Understanding & Managing the Rising Costs of Equine Veterinary Care


This article discusses a topic critical to most horse owners and addresses a subject that I deal with on a daily basis – the cost of providing quality equine veterinary care.  This is a subject not often discussed frankly in this profession.  Both horse owners and veterinarians find it uncomfortable to address.  No doubt, any service provided by modern and well-equipped equine veterinarians is costly.  From routine care to an unanticipated crisis, costs can be surprisingly high.  How can you, the horse owner, obtain the very best veterinary care for your horse, yet not be financially overwhelmed?   The answer lies first and foremost in educating yourself and maintaining a good working relationship and communication with your equine veterinarian.  As discussed below, these points go hand in hand.


The overhead costs associated with running a full service equine veterinary facility are higher than for small animal practices and rise each year.  To maintain a viable business, equine veterinarians must pass these costs on to clients.  In part, veterinary charges for horses are much higher than those for small animals simply because of their size.  The same amount of medicine necessary for effective treatment of a small animal must be multiplied on a scale of 10 to more than 100 times for an effective dosage in a horse.  Likewise, the facilities needed must also be much larger.  Equine veterinarians that offer full-service care must invest in real estate large enough to host a hospital and associated structures, including stalls, round pens, turnouts, and more.

As for any small business, the basic operating cost of doing business (overhead) is high for veterinary practice and continues to increase.  Equine veterinary practice has especially high overhead.  Relatively large inventory, higher rates of liability insurance, utility expenses for complex and large facilities, fuel and maintenance costs for mobile units, specialized staffing, and all other costs are high and continue to increase.  Dedicated, highly trained equine professionals are hard to find and demand higher wages for their higher level of training, commitment and professionalism.

Of importance is the increasing specialization in equine veterinary care.  The trend is towards specialty equine practice that requires costly equipment, facilities, techniques and support staff. Equine dentistry, surgery, anesthesia, radiography, and ultrasound have all reached new levels of sophistication in private practice, and new levels of cost.  Highly sophisticated and costly MRI, nuclear medicine, and other specialties are becoming increasingly common in private practice.  While all of these advances mean more options for horse care, they also account for greatly increased cost.  This trend toward specialized and expensive services in private practice is driven to a great extent by better informed horse owners that demand the best health care for their horses.

Drugs purchased through your equine veterinarian are typically more expensive than those purchased through veterinary supply catalogs.  This difference relates to the costs of inventory, labor, administrative costs and quality control, which are relatively much higher than for a large supply company.  A responsible equine veterinarian is constantly trying to maintain a delicate balance by anticipating his or her client’s needs, keeping certain drugs available for immediate dispensation, yet trying to keeping the overhead cost for unused inventory at a manageable level.  Several real advantages in buying products from your veterinarian are convenience and 24-hour support and consultation.  Likewise, emergency services provided by equine veterinarians reflect the fact that being available 24/7/365 requires major lifestyle compromises that require appropriate compensation.


Given these high and rising costs, what can you do to control the cost of keeping your horse healthy and performing at a high level?

1. Educate Yourself.  The single greatest reason for clients to spend excessively on their horse is lack of knowledge and preparation.  Your equine veterinarian can help you choose the right products and services and can direct you toward reliable educational resources.  In a complex world of expensive "miracle" supplements and bogus claims, your veterinarian can guide you in basic care, preventative medicine, and the health care that your horse really requires.  Many expensive equine products actually have no benefit and some may even be harmful. View these products with a critical eye and when in doubt, ask your veterinarian for advice.

2. Provide Good Basic Care.  Invest in the basics, including a clean and safe environment, proper fencing, shelter, turnouts, quality hay and grain, water, and hoof care.  I can’t tell you how often complicated and expensive health care issues arise simply because good basic care has not been provided.

3. Routine & Preventative Care.  Make sure that your veterinarian sees your horse twice a year for spring and fall work.  In addition to vaccinating your horse, your veterinarian will perform a dental exam and dentistry (if needed), and will become familiar with your horse in health.  It is important that your veterinarian know your horse in health, so he or she can better evaluate your horse when a health care issue arises.

4. Communication.  Establish good communication with your equine veterinarian early on.   Always promptly call if your horse has received treatment and is not responding or is doing poorly.  A minor adjustment in treatment may be all that is needed to turn things in the right direction.

5. Diagnosis is Key. When your horse develops a health care problem, prompt consultation with a knowledgeable professional for a diagnosis is often much less expensive than purchasing expensive supplements or utilizing alternative therapies without first trying to determine what is causing the problem.

6. Act Quickly.  Contact your equine veterinarian the moment you notice a problem.  They can help you determine whether examination is necessary.  If you don't call, your horse may improve on its own, but the problem may also progress or worsen.  This gamble could increase the final veterinary bill and the hope for a good prognosis could decline.  Call your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your horse has colic, choke, foaling problems, eye problems, severe lameness, and wounds located near joints or that seem otherwise complicated or deep.  With early veterinary contact, many of these problems can be successfully managed with a simple phone call or simple treatments rather than life saving, expensive heroics later on.

7. Options & Estimates.  There is rarely a single solution to an equine health care problem.  Ask your veterinarian for different treatment options and an estimate for the associated cost of each.   Although expensive treatments exist and are becoming more and more available, they are not necessarily the best option in all circumstances.  One of our most important jobs is to inform our clients of the range of options available to them and the costs and benefits of these options.  It can be difficult to make these economic decisions in the moment of crisis and I encourage horse owners to consider their general approach to this question before such a moment arrives.  See my article "Colic Surgery: What Horse Owner's Should Know," which encourages horse owners to consider what they would do when faced with this difficult decision beforehand. 

8. Clinic Calls vs. Farm Calls.  Transporting your horse to an equine veterinary facility is much less costly than a farm call, which includes the veterinarian’s driving time, vehicle mileage and the ever-increasing cost of fuel.  If you don’t have a trailer, make a friend with someone who does.  Specialized services can be more easily and less expensively delivered at a well-equipped clinic.

9. Equine Medical & Mortality Insurance. There are a number of insurance companies that provide equine insurance, which can be a lifesaver in a moment of crisis.

10. Specialized Financing.  Carecredit is a line of credit for health care expenses that can be used for veterinary expenses.  Given how difficult it is for veterinary practices to "float" their clients, we encourage horse owners to consider this financing instead.  You can apply for a line of credit at the time it is needed or beforehand.  Nevertheless, it is important to fully understand the terms of repayment and compare the fees, penalties (especially for late payments), and interest rate to your other available funding sources.  See www.carecredit.com for more details.


Horse ownership is expensive and proper veterinary care accounts for a significant percentage of that expense.  Ultimately, the relationship you have with your equine veterinarian will guide you and your horse down a balanced path.  Use your equine veterinarian as a sounding board to help you determine the level of care you are comfortable with, and discuss the costs of these services frankly and openly.

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Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP