"Medical tourism” typically refers to people looking for cheaper dental work, pharmaceutical goods or major surgery in another country.
But it can also mean healthcare for our four legged friends—whose medical costs can sometimes rival human medical bills.
KAWC's Stephanie Sanchez reports that some pet owners are heading south of the border for cheaper pet care.
Fernando Garcia drove 30 minutes from his home in Yuma, Arizona to Centro Medico Veterinario-or Veterinary Medical Center, across the U.S.-Mexico border in San Luis Rio Colorado.
Garcia and his family listen as a staff veterinarian explains some lab results and recommends surgery for new patient, Nube, the family's 11-year old Chihuahua.
“What they are telling us right now at the moment is that she does have a little mole that needs to get removed, so they would laser that off," Garcia said. "Then they would take her reproductive organs which in turn reduce the masses around her mammary glands that have been coming up.”
Garcia said in the U.S. the price for the surgery alone is about $1,200.
“Here we are paying about $250,” Garcia said.
Surprisingly, it was Garcia’s U.S. veterinarian who referred him to the clinic across the border.
“It’s not easy to come up with $1,200 when you have other bills but obviously you want to be there for your pet just like they are there for you," he said.
Centro Medico Veterinario is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Doctor Sergio Miguel Garcia Moreno, who began his career at the clinic 14 years ago, said they’ve seen a growing number of Americans coming through their doors.
“We’ve been seeing a lot, even more because we have an MRI machine," Moreno said. "We’ve been seeing a lot of patients from Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, Yuma, San Luis, and Somerton."
That might be because the cost for an MRI can run up to $2,500 per diagnostic screening in the U.S.
It’s a stark price difference at Moreno’s office.
"For an MRI scan they start from $400 and they can go up to $600 to $800 depending on the zone that we are going to MRI," he said. "And if the patient is a small, medium or large dog.”
Veterinary care in the U.S. is subject to many of the same market forces as human health care – the high costs of labor, drugs, and facilities drive up overhead.
Many vet practice's use the same labs and suppliers used by human health care providers, with pricing models and regulations that don't always work for non-human care.
Like medical providers for people, veterinarians in Mexico can offer services for less money. And the savings can be life-saving.
Old Souls K9 rescue is a non-profit organization in Yuma, Arizona. They care for senior animals with many, and varied, medical needs. All of them receive their care at the clinic in Mexico.
The rescue’s co-founder Isaac Rivadeneria said they pay 10 percent of the cost they would pay in the U.S.
"Right now we have 27 dogs in our rescue, 17 are here right now and 10 are out with foster homes. If it wasn’t for the savings that we get from the Mexican vet we can only handle probably 6 to 8 dogs," Rivadeneria said. "The savings not only allows us to continue to doing what we do but it also increases the number of animals that we are able to help."
Critics of medical tourism in Mexico often say, “you get what you pay for,” implying that Mexican doctors are less qualified than American doctors. It’s a criticism that's been thrown at Mexican veterinarians as well.
But Rivadeneira said he’ll continue to seek pet care in Mexico.
"There’s also the quality of the care and the quality of the service," he said. "The expertise of the doctor. The latest equipment and technology they have access to. We’re just really satisfied with them.”
No complaints, either, from Fernando Garcia and the family Chihuahua, Nube. Despite the wait time at the border, the cost of gas and the vet bill, he said it was all worth it.
“I’m just glad that we're getting her fixed and everything will reduce any other further risk that she might have especially because of her age,” Garcia said.
If you are considering traveling with your pet to Mexico. Make sure your pet's rabies vaccination is up to date. The requirements also apply to bring a pet back into the U.S.
For more information contact the Mexican Consulate and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.