If you are on benefits (including working tax credit and pension credit) you are eligible to use our low-cost animal clinic in Cambridge if you cannot afford a private vet.
It appears that a proportion of the public do not understand that the RSPCA and other animal charities are not able to fund free or cheap veterinary treatment for all pet animals. This means they don't make provision through pet insurance or other means to ensure that they can pay for veterinary treatment when their pets are suddenly ill or injured. We are receiving increasing numbers of calls for help from owners who don't expect to have to pay anything towards emergency treatment for their animals. We're also receiving requests for help from people who don't understand that we can only help owners who genuinely are on very low income. A selection of hostile reviews of the similar service provided by the PDSA illustrate the nature of the problem.
Increasing numbers of owners who are on a low income and eligible to attend our clinic are unable or unwilling to pay for treatment there even though charges are typically less than 30% of what they would pay at a private vet.
If we agree to waive charges for the owners who claim that they cannot afford to pay there is a risk that everyone will decide to refuse payment and it will become impossible to continue to run the clinic. There may be some situations where there are good reasons for treating an owner differently (for example if we know they have already exhausted all their funds at a private vet), but we dare not treat people as exceptions simply because they say so.
The most expensive operation likely to be done at the clinic is fracture repair on a large dog. Typically this might be about £500: a saving of £1500 compared with private treatment, but still a lot of money for someone to find if they are on benefit of around £70 per week. Usually in this situation the University Vet School, who do our operations at a reduced rate, would require £250 payment at the time of the operation as evidence that the owner would make an effort to find the remaining half later.
Many users of the RSPCA clinic and members of the public who phone asking for emergency help at private vets have more than one animal and it's also common for them to have large dogs. Sometimes these are pedigree animals who must originally have cost substantial amounts of money (a King Charles spaniel pup sells for about £400), although some of the pedigree animals have been obtained "second-hand" e.g. because the original owner could not house-train the dog. It's evident that most of these owners have no idea how expensive emergency veterinary treatment can be, and they are not realistic about the amount of help that it's possible for us to give - for example most vets now have an out-of-hours surcharge of around £70 if an animal has to be seen in the evening or on a Sunday, which means that our standard maximum help of £50 would be used up before any treatment had been given at all.
The pet owners who ask for our help clearly do have some money in most cases - dogs like a mastiff are not cheap to feed, even if the current owner did not originally pay the normal purchase price! We need to get them to a more realistic understanding that a head in the sand attitude to keeping up vaccinations and being able to deal with unexpected emergencies will almost inevitably end with the heartache of a dead pet.
As an example of the scale of the problem we face: we recently had two requests for help with bitches requiring caesarian operations in a single afternoon. In both cases the owners claimed to have no money at all and neither bitch was registered with the clinic, so they were not eligible for the emergency out of hours arrangement with the University Vet School. An emergency caesarian at a private vet costs in the region of £600. There is just no way we could find this amount of money every day. Even if we were subsidized by the national society, instead of depending on the money we raise locally, it would still be impossible to fund this level of expenditure because, scaled up over the whole country, it would come to £64 million p.a. - two-thirds of the entire budget of the national society!
Some people on very low incomes genuinely have great difficulty finding money "up front" in an emergency because they have bank accounts which don't provide either cheques or cards - so they have no way to get hold of their money if an animal is suddenly in need of emergency treatment outside normal working hours
We pay Cambridge University Vet School a flat-rate fee to provide staff for our clinic. This means that it would not improve the clinic's financial situation if we were to alter our present policy of accepting Working Tax Credit as proof of low income and required anyone who was on low income but in work to pay to use a private vet as this would reduce our income from fees without reducing our expenditure. However, clinic users who are on WTC can reasonably be expected to pay our fees without any further adjustments.
Some charities (for example the PDSA) restrict their help to one animal per household. The argument in favour of this is that it enforces owner responsibility if they are required to pay the full cost of treatment for additional animals they have chosen to take on. We would be very reluctant to go down this path for four reasons:
Flow chart showing how requests for veterinary assistance are handled by the branch.
Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) guide to vets on fee-related matters. Note that they state, "If the client does not fall within the almoning rules of local charities, and no other form of financial assistance can be found, euthanasia may have to be considered on economic grounds."