
First, what is a vaccine? According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals:
“Vaccines help prepare the body's immune system to fight the invasion of disease-causing organisms. Vaccines contain antigens, which look like the disease-causing organism to the immune system but don't actually cause disease. When the vaccine is introduced to the body, the immune system is mildly stimulated. If a dog is ever exposed to the real disease, his immune system is now prepared to recognize and fight it off entirely or reduce the severity of the illness.”
A pet’s vaccine requirements depend on his or her age and region of residence. As with young children, puppies and kittens need a few rounds of vaccines to jumpstart their immunity with boosters every year or every few years afterward.
The core vaccinations according to the American Animal Hospital Association (those that don’t change from one region to another) for dogs include:
Non-core vaccines are given based on a dog’s exposure risk and could include:
- Borrelia burgdorferi
For cats, the American Association of Feline Practitioners says core vaccines include those against:
- Feline leukemia
Veterinarians may also recommend vaccines against distemper and feline infectious peritonitis.
“Some people with indoor cats opt for less vaccines; some people don’t care and want to protect their cat no matter what,” said Dr. Andy McCord, veterinarian at Gainesway Small Animal Clinic in Lexington, Ky.
If your pet spends a significant portion of time outdoors, recommendations for those boosters could change, depending on disease prevalence in the area.
“We just recently had cases of rabies starting to break through in raccoons here in Colorado. Unless you’re paying attention to that, you don’t realize that we potentially have a rabies problem here,” said Dr. Rebecca Ruch-Gallie, service chief for Community Practice at Colorado State University. “I think part of the reason people don’t vaccinate is because they don’t know that an animal needs a particular thing."
Cost of Pet Vaccines
Some practices charge per shot, while others bundle vaccinations into packages.
McCord’s practice charges between $20 and $40 depending on the expense of the shot to the clinic. Colorado State is required by its mandate to remain competitive with area private clinics, so Ruch-Gallie keeps track of what pet owners in her area are being charged. Nearby low-cost clinics often charge $10 to $15 per shot, while private practices charge $15 to $28 per shot plus a $30 to $50 examination fee.
Still others, like Colorado State’s clinic, offer clients the chance to pay one rate for multiple prevention services including annual exam, pre-vaccination exam, mid-year exam, dewormer, a fecal flotation test, a heartworm test, and an FLV/FIV test for kittens. If an animal is not due for a given booster or test in a certain year, the practice will swap out that service for screening blood work instead. The prevention package is $160.
“We just recently raised the price on it to include the heartworm and FLV/FIV test because we feel those tests are important, and we still have a lot of people sign up for that and take advantage of that one price fits all,” Ruch-Gallie said.
Along with getting their shots at a veterinary clinic, a puppy or kitten should get a medical exam as their health needs change as they grow older.
How Pet Vaccine Costs are Determined
Experts say the tradeoff of using a high-quality (read: highly-regulated) vaccine is that it has become more and more expensive for vaccine makers to jump through the necessary regulatory hoops to get a new or updated product on the market. Pharmaceutical companies pass that cost on to veterinary clinics, and they sometimes have to pass it on to their clients.
In McCord’s practice, vaccine prices have increased over the past several years. One thing that has changed is the configuration of some vaccines. Vaccines like the five-way for cats that include protection against five different illnesses in one needle. Combined vaccines like these pack a bigger price punch than a single vaccine, but many owners believe it’s kinder to the animal than giving multiple injections.
Some clinics also prefer longer-acting protection now available. Rabies vaccines are now available with one- or three-year protection. Although a pet will still need to come back to the clinic for other shots only available in annual formats, a longer-term shot does eliminate one more needle stick at the next visit.
McCord also said that in his 15 years of practice, the formulas of the fluids in the vaccine vial have improved dramatically. At one point, it was not uncommon for cats to develop tumors at the injection site of certain vaccines, and McCord said the drug companies have improved their product to the point that these are now very rare. Those improvements of course, have also come at a price.
Ruch-Gallie added that the federal regulations a vaccine company must meet to market a vaccine have gotten significantly more complicated and more expensive in the past several years.
McCord sees prices of vaccines to his clinic rise, typically about 2 or 3 percent per year.
Low-cost clinics, while convenient, may not have the latest vaccine formulations, which can put your pet at risk.
Low Cost Vaccines
Low-cost vaccination clinics are becoming more and more common these days, but while it may sound good to get a discount, experts say there are trade-offs to that lower price.
For one thing, a low-cost clinic may not be paying for the most up-to-date formulation of vaccine available. McCord does not believe that products used at the clinics are unsafe, but it’s possible they’re not the most up-to-date formulations, which could mean they aren’t able to trigger as strong an immune response as newer, more expensive shots.
The other advantage to taking a pet to a full-service clinic is the extras. Many owners will bring a pet in for a routine round of vaccines, and while the pet is on the exam table, take the chance to ask about a new behavior or other health question. It’s a good opportunity for a complete physical exam, even if the owner hasn’t noticed anything wrong with the pet. Although a full examination does add to the cost of the visit, it can mean the difference between catching a health issue in early stages and letting it progress. An examination is especially crucial for puppies and kittens, whose health status may be changing from week to week.
“It’s a medical procedure, and it’s not without its risks, so we feel we need to do a physical exam, get a thorough history from the owner and make sure that animal is healthy enough at that visit to administer the vaccine,” Ruch-Gallie said.
McCord believes that low-cost clinics do have their place in the veterinary world, even though some practitioners are skeptical of them. For one thing, they provide an outlet for struggling recent veterinary school graduates to get experience and begin paying off their school debt. For another, the clinics can ensure that pet owners can provide for their animals, even if they fall on hard times.
“They have a purpose and they serve a clientele that needs some help,” he said. “I’m sure they’re serving a clientele that needs it and appreciates it. They do a good thing in that respect, but you do wonder how they keep their costs down.”