Raleigh, N.C. — Part of pet ownership unfortunately means having to deal with emergency care. One option for treatment – North Carolina State University's $72 million Veterinary Health Complex – is one of the most advanced and well-equipped veterinary care centers in the country.
But while many pet owners rave about the care their animals have received there, 5 On Your Side has also heard from others who say they were flabbergasted, even angry, about their experiences.
The center's director says it boils down to a money misconception.
Hank Richardson has a cat named Lucy and a bunch of chickens, but a rat terrier named Rudy owned his heart for 12 years.
"He minded so good and he had the best manners," Richardson said. "He was never sick a day in his life, until he got that cancer in his leg."
The cancer was growing so fast, Richardson says, that his regular vet referred him to the Companion Animal Veterinary Medical Center at N.C. State.
"We weren't thinking about money. We were just wanting to get this dog out of pain," Richardson said.
But from the moment he and Rudy arrived, he says, it was all about money.
"The first thing they wanted to do was put a $500 up to/maximum limit on our credit card," he said.
Soon after, he was asked to increase that limit to as much as $1,200, but Richardson negotiated it down to $800.
"We go to lunch thinking we might be spending $800. Sure enough, when we got back from lunch, we spent $747," he said. "That's just diagnosis."
Had Richardson gone ahead with surgery to amputate Rudy's leg, it would have cost up to $4,500 more. He later got a bill for another $138.
At a minimum, that brings the total to $5,385.19.
"That does not strike me as unusual for an amputation," said Dr. Mike Davidson, director of the veterinary center. "Very often the initial bill, the bill for that initial visit and some diagnostics might be several hundred dollars, might be $800 to $900."
He said he regularly hears from people who assume that, because it's a state institution and a teaching hospital, that rates are discounted – like they are at the low-cost dental clinic run by students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"That's a very common misperception," Davidson said. "But it's important to understand, it is rarely the students or trainees delivering the veterinary care here. The individuals who are delivering the care here are board certified specialists."
The center operates as a referral-only, specialty practice, he says. With its high-powered CT scan machine, multi-dimensional X-ray equipment and million-dollar cancer radiation treatment room, the center has the feel of a high-end human hospital.
"It is very comparable to Duke Medical Center for human health care," Davidson said. "Not everyone can afford our fees. There's a substantial portion of the pet population that can't afford the fees associated with a specialty referral practice, and I understand that. I appreciate that."
In the end, Richardson took Rudy to have an emergency amputation at a local vet for $350. The estimated cost at N.C. State's veterinary care center was 15 times that.
5 On Your Side asked Davidson if the care was that much better.
"I would argue that it is," he said.
Richardson, on the other hand, couldn't believe that cost difference.
"I love my dog, but I couldn't go there. I just couldn't, and I don't know many people that could," he said. "I would have never in my wildest dreams thought it would be the charges that they quoted us. Never. And I still am blown away."