RSPCA Cambridge and District Branch: Policy on help with veterinary treatment costs

RSPCA Animal Clinic

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.

Reason for a policy

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:

  1. Many of the owners who ask for our help do not think ahead. Punishing one owner by refusing treatment to the "excess" animals so that these have to be put to sleep might stop that particular owner from keeping multiple animals again, but it probably wouldn't stop others acquiring more animals than they are able to pay for.
  2. A recurrent welfare problem we face is the owner who acquires many animals and cannot cope. It is absolutely essential that we don't discourage anyone who is on the verge of this from seeking our help for pet neutering, flea treatments etc.
  3. Some of the owners who contact us have serious mental health and other problems and in many of these cases their lives revolve round their animals. Reducing our support for these people would cause them great distress.
  4. The PDSA does not do any rehoming; but we do. If we were to restrict veterinary help to one animal per household, we would come under great pressure to accept the excess animals for rehoming and this would be completely impossible in our current financial situation.

What we need to get across to pet owners

  1. The RSPCA, PDSA etc. have limited funds. There is no NHS for animals. We can only help owners who genuinely can't afford to take out pet insurance and who can't get credit cards or a bank loan. Most vets won't give credit now because they have so many bad debts.
  2. Owners who are on benefits and know they wouldn't be able to afford a private vet need to register with the Cambridge RSPCA clinic before an emergency strikes. Cats, dogs and rabbits all need regular vaccinations and getting these done at the clinic ensures that the animal is registered in case of emergency.
  3. Owners who cannot afford the cost of dealing with the potential complications of pregnancy and birth must get female pets spayed. It costs just £35 to have a bitch spayed via our clinic, but could be more than £600 to have an emergency caesarian operation at a private vet.
  4. Owners need to be more realistic when taking on animals: particularly very large dogs or multiple animals. Because it isn't possible for us to provide completely free treatment they must allow a margin to pay something towards veterinary costs. It is unacceptable to acquire more and more (or larger) animals until funds only stretch to cover food.
  5. Owners need to be aware that veterinary surgeries do not work round the clock and that costs escalate if they delay seeking help until after normal working hours. This can eat up all the help we are able to give before the animal even reaches the surgery.
  6. Owners need to accept that they should pay a reasonable amount towards the cost of treatment. If this doesn't happen, we could be in a situation where the funds available will only stretch to cover the cost of putting the animal to sleep.
  7. In some cases we now allow owners to pay for their pet's treatment by installments. However, if significant numbers fail to keep up their payments this will no longer be possible.

Our policy on help with the cost of veterinary treatment

  1. The RSPCA branch will never refuse to relieve an animal's suffering: however this may mean we have to arrange for the animal to be put to sleep if the owner is unable or unwilling to pay a reasonable share of the cost of treatment or if the owner is unwilling to pay for treatment at a private vet but doesn't provide any proof of low income.
  2. If an animal is suitable for rehoming and the owner is unable or unwilling to satisfy our criteria we will normally offer transfer of ownership to the branch for rehoming as an alternative to putting the animal to sleep. We have to do this because we would otherwise have no way to prevent anyone claiming to be unable to afford payment and getting free treatment for their animals.
  3. The University Vet School normally require payment of 50% of the total charge for treatment when an animal is admitted to the hospital from our clinic for inpatient treatment. As this charge is already heavily subsidised, we will not usually be able to give any additional help.
  4. Owners who are on Working Tax Credit will almost always be better off than those who are not working and will be expected to pay our charges in full without any further adjustments, bearing in mind that these charges are already considerably less than those of a private vet.
  5. We are currently unable to pay for treatment of owned animals at private vets, as this is significantly less cost-effective than using the clinic: for example a typical late-night call can involve a surcharge of up to £100. This means that callers who are not currently registered with the clinic will have to wait until the next open clinic session. Because of this it is very important that owners who know they would not be able to afford a private vet should arrange to register their animals — preferably by attending one of the Wednesday clinic sessions to update the animal's vaccinations. Yearly boosters only cost £10 and this relatively small payment will protect from killer diseases and maintain the animal's registration.
  6. We expect owners to co-operate with our efforts to help their animals. This means:

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."

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