How pet healthcare became better than ours


It was a sunny Saturday last June when Laura Hebberd noticed a painful-looking sore in her pet spaniel Piper’s eye.

“She’s normally a really wired, energetic little dog,” says Laura, 44, a dog trainer from Walworth, near Darlington. “I realised she wasn’t opening her eye and it didn’t look right.”

As it was a weekend, her local vet was closed, but Laura managed to get four-year-old Piper an out-of-hours appointment that afternoon, and after a thorough checkup, the vet referred her to a specialist at nearby Penrith later the same day.

“We’d never been there before, but the vet met us at the door, took Piper into a consultation room and prepped her immediately for surgery. She put Piper under anaesthetic and took out two-thirds of her cornea. From noticing the problem to having it treated, right then and there, took just six hours. They said if we’d left it until the Monday, she would have lost her eye.”

The treatment, including antibiotics and six months of follow-up appointments, cost £3,500 – a hefty sum, but one Laura says she’d happily pay again. “I still can’t believe how quickly and efficiently they did it. Can you ever imagine that happening with a human patient?”

Laura with Piper (right)
Laura with Piper (right)

Her question is a poignant one. Ask any of Britain’s 16.2 million animal-owners and – aside from gripes about inflated vet fees, more of which later – they’ll say the same: our pets seem to get better healthcare than we do.

The picture in the human world is a bleak one right now. NHS waiting lists are longer than ever, with almost eight million of us currently awaiting hospital treatment, and reports that the national 18-week waiting-time target hasn’t been met since 2016. It’s not just waiting time. This weekend, doctors complained about the use of “physician associates” (PAs) to plug holes in the NHS workforce after it emerged more stringent standards of medical training were being required to perform surgery on animals than humans.

While it is illegal for unqualified veterinary staff to conduct surgery on animals, unregulated PAs, who do not have medical qualifications, are being given surgical training to work in NHS theatres. One consultant, Dr Roddy Neilson, at the Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Scotland, said, “It begs the question why animals are afforded more protection in terms of who treats them than humans.”

Comparisons of care are, of course, not perfect. There is no pet NHS: if you want your canine companion to be treated by a vet, beyond basic pain relief, you’ve got to have insurance, which – depending on your policy – costs about £271 a year and can cover up to £18,000 in medical fees.

But as a result, there’s plenty of money sloshing around the system. So much so, in fact, that last month, the Competition and Markets Authority called for an urgent review of the £2 billion vet industry to combat “eye-watering bills” that leave cash-strapped owners with no choice but to pay.

Experts say that, for the most part, vets’ fees are justified. “They’re proportionate to the service they provide, whether that’s the skills and advice they share, the high standard and speed of care, or the immeasurable compassion and commitment of the team offering it,” says Dr Jo Lewis, cat expert and author of What’s My Cat Thinking?

The big difference between pet and human healthcare is the focus in the animal world on prevention. “Veterinary healthcare is different from the care we get at our local GP or NHS hospital – it’s heavily invested in being proactive,” says Dr Lewis. “Whereas the NHS feels more reactive and focused on ‘fire-fighting’.”

The statistics in the animal world are certainly impressive. Take Felix or Fido to the vet for a CT scan and it’ll happen the same day; human waiting times are about six weeks.

To fix a cruciate ligament rupture in the knee, they’ll wait no more than four weeks (some vets promise same-day surgery); humans have to endure 18 months.

For cataracts, animals will wait two weeks; humans an average of nine months – or, in some parts of the UK, up to four years.

Even with a disease as grave as cancer, the timelines are incomparable: your pet will get treatment within weeks, while humans can wait months.

This expediency isn’t down to an abundance of experts: there are just 25,400 vets in the UK, treating the nation’s more than 30 million pets, compared with about 132,900 doctors – a five-fold difference – treating the UK population of about 68 million.

So, why does animal healthcare seem so much better than ours? Dr Brian Faulkner, a former president of the UK Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons and co-owner of Aldeburgh Vets, in Suffolk, says the system is set up more comprehensively than the average GP surgery. “Most first-opinion veterinary practices operate as small, autonomous medical units,” he explains. “They possess a broad range of diagnostic equipment on site: virtually every one will have a blood analyser, an X-ray system and an ultrasound machine.”

Not only are all vets trained to use these machines, and interpret their results, at least to a basic level, they’re also allocated longer to do so: most practices offer 15-20 minutes per appointment, twice the timeframe your local GP can provide. “Most vets have got more time to take a complete clinical history, perform a physical examination, explain the potential causes of the symptoms, as well as the pros, cons and costs of each of the options available,” adds Dr Faulkner. “The fact that veterinary care is paid for privately acts as a barrier that prevents our systems from becoming overwhelmed, unlike the NHS.”

Jo Sellers, 53, an author and dog trainer from Surrey, experienced the acute differences between animal and human medical care first-hand. Last year, she collapsed with severe back pain, leaving her bedbound, in agony and, as a dog trainer, unable to work. After being put off by long waiting times for hospital treatment, she managed to find £2,500 for a one-off private procedure – and is still waiting, 18 months later, for a referral from the NHS pain-management team.

By contrast, when Reba, Jo’s eight-year-old cocker bichon, had a worrying wound on her earlobe in August, her treatment could not have been quicker. “I called up a new vet, which I’d been meaning to register her at, that morning, told them the problem, and we got an appointment after lunch. We waited just 45 minutes before they sedated her, did the procedure and found an infection in her ear,” Jo recalls. “She came out with a cone on, a treatment plan, some medication and creams, and a week later we were given the all-clear at her checkup. It cost me £550, and I couldn’t have been more impressed.”

Jo Sellers and her dog Reba
Jo Sellers and her dog Reba

Lara Walford, 37, from London, had a similar experience when her cocker spaniel, Branston, had surgery for a ruptured disc in his back last month. She got an initial appointment within an hour (from a brand-new vet, after they sought a second opinion) and results from a CT scan the same day. “We are paying a fortune – about £6,000 for his surgery, plus £1,800 for his CT scan, including sedation – but have been really impressed by the speed with which it could be organised, as well as the comprehensiveness of his care,” says Lara. “They had to get a specialist surgeon in for the procedure, and he called us straight after the operation – as did the nurse who was caring for him all night.” Although the fees are undeniably high, she has no complaints. “He’s only five, so it feels like an investment in him getting his quality of life back, hopefully for years to come.”

Dogs, cats and other pets may be the bread and butter of small-animal practices up and down the country, but owners report the same level of service for larger and more unusual creatures, including horses, tortoises and chickens.

In the field of research, too, man’s best friend is scampering ahead, with some areas of scientific study making breakthroughs that haven’t yet been accomplished – or, in many cases, even attempted – in human medicine. “The lead time of how long it takes a novel treatment or technique to go from concept to being available is much shorter in the field of animal healthcare,” explains Dr Faulkner. “There are a range of reasons why, including differences in the regulatory process, as well as potentially lower thresholds relating to clinical testing.” Smaller sample sizes are required in the animal world before a potential new treatment undergoes clinical trials – meaning progress is much faster than it would be in humans.

Cat expert Dr Lewis says she’s seen certain areas “advance hugely” in recent years, specifically orthopaedic (including the use of artificial limbs) and cancer care. She adds: “The Covid-19 pandemic forced the vet industry to innovate at a much faster pace than before.”

Such is the pace of change that there is, in fact, much we could learn from it: experts say veterinary conferences regularly feature joint addresses from animal and human doctors, and a 2019 paper in The Lancet proposed better collaboration between human and veterinary medicine to solve major public-health crises, such as infectious diseases.

In Sellers’s case, she’s seen the crossover first-hand. “When I was admitted to hospital for my back pain, nothing they gave me was helping,” she says. “In the end, I asked for a nerve-blocker drug that I knew was used in dogs. The doctors were unsure, but I begged them to try, so they gave me the human equivalent. It worked wonders – I was able to sit up for the first time in a week.”

There is, it turns out, much we – and our doctors – can learn from our furry friends. And though they may cost us a fortune, you can’t put a price on puppy love.

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