Thursday, August 24, 2017


It's the biggest taboo of all. Survey after survey indicates that people (North American people at least) are more comfortable revealing details of their sex lives than details of their paycheques. For a variety of cultural and historical reasons it is considered exceptionally rude to ask someone how much they earn. Yet people wonder.

I think most people believe that veterinarians are reasonably well paid, but not nearly as well as human doctors or dentists. And in broad strokes this is correct, so I could just stop there, but for those who are curious I will lift the veil more completely. But first a short story.

We have all said things in the past that make us squirm with embarrassment when we think back on them. I have a veritable catalogue of such statements to draw on, but one in particular is relevant here. When I was a university student I made one of my then very rare visits to the dentist. The dentist was a very pleasant fellow and we had a good chat about summer plans (well, one of those dental chair good chats where the dentist asks questions and I reply, "mm, mm, mhmm"). He really was a nice guy and he did a good job. I don't recall specifically what was done or what the bill was, but I do vividly recall doing the math on how long I was in the chair and then declaring to my friends and anyone that would listen that this guy must make $200 an hour! I was an asshole. And I had done my math wrong, way wrong. Now, thirty years later, I know that "overhead" is the 800 lb gorilla of the balance sheet. It probably ate up 70% of his bill. I feel bad for implying that he was gouging.

Fast forward to the present day when a lot of my day is spent doing ultrasounds, which take around  half an hour (although the client only sees 15 to 20 minutes of that as the rest is report writing) and cost around $300. Most people are not as ignorant as I was at 22, but I'm sure there are a few who walk out thinking, "This guy is making $600 an hour! Must be nice."

One zero too many. I earn $60 an hour.

Some clinics pay a percentage of billings, but we pay a straight salary to the doctors. It's an annual salary rather than a true hourly wage, so there is no overtime or anything like that. As far as I can tell my salary is fairly typical for a small animal veterinarian in general practice with 27 years of experience. It's pretty close to the top end for a non-specialist. New graduates start in the $35 range.

A few of you are probably still thinking, "Sixty bucks an hour - must be nice!" It is nice and I am not going to complain. But allow me to point out two important factors that make it perhaps less nice than it seems on the surface.

First of all, we put in six to eight years of university where rather than working and earning money we are generating debt. Lots and lots of debt. The median debt on graduation has grown dramatically to $65,000 now in Canada. In the US it's $135,000!

And secondly, most of us do not have company or civil service pension plans. A significant amount of our income has to be diverted into retirement savings to make up for this. At least if we are able to and if we are smart enough to...

In the interests of full disclosure, there is another potential income stream. Some of us, myself included, are also practice owners and earn money from any profit the practice might generate (most do generate some, but some don't...). Here, however, there are also two important factors to take into account.

The first is that profit is not free money. Potential owners have to take out massive loans to buy into practices. This money could have been invested elsewhere, like in the stock market or bonds or real estate, but we have chosen to invest it where we work.

 And secondly, I am part of a fortunate minority to have had the opportunity to buy into the practice. Younger veterinarians are having a harder time affording it because of the aforementioned debt load. Also, large corporations are increasingly buying practices which prevents the doctors working there from ever becoming owners.

I know how lucky I am. It's not a life of luxury, but I never aspired to that and it is a very good life. I have the trust of the thousands of pet owners who have come to me to thank for that. So if you are one of those and are reading this, thank you!


  1. Just found your blog. Why are you so keen to dispel the notion that you're *not* well paid. Try some of us in the humanities (with graduate degrees and other professional upgrades) who have literally had to recreate themselves (ourselves) several times to meet the needs of potential clients. For my part, I've worked in museums (in Canada and the UK), been a higher education journalist, worked in communications and am now a cultural heritage professional -- with the constant thread of copy-editing running through it all. Like you I have more than 20 years professional experience and a lot of professional expenses, but I've given up trying to earn more than $25 per hour!

    1. Thanks - fair comment. Many of my readers are fellow veterinarians so part of my intent was to take a gentle dig at some of the whining in the profession. It all depends on frame of reference. Some of my colleagues spend too much time comparing themselves to physicians and dentists. I am very familiar with the situation you describe. Both my brother and brother-in-law have more university education than I do and struggle to find work and constantly flirt with poverty. As I wrote, I am mostly just grateful because I am well aware how large a role luck plays. There was no well thought out master plan to get me here!