Many cat and dog lovers treat their pets as their children and would not hesitate to spend a fortune on medical care for their pet’s health. Veterinary fees are generally high in Hong Kong with the most basic consultation costing nearly a thousand, and in case surgery is required, it could cost tens of thousands or even above. The Consumer Council received complaints about the lack of transparency in the fees charged for veterinary services with the final consultation fees in some cases nearly double the amount quoted. There were also veterinary clinics that set a minimum charge for each drug item but the receipt did not provide the relevant terms and conditions, leaving consumers in the dark. The Council reminds consumers to understand the treatment plans and charges, and check the receipts before making payments at veterinary clinics. It is also important to communicate closely with the veterinary surgeons (vets) for the treatment details so that there will not be any surprises in the bill.
Case 1: Complicated Refund Procedure for Prepayment by Instalment
The complainant noticed his dog looked dazed, so he took his dog to Animal Clinic A twice for medical treatment. The clinic diagnosed the dog with twitching in its facial muscles and recommended a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at a cost of $30,000. The complainant agreed to pay a deposit of $28,000 by 12 monthly instalments with his credit card and the dog was kept in the hospital for observation on the same day. On the following day, the clinic informed the complainant that his dog’s heart had stopped beating at one point and was unable to breathe on its own despite successful resuscitation, so euthanasia was recommended. Though reluctant to do so, the complainant sadly agreed. Later, he went to the clinic to arrange for a refund of unused services such as MRI with a balance of $11,811 after deducting the cost of the treatments performed. The clinic stated that as the complainant had paid by instalments, a refund could only be arranged after 12 months when the repayment to the bank had been completed. The complainant did not accept the arrangement and sought help from the Council after failure in rounds of negotiation.
Clinic A explained that as the complainant had paid with by instalments with his credit card, he had to settle the whole amount with the bank and present the relevant monthly statements to the clinic before a refund could be arranged; otherwise, an administration fee of 6% would be charged to cover the early repayment administrative cost. The complainant did not agree with the refund arrangement, but in order to settle the matter as soon as possible, he eventually provided a record of the full payment and the clinic then arranged a full refund of $11,811.
Case 2: Almost Onefold Difference Between Quotation and Actual Cost for Cholecystectomy
The complainant took his dog to Animal Clinic B to seek medical advice. The vet recommended performing cholecystectomy and related treatment. A few days of post-operative observation in the Intensive Care Unit was required and the quoted fee was approximately $65,000. The complainant accepted and arranged for his dog to be admitted to the clinic for surgery on the same day. He applied for discharge on the third day after the operation because there was someone at home who was medically trained to look after the dog but this was refused by the clinic. It was not until the seventh day after the surgery that the clinic agreed to discharge the dog. The total cost of treatment was $126,183 which was nearly double to the amount quoted. The complainant was shocked and recalled that Animal Clinic B had never contacted him to explain or seek consent for any additional charges during his dog's treatment. Therefore, he did not accept the charging arrangement and lodged a complaint with the Council.
Clinic B replied to the Council that the complainant had signed the Hospitalization and Surgery Consent Form at the time of admission. The consent form had listed the important notices and estimated cost of all possible treatments. Therefore, the complainant would neither be further consulted nor notified at the time of treatment. The complainant opined that even though the clinic used the consent form to justify their action, the large discrepancy between the final charge and the quoted fee was inappropriate. Despite the Council’s repeated conciliations, the clinic maintained its decision. The Council recommended the complainant to follow up through other means, such as lodging a complaint to the Veterinary Surgeons Board (VSB).
Case 3: No Terms Set in Minimum Charge for Each Kind of Drug
The complainant took her cat to Animal Clinic C. The vet prescribed 4 kinds of drugs and charged a total of $1,251 including the consultation fee. The complainant checked the receipt carefully upon returning home to find that the anti-allergic medication Cetirizine 10mg tablets were priced at $2 per tablet and 5 tablets were prescribed but $70 was charged and for the deworming medication Panacur priced at $2.06/ml, the prescription of 8ml should be $16.48 but $61 was charged. The complainant opined that there were fee discrepancies involved. The clinic explained that there was a minimum charge of $70 for each kind of drug. The complainant did not accept it and quoted the example of Panacur, pointing out that the clinic charged $61, which was neither the correct fee nor the minimum fee claimed. As the receipt did not provide any terms about the minimum charge, the complainant suspected the hidden charges and thus lodged a complaint to the Council.
Clinic C replied that owing to the costs of hiring nurses to fill the prescriptions and print out medication labels, as well as to explain the effects of medication and the points to note when using the medication to customers, a minimum charge of $70 per medication was required and the complainant did not raise any objection to the charge at the time of payment. The clinic also said that a portion of the medication corresponding to the minimum charge could be provided if the customer needed it. As for the $61 charge for Panacur, the clinic added that it was an input error, so the complainant was undercharged by $9. However, the clinic admitted that there was no minimum charge arrangement listed and agreed to refund the difference of $104.52 for both medications.
The Council pointed out that according to the Code of Practice for the Guidance of Registered Veterinary Surgeons (“Code of Practice”), vets are required to provide consumers with a list of relevant consultations, routine tests, general fees and scheduled charges. They are advised to explain the treatments in detail when providing quotations. Except for emergencies, they should maintain close communication with the consumer during the treatment and seek the pet owner’s consent for items and amounts to be charged. Any specific charges and refund arrangements should also be clearly stated to enhance transparency. The Code of Practice also stated that the fees charged should not be exorbitant. Although the definition of “exorbitant” is not elaborated, vets should consider the reasonableness and affordability of the charges from the perspective of cost and consumers. The dosage of medications prescribed by vets are based on the physical condition and medical necessity of the pets, as well as other factors that are considered appropriate. The clinic in Case 3 claimed that it could arrange to dispense a quantity of medication equivalent to the minimum charge but the handling of the matter in such a way was highly questionable.
When pets are sick, owners should not “rush them to the vet”. They may refer to the following recommendations:
- Consumers can check the VSB's website for a list of registered veterinary surgeons (RVSs) to verify that they have a valid practising certificate. If there is a suspicion of the professional misconduct or negligence on the part of a RVS, a complaint can be lodged to the Board;
- Before confirming treatment for their pets, owners should communicate with the vet about the treatment plan to understand the outcome and fees. It is also important to keep in touch with the vet during the treatment to keep track of any changes in treatment methods and fees;
- Consumers may be required to pay a deposit to the veterinary clinic for complex treatments. Before paying, consumers should first understand the refund policy and arrangement details for unused treatment fees;
- Consumers should also check their receipts and details before making payment. If they have any objections, they should raise and resolve the dispute with the vet clinic as soon as possible.
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