A: I have had two clients ask me this recently. Modern, digital x-ray systems offer many advantages over the outdated systems of yesteryear, but they are indeed expensive.  Let’s have a look at why.

First, there is the cost for the x-ray machine, digital receiver, and computer with specialized software to run the operation.  After installation expenses, a complete digital DR system costs around $120,000.  Let’s assume the veterinarian takes out a five-year commercial loan at 6% interest to pay for the equipment.  That’s $27,840 in loan payments each year.

This expensive equipment comes with expensive maintenance and service contracts that typically run over $5,000 per year.  In addition, large digital image files require off-site backup and storage that costs over $2,000 per year.  Assuming a fair market commercial lease and a modestly sized room, the facility lease on the square footage required to house an x-ray unit is roughly $2,100 per year.

Personal protective equipment for employees, like lead gowns, and the OSHA-mandated radiation safety badges for each employee cost the typical practice over $1,000 per year.  There is also a state-mandated inspection and calibration that adds about $250 to the annual cost.

So, we haven’t taken a single x-ray yet or paid a single employee, but we have over $38,000 in annual cost just to provide the equipment involved.  Let’s assume we x-ray one pet each weekday for all fifty-two weeks of the year.  That’s an equipment expense of over $146 per pet.

Now, let’s add employee costs. We need at least one Licensed Veterinary Technician (or doctor) and one assistant to properly restrain the pet and take the x-rays.  Let’s use a conservative figure of $25 labor cost for those folks.  Now let’s discuss the cost of doctors to interpret the films.

The American Animal Hospital Association advocates having a board-certified radiologist review all diagnostic x-rays. Many practices, like ours, have made this a standard of care. Admittedly, this is a step that can be skipped, but general practice veterinarians are not trained to see many of the subtleties that can be seen by a radiologist. Radiologists spend four to five years after veterinary school getting additional training, pass a board exam, maintain annual continuing education in radiology, and read thousands of x-rays every year. Digital technology allows us to get a radiologist’s opinion within hours for only $60 more. If we’re going to invest in getting x-rays, let’s be sure the pet benefits from all the information present on those images.

Are you keeping track?  We’re now up to $231 in actual costs before we have paid your veterinarian to review the x-rays, read the radiologist report, come up with a plan, and communicate it to you.  We also haven’t paid the practice overhead expenses yet (record keeping, licenses, utilities, continuing education, bank fees, taxes, etc.).

It is cheaper to use older equipment that has already been paid off and/or to skip the radiologist interpretation. However, I can tell you from personal experience that modern equipment and a specialist’s expertise get so much better information (with less radiation exposure to pets) that we used to get with a streaky piece of film on a light viewer. Often this better information leads to more effective, efficient, and economical care.

Modern digital x-ray technology and electronic specialist consultations are just one example of how veterinary medicine is offering pets higher quality care than ever before. However, it also demonstrates how better care often comes with a higher cost.

With x-rays, as in everything else, if you want the best care for your pets you should prepare long before your pet needs to have medical attention. A good pet health insurance policy could reduce the owner’s out of pocket expense for x-rays from $250 to $25. Without this preparation, an owner might seek a low-cost veterinarian to take self-interpreted, old style films for $150, thinking they are saving money. In reality, they end up paying more than the owner with insurance – and get less by cutting corners.