Should VAT on vet fees be scrapped?

Stuart Winter writes the pets, wildlife and bird watching column for the Sunday Express and is the author of the books Birdman Abroad and Tales of a Tabloid Twitcher. He campaigns for the end to VAT on vet fees for pets.

Watching the shocked reactions of the elderly pensioner as she examined her veterinary bill accentuated the unfairness of our tax system in an instant.

Astonishment turned to apoplexy and then distress. Emergency abdominal surgery had saved her beloved terrier’s life and there was no question, in her mind, that the four-figure fee was more than worth the life of one small dog. It was the added VAT that took her breath away.

“Four hundred pounds VAT? That’s more than my electricity bill for the entire year,” she exclaimed in tears infused with anger and pain. “Why should the Government benefit from my little dog’s distress? It is daylight robbery.”

In a few, sob-filled sentences she had dissected a tax travesty as inequitable as those that had Bostonians pouring tea into the sea 200 years ago and, more recently, Community Charge protestors rioting across the land.

Stuart Winter and Molly

Stuart Winter and Molly

I watched from across the surgery waiting room with as much sympathy for the distraught woman as for her terrier recovering from life-or-death trauma. Pet owners, it seems, are a more tolerant breed than those early American settlers or Poll Tax demonstrators, accepting passively what any right-minded society would regard as nothing more than extortion. What other form of tax benefits from disease, disaster and distress?

Admittedly, the value added taxation system is as labyrinthine as the intestines of the poor terrier that had come successfully through surgery only to be reunited with an owner in tears. In truth, VAT is more convoluted. We pay it on chocolate biscuits but not small, round chocolate-covered sponges; it is levied on women’s sanitary wear but not designer labels for babes-in-arms. And who can forget “Pastiegate” when the Chancellor deemed hot, take-away sausage rolls should not be exempt from VAT? The outrage caused a u-turn overnight.

Pet-owners have yet to feel any such generosity from the Treasury keen to fill the coffers with a 20 per cent levy on any goods and services deemed luxuries. That said, gas and electricity bills are also subject to VAT, albeit at the reduced rate of five per cent. Other reduced rate items include smoking cessation materials such as patches and gum, children’s car seats and mobility aids for the elderly.

All worthy exemptions but why have companion pets not been included in this list or, indeed, among those zero-rated items such as books, newspapers, water supplies, children’s footwear, food and, significantly, our own medical treatments and health care?

Cherished pets will never be regarded as luxuries by their owners whose lives they bless with joy as well as fulfilling that most vital of human needs: companionship. For Chancellors, however, pets are nothing more than cash-cows. And we are talking about milking huge sums.

The pet food industry delivers a £520 million windfall from its £2.6 billion annual sales. Vets’ bills from a population of 10.5 million dogs, 10.3 million cats, 900,000 equines and an estimated 40 million other rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, birds, exotics and fish, produces another huge pay day for the Treasury.

My back of an envelope calculations, reckoned from our outlays on a fortunately healthy spaniel and our daughter’s mischievous Bengal cat, could produce a £200 million annual VAT bonus for the Exchequer from their occasional visits to the vet and pet insurance payments, working on the assumption that domestic animals account for around a third of the £3billion spent on veterinary services across the industry (this figure includes livestock).

Wiping the VAT off vets’ fees for domestic animals, or at least reducing it to five pence in the pound, would undoubtedly improve the nation’s animal welfare obligations overnight. It would allow hard-pressed families waiting for their monthly pay cheques to seek earlier attention as well as allowing more owners to afford and take out pet insurance. It could encourage more pet owners to register with a vet.

Shifting Government thinking on the subject, however, is a labour of Herculean proportions. No Chancellor delights in losing revenue. Treating, curing and caring for sick and injured animals is nothing more than a service and services are ripe to be harvested. It is time for a counter argument. Pet ownership is not a luxury. It is more than a privilege. Is it not a human right? Welcoming animals into our lives makes our lives more fulfilled and more civilised. In short, animal ownership exemplifies the very principle of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights that provides a right to respect an individual’s “private and family life, his home and correspondence”.

For millions, giving a home to an animal is one of the essentials of family life. It satisfies our most imperative instincts to care and nurture. Pets are the cement in a contented household. Effectively taxing this relationship by putting VAT on veterinary care is nothing short of monstrous.


Stuart Winter writes the pets, wildlife and bird watching column for the Sunday Express and is the author of the books Birdman Abroad and Tales of a Tabloid Twitcher. He campaigns for the end to VAT on vet fees for pets.

Read more about Stuart Winter→

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of either the RCVS or the BVA.

9 comments
  1. Lizzie Lockett
    Lizzie Lockett says:

    Hi Iain
    Thanks for the comment – just a point of info, this blog was written specially for us by Stuart Winter, who does indeed write for the Sunday Express, but this blog has not appeared in there already.
    Best wishes
    Lizzie

    Reply
  2. John Dennis
    John Dennis says:

    Most people are unaware that the fee charged by a Vet contains VAT, and therefore, frequently, believe it is all Profit for the Practice. This is often the first thing needing to be pointed out when a “large” bill is presented in order to put the actual Fee charged into perspective. The MAIN point of the whole debate should be that it is not a right to have care of an animal it is a personal choice. Clients should be aware of the expense and their “Duty of care” before embarking on pet ownership. Its a matter for public education in responsibility. I am aware of the benefits pets bring in case someone raises this point, but these are “special” cases and provision should be made under “Healthcare”.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Vaughan
      Jennifer Vaughan says:

      Yes John, Having pets is a personal choice – just like having children, but that personal choice in owning a pet sometimes all boils down to keeping a lonely elderly woman / man, (sorry to be morbid) alive ! it is definitely a reason for someone to get up in the morning for.
      It is terrible that the government should slap this hefty tax on to vet fees. The working class are being pushed down all the time, whilst the ‘uppers’ live it up with all their posh houses and foreign holidays and not always gained in an honourable way! What more does this government want? we are already struggling to put food on the table and keep our houses warm in winter, but no doubt they will find something else to try and squeeze blood out of us!!!

      Reply
      • Maddy
        Maddy says:

        Well said, Jennifer!
        True, you could argue that we don’t NEED a pet for a companion, but the same argument could be said for biological children (opening a can of worms here!) and in an overpopulated planet, pets provide essential companionship for many people- elderly and young alike. Every choice we make is a personal choice, and just as after we make the choice of having children we have a responsibility to feed and clothe them, when we make the choice to own a pet we have the responsibility to make sure they’re in good health. Owning a cat may be a ‘luxury item’ but making sure that they don’t die of FIV isn’t!

        Reply
  3. B Waterfield
    B Waterfield says:

    Animals are living feeling creatures just like us, and some of us look after them out of compassion.Some of us who cannot have children,get comfort from taking care of an animal.They need looking after, otherwise we would have more animals without homes and possibly on the streets or put down. We are not charged VAT on our health treatment.It is wrong to gain revenue on harmless and helpless creatures who generally give back in devotion.Vet charges NET are extraordinary expensive as it is. ABOLISH THE VAT

    Reply

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