'She was screaming her dogs had been bitten': How skipping out bills hurts WA vets
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'She was screaming her dogs had been bitten': How skipping out bills hurts WA vets

Serpentine Vet owner Dr Belinda Beynon was performing surgery when a woman came through her clinic’s doors in January last year.

“The woman came in screaming that her dogs had been bitten by snakes,” Dr Beynon said.

Dr Belinda Beynon.

Dr Belinda Beynon.

She had three giant Dogue De Bordeaux mastiffs with her, and it was apparent two were going downhill fast.

“I told her what it would cost to treat in that moment,” Dr Beynon said.

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After spending 13 years working in Murdoch University’s emergency clinic, Dr Beynon was well-versed in the many ways snake bites could present and knew on such large dogs, the procedure would prove time-consuming and difficult.

“I told her it would be a minimum of $3000 ... she was very, very distressed, as you’d imagine,” she said.

The woman said while she couldn’t pay the full balance immediately, she would be able to pay at least $1500 upfront and have the rest of the payment together in a week.

“Of course this [was] an emergency, so I authorised that,” Dr Beynon said.

And for two hours Dr Beynon and her staff put in IV catheters, set up ventilation support, and administered antivenom to the two mastiffs.

“During that time of course we’re not doing anything else – we’re not seeing other patients or caring for other animals,” she said.

Eventually the two dogs were pulled back from the brink and after some carefully administered after-care, they were sent home.

“We did follow-up testing the next day to check the clotting time, so that was a bit of additional money,” Dr Beynon said.

“And then we never heard from her again.”

The clinic went through its normal process – they tried to contact her, sent a registered letter and eventually proceeded to debt collection.

Dr Beynon said it was a common misconception vets were paid well.

Dr Beynon said it was a common misconception vets were paid well.Credit:Jessica Shapiro

But after more months of radio silence, Dr Beynon was advised to write both the incident and the bill off as a bad experience.

And for nearly two years Dr Beynon was able to put the lost money in the back of her mind – until Tuesday when a couple came into her clinic with their own dog.

“I had some new clients come in with a very unwell dog. They were lovely people and they recognised their dog was really unwell, but they were really struggling financially and their dog needed emergency surgery,” she said.

Dr Beynon was presented with a choice: authorise the surgery without confirmation she would be paid for her expertise, drugs or equipment, or turn them away.

“I sat there and I really had an inner conversation with myself,” she said.

“The vet in me is saying just offer them a payment plan. But then the betrayed business owner in me is saying we can’t afford to.”

And while Dr Beynon and her team were eventually able to authorise treatment through financial assistance, she said it was her experience from over two years ago that prompted her to err on the side of caution.

“People think practice owners are pulling it in hand over fist,” Dr Beynon said.

“What I’ve tried to explain to people in the past ... is that what a vet charges is not always related to the quality of the work that they do.”

According to the Australian Veterinarian Association, a veterinary degree is not only one of the most difficult degrees to pay off, but the average salary of a graduate vet is $47,000.

The average salary of a working vet is $75,000 - half the average for doctors and lawyers.

Dr Beynon’s Serpentine Vet clinic is the result of over $1.7 million in loans – and with the added pressure of staffing, equipment, drugs and laboratory testing costs, her profit margin consistently sits at about zero per cent.

Most other clinics make anywhere between 5 and 15 per cent.

“I haven’t spoken to any veterinary practice colleague who doesn’t wish they could pay their vets more,” she said.

“But because we run on such narrow profit margins, they can’t afford to ... if you’re earning 10 per cent it doesn’t take much to take that profit away and then suddenly you can’t pay that profit at all.

“I guess I would say ... if you go into a veterinary practice and you request veterinary care, and you promise to pay something and then you don’t do it, you’re not taking away someone’s holiday to Fiji or a fancy piece of jewellery.

“That might mean they can’t pay their kids school fees that week. They might not be able to pay the drug bill that week.

“They’re not getting away with something – they’re essentially stealing from someone.

“Perhaps if more people gave more thought to the families behind the building and the impact it has, then perhaps they might question their own motives a bit more.”

Hannah Barry covers breaking news with a focus on social justice and animal welfare for WAtoday.

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