A: This question came up during a discussion with a client about different costs she found when researching different sources of vaccinations. How can a vaccine clinic at a big box pet supply store provide a vaccine for $15 when the veterinarian may charge twice as much?

Of course, some of the retail price comes from the business overhead involved in delivering the product. A full service veterinary hospital has significantly higher investment in employee education, equipment expense, and regulatory costs than a van that pulls up to a pet supply warehouse. However, that is only part of the story. High volume clinics using low cost labor and low cost products often have a higher profit margin than your local veterinary office.

Then how are some vaccines so cheap? Excluding overhead and marketing-based pricing strategies, the biggest factor in the retail price of any product is the cost to the provider. This is just as true for vaccines as it is of a new car or a can of beans. That brings us back to the initial question, are all vaccines the same?

The answer is absolutely not. There are roughly 250 different dog and cat vaccine products marketed in the United States. Vaccines may differ in components, strain, purity, additives, filtration, incubation substrate, and more. The differences contribute to variability in reactivity, efficacy, and duration of immunity between products.

For example, the non-adjuvanted, 3-year feline rabies vaccine that I use costs me about four times as much as the cheapest rabies vaccine I can buy. However, the older type of vaccine has been linked to an aggressive cancer in cats. Therefore, I take the time to educate my clients to the reason it is better to spend a little more every three years in order to reduce their cats’ risk of this cancer.

Now for the scary question: how do veterinarians (or weekend vaccine clinics) pick which products to use? During a presentation at a veterinary conference, I learned the unfortunate answer to this question. On surveys, the primary factor veterinarians used in selecting a distemper vaccine was cost. That’s right! The primary criterion is “how cheap is it?” How can that be?

The reason lies in consumer demand. Every day veterinarians get calls asking, “how much is a distemper shot?” Unfortunately, that is frequently the only question a pet owner knows to ask. Therefore, many veterinarians (and probably all vaccine clinics) have given in to the cheap product mentality.

Cost is a remarkably strong consumer motivator. Once I had a client come in with a beautiful purebred Doberman. He shared a story of his last dog almost dying from an anaphylactic reaction after a distemper vaccine. The dog literally fell off the table within minutes of the inoculation. Due to the veterinarian’s quick action and emergency injections, the dog survived.

I informed the owner that rare aberrant reactions can happen in any patient with any vaccine. However, after inoculating over 10,000 dogs in our practice, we had never seen such a serious reaction. Using a very pure, high quality product, we successfully vaccinated the Doberman without side effects. During a follow up call the next day, the owner informed us that he would not be back to our practice… because he could find cheaper vaccines elsewhere!!!

It is shocking to me that someone who had experienced a life-threatening reaction in his own pet would still place emphasis on finding the cheapest possible care. However, the sentiment is strong enough and common enough that many veterinarians responded accordingly.

Unfortunately, the most scientifically advanced vaccines with the least reactivity, highest purity, and longest manufacturer-guaranteed duration of immunity are never the least expensive. I encourage pet owners to choose a veterinarian they trust and who keeps up with the latest research – even if it means paying ten or fifteen dollars more each year.