Why Americans are heading to Mexico for vet care

Valerie Silva estimates that she’s saved hundreds on vet bills for her dogs over the past year. All it takes is a two-hour drive across the US-Mexico border for the prices to plummet.

Her first trip to a Mexican vet clinic was at the start of 2022, when her chihuahua mix Sunny needed vaccines. All the local clinics near her Indio, California, homes were fully booked, so she found a pet hospital near her grandparents’ house in the city of Mexicali. She liked the service enough to come back to get Sunny spayed and have a second dog, a Husky named Paco, vaccinated.

Overall, he said about eight shots for two dogs cost about $200, while the spaying procedure cost $80.

“The price difference is insane,” Silva, 21, told USA TODAY. “It’s just so much easier being able to go in there and don’t have to worry about it being like $70, $100 for a shot.”

Valerie Silva's dog, Sunny, takes a nap on the way to Mexicali.

Valerie Silva’s dog, Sunny, takes a nap on the way to Mexicali.

Mexico can be an attractive destination for those seeking dental work and cosmetic surgeries at a fraction of what is charged in the US. But travelers aren’t the only ones who can find more affordable health care across the border. Data from the Mexican government shows more Americans are entering Mexico with their pets as wait times and costs at US vet clinics soar.

“We’ve got this perfect storm in terms of pet vet tourism,” said Dr. David Vequist, director of the Center for Medical Tourism Research at the University of the Incarnate World in Texas. “People are trying to find care at the price they want.”

Uptick in pets crossing the US-Mexico border

Data from Mexico’s SENASICA, the agency that inspects all pets entering Mexico, shows the number of pets crossing the US border into Mexico has swelled since the start of the pandemic.

In 2019, just over 20,000 dogs and cats traveled from the US to Mexico. The number took a dip after the onset of the pandemic but quickly began to pick up in 2021, as pet ownership rates in the US skyrocketed and travel to Mexico began to ramp back up after travel restrictions were lifted.

Last year, there were more than 33,500 crossings – up 68% from 2019.

Why is there a shortage of veterinary staff?

The surge in border crossing with pets comes as staffing shortages and a booming pet population make it hard for US veterinarians to keep up with demand.

The number of pet dogs jumped as much as 16% between 2016 and 2020, while pet cats climbed as much as 6%, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Clinics in the US have raised salaries to attract more workers, but the wages increase coupled with inflation mean higher costs are passed on to pet owners. The cost of veterinary services is up 10% year-over-year, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A shortage of nearly 15,000 veterinarians will likely still exist by 2030, according to a 2022 report from Mars Veterinary Health, a network of more than 2,500 veterinary clinics, hospitals and diagnostic labs. Over 75 million US pets may not have access to vet care by then without intervention.

More business in Mexican vet clinics

San Diego resident Anna Ginsky said she was quoted about $2,000 for dental work for her dog in 2015. She opted for a clinic in Mexico that she said charged her just $300.

The visit sparked a business idea, and now Ginsky runs MexiVet Express, a transportation and liaison service that takes American pets to clinics in Baja California and back. While most of Ginsky’s customers are from California, he said he’s had some fly in from far-off cities like Chicago to access more affordable veterinary care.

“Some people just can’t afford $5,000 to remove a tumor off of their pet’s leg,” Ginsky said. “If they don’t know about an alternative option, then their only option is to let their pet suffer. In a lot of cases, that’s when they find us.”

Anna Ginsky, owner of MexiVet Express.

Anna Ginsky, owner of MexiVet Express.

When Ginsky launched MexiVet Express in 2018, she had about 10 clients per week. When the pandemic hit, she said her customer count doubled. Now, she says she’s up to about 60 clients per week and has grown her business to a team of nine.

Some veterinarians in Mexico have seen their businesses grow as they gain more customers from across the border. Maria Mariño, a veterinarian and owner of two clinics in Ensenada, estimates that about 20% of her patients were from the US before the pandemic. Today, she says it’s closer to 30%, enough for her to make sure she keeps people who speak English on staff.

“The treatments are very expensive there, so they travel to check another second option,” she said.

A 2022 Forbes Advisor survey of 2,000 dog and cat owners found nearly two-thirds said inflation has made it more difficult to pay a surprise vet bill. Bills less than $1,000 would cause 42% of pet owners to go into debt, while bills less than $500 would cause 28% of pet owners to go into debt.

How does the quality of care compare?

Ginsky warns that there are certain drugs and treatments available in the US that he has yet to find in Mexico. But she said tumor removals, dental cleanings, overnight hospitalizations and wound care are all available across the border “for a fraction of the price.”

“You need to really understand what your pet needs and then shop around to see if there’s a duplicate of that in Mexico,” she said.

Lubi Verdugo, a veterinarian and owner of two clinics in Ensenada, said Mexican clinics are working to have more veterinarians specialize in certain areas like cardiology, as they do in the US

But pet owners can find quality care in Mexico, he said. They just need to do their research and make sure the clinic they’re working with is legitimate.

“They can trust that veterinarians in Mexico can help them and offer the same services, just at a lower cost,” he said. But “there are people in Mexico who have clinics and they are not veterinarians.”

Pet owners can double-check that a veterinarian in Mexico is licensed on the Mexican government’s website.

Is Mexico safe to travel to right now?

Experts say tourists should look at travel warnings before making a trip to Mexico.

Traveling to certain areas can be risky. In early March, four US citizens were kidnapped in Mexico after they crossed the border for cosmetic surgery. Two were killed in a shooting.

The US travel advisory for Mexico assesses each state individually. Tourists are told they can exercise normal precautions when traveling to states like Yucatan or Campeche, while states like Baja California should be considered because of crime, including kidnapping. Others, like Colima, should be avoided altogether.

What is required to take a pet to Mexico?

Travelers looking to cross the US-Mexico border by land must present a valid passport and vehicle registration documents.

As of December 2019, travelers no longer need a health certificate to drive into Mexico with a dog or cat, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s website.

The animals will be inspected by Mexico’s National Service of Agro-Alimentary Health, Safety and Quality, or SENASICA, upon arrival to make sure they don’t present signs of infection or diseases. Dogs and cats should arrive in a clean cage or carrier.

People flying with their pets need to meet different entry requirements and should check the rules with their airline.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amid rising vet costs in US, some pet owners are traveling to Mexico

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