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Why we charge what we do

Relief veterinarians must account for a lot of expenses when setting their fees. Remember, they’re business-to-business service providers.

Why we charge what we do
Like all business owners, relief veterinarians must factor in overhead when setting fees.

Let’s start with a Jerry Seinfeld money joke. He’s famous enough that his voice and cadence are so ingrained in our brains that most of you will have no problem “hearing” the joke as you read it. Here it is: “Dogs have no money. Isn’t that amazing? They’re broke their entire lives. But they get through. You know why dogs have no money? No pockets.”

Well, veterinarians do have pockets. And this is either fortunate or unfortunate depending on whether you are receiving money or paying it out. Besides taxes, one of the least fun ways to spend money is on professional fees.

We all feel the pain when we pay a professional services invoice, but one thing that makes the fee pill easier to swallow is understanding what’s behind the bill. A relief vet’s charges are sometimes misunderstood or might be erroneously compared to an associate’s salary and deemed too expensive. So, let’s dive into what’s beneath a relief veterinarian’s fees.

Business Expenses

Like all business owners, relief veterinarians must factor in overhead when setting fees. And although we have nowhere near the overhead of a brick-and-mortar veterinary practice, we do have some. For example:

  • Set up and maintenance of an LLC or S-corporation: Some relief vets operate as sole proprietors, but others maintain a business entity for asset protection, tax management and support of independent contractor status. This can be protective for both a practice owner and the relief veterinarian.
  • Fees for accountants and lawyers: Not all relief vets consult an attorney when setting up their business, but it’s advisable in some cases to make sure we choose the proper entity. In addition, just like with any business owner, accountants are crucial to ensuring we are legally and advantageously managing expenses, income and taxes.
  • Licensing: We are, of course, required by law to have professional licenses in each state we practice. Many relief vets are multistate licensed, expanding the territory in which they can practice. Not all relief veterinarians carry a Drug Enforcement Administration license, but it is advisable. Finally, depending on one’s locality, a business license might be required.
  • Health, liability, disability and workers’ compensation insurance: Purchasing an insurance policy can be a large expense for independent contractors. Those accustomed to having their insurance fully or partially covered by a group plan or an employer might find the expense to be a shock. Nevertheless, these products are important, and the cost must be passed on to the customer if a relief vet wants to maintain a profitable business.
  • Continuing education: Just like any other veterinarian, we must keep up with our continuing education to stay current on licensing requirements and to provide high-quality medical care to patients. In addition to medical courses, business and practice management education help relief veterinarians provide elevated services to employer practices.
  • Student loan payments: Speaking of education and just like with many veterinarians, this cost must be factored into our fees.
  • Professional memberships: Joining the American Veterinary Medical Association, a state VMA and other groups allows us to support and stay connected to our profession. Belonging to niche groups keeps us up to date in our areas of interest.
  • Resource memberships: Mobile resources such as the Veterinary Information Network and the Plumb’s Veterinary Drug Handbook are so important for relief veterinarians. Having access to digital medical and formulary information helps us navigate cases and take care of patients in clinics where familiar books and other useful information might not be readily available.
  • Self-employment taxes: The rate is 15.3%, which is made up of a combined Social Security tax of 12.4% and a Medicare tax of 2.9%. If we are working as 1099 independent contractors, we must pay the tax in full and include it in our quarterly tax-payment budget.
  • Equipment: Relief vets likely carry stethoscopes, scrubs, lab coats, indirect ophthalmoscopes, penlights and optical loupes.
  • Marketing: Think business cards, brochures and websites.
  • Business maintenance: This category encompasses vehicle fuel and repairs, phone and internet services, computers, printer ink and accounting software.

Personal Expenses

Many of us choose relief practice because we are interested in being small business owners and taking the risks and enjoying the rewards of our career path. All business owners aim to not only cover their business expenses but also build in a profit that covers personal expenses. These include:

  • Life stuff: Business owners must be able to earn a salary that pays for the mundane costs of life, such as groceries, housing, child care, health care and utilities.
  • Responsible stuff: We need to plan our lives responsibly and pay for things like retirement plans and life insurance.
  • Fun stuff: Since we don’t get paid for vacation or sick days, we must build it into our profits. All people need time to recharge and have some fun without breaking the bank.

An interactive way to determine a relief veterinarian’s daily rate and satisfy one’s business and personal budget is to use an online wage calculator. I offer a free one at http://bit.ly/2ULBl6n.


Why don’t all relief vets charge the same rate? Each person’s business and personal expenses vary, and other considerations go into the fee structure. For example:

  • Services: Relief vets might vary in their service offerings, ranging from consultations only to surgeries, dental or ultrasound procedures, and other specialties.
  • Geography: The going rate for a relief veterinarian in Los Angeles likely differs from one in Gilbertown, Alabama, because of the different cost of living.
  • Experience: Relief veterinarians who have extensive experience and can easily handle a full appointment schedule might set higher fees than newer graduates will.
  • Shift differential: Fees might vary based on holiday coverage, overnight shifts and overtime.
  • Travel: Relief veterinarians might charge for mileage, lodging or airfare, depending on the circumstances.


What should you expect from a relief veterinarian? When you hire a service provider, you want to ensure you get full value out of what you’re paying. In his book “Managing the Professional Services Firm,” David H. Maister writes, “It is important to note that while goods are consumed, services are experienced.”

As business-to-business service providers, relief veterinarians consider the veterinary practice our client. Our job is to support the clinic by providing a great experience for clients and hospital staff. You should expect a relief veterinarian to provide competent medical care for patients, friendly service to clients and professional, cooperative teamwork with staff. This type of service allows your practice to stay productive while you or your associates take a hard-earned break.

Relief vets are a great investment in the well-being of practice associates and owners, and they deliver uninterrupted clinic productivity. Give yourself the gift of time and invest in a relief veterinarian today.

VetPartners member Dr. Cindy Trice is the founder of Relief Rover.