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In 2015, when Colorado native Jay Brekke opened his first veterinary clinic in Castle Pines, the majority of veterinarians in the area were small, independent businesses. Customers were able to establish familiar relationships with their suppliers and pets received personalized treatment. Over the next seven years, however, the landscape has changed dramatically, with many local veterinary clinics being sold off to big corporations like Veterinary Centers of America (VCA) or BluePearl. While the big veterinary company may offer more convenience, it comes at a price: personalized, quality care and a flexible pricing structure. And in a time of veterinarian shortages and high demand for treatment, many pet owners find themselves looking for independent vets to work with, and they’re running out.
“What happens is the nurse they always loved is gone, the doctor who was there is now gone,” he says. “Their [bandwidth for] the care goes down and they have communication issues or something. We are simply bombarded with many new clients from these types of situations. »
More and more pet owners are coming to Brekke looking for the personal, familiar feel they had with a former vet – and while that might be a good thing for the Brekke business, he says it’s is bad for the industry as a whole. As more clinics adopt corporate branding, pet owners are faced with a more rigid approach to pet care and pricing, and potential degradation of quality of care.
The change is palpable, says Preston Stubbs, a mobile specialist veterinary surgeon who works with dozens of clinics around the Front Range, including Brekke’s.
“It was a massive, massive shift,” Stubbs says. Prior to 2017, Stubbs, who has practiced veterinary medicine for more than 30 years, said most of the clinics he worked with were private. Now he rarely visits private practices. The majority – around 80% – are owned by companies.
“When the clinics are sold out, I can sense a vibe in the building — most of the time, the vibe is different,” Stubbs says. “A lot of the staff will leave in unison, or they don’t seem as invested in the business or not as happy. “Sometimes you lose that small business feel.
Historically, as clinic-owning veterinarians approached retirement, they sold their clinics to young vets. Prior to being a mobile surgeon, Stubbs was one of seven associates who owned a clinic in East Denver, which was purchased by VCA in 2007. Back then, he says, it was not uncommon for companies to buy private clinics, but most clinics were private.
Corporatization dates back to the 1990s and 2000s when VCA, a 36-year-old company that now operates more than 1,000 veterinary practices in North America, began acquiring clinics, says Bonnie Bragdon, president of the Independent Veterinarians Practitioners Association ( IVPA). But in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the veterinary field struggled out of the Great Recession, attracting opportunists.
“That’s when we started saying, ‘Hey, we’ve been through a recession and the vets are still doing well,'” Bragdon says. “Yes we lost money, and yes we had economic and financial euthanasia, but overall the veterinary profession is recession proof. And that got the attention of private equity and outside investors, I think.
Bragdon, Stubbs and Brekke claim that the corporatization of veterinary clinics has accelerated over the past five years. In 2017, VCA was acquired by Mars, Incorporated, the parent company of M&Ms, Snickers and Pedigree pet food, for approximately $9 billion. Mars had also previously acquired Banfield, BluePearl and Pet Partners, leading to significant market consolidation.
Since that acquisition, a multitude of factors have only accelerated the corporatization. During the pandemic, pet purchases have skyrocketed and burnout (and staffing shortages) have increased within the veterinary community. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the percentage of households owning at least one dog increased from 38% to 45% between 2016 and 2020, and cat ownership increased from 25% in 2016 to 29% in 2022. Consumer spending on cats and dogs between 2020 and 2022 increased across the board, with the average annual spending on veterinary care for a dog increasing from $224 in 2020 to $362 in 2022. Annual spending on veterinary visits with a cat rose from $189 to $321 in the same two years.
For vets facing pandemic-related burnout — and who may also still be paying off student debt — selling a clinic can be a tempting proposition. According to the AVMA, the average student debt for veterinary college graduates in 2020 was $157,146, but it’s not unusual for some to owe more than double that.
“If you have a nice clinic that’s running well, making a decent income, companies will come in and pay them cash, write a big check, and walk away,” Stubbs says.
Bragdon notes that companion animal medicine is not uniformly bad, but the quality of care, treatment options, and rigid pricing structures may seem distinct from private clinics.
“The larger networks give you standardization and maybe a bit of convenience,” she says. “Big companies are able to do more things with technology like telemedicine, door-to-door medicine delivery, and convenience things for consumers. But what consumers don’t understand is that with big companies, they become more risk averse.
Company practices tend to offer codified menus and tend to be more conservative, meaning vets may suggest potentially unnecessary treatments as a means of mitigating risk to the animal, sometimes increasing the cost of treatment. an otherwise normal visit. Independent vets say they are more flexible with pricing, especially when the owner has less means, and can usually give pet owners a more comprehensive list of treatment options.
The VCA did not respond to a request for 5280 before publishing, but in a 2014 VIN News article, the founders of VCA claim that the company’s intentions are beneficial to small hospital owners and that it can improve the quality of care with its resources.
Bragdon is skeptical. She says that as views on pet ownership have changed and young people treat pets more like children, it can be difficult to have realistic conversations about what are and aren’t worth. not worth practicing on their pets.
Bragdon recalls an owner who brought in a dog with heartworm disease that had a very low chance of survival. The owner didn’t know what to do. Bragdon tried to put the cost and risk into perspective.
“I told the client, if you can’t afford to go to Las Vegas and lose $500 to $1,000 gambling, and $500 to $1,000 means you can’t pay rent, you can’t pay your car bill, you can’t feed your kids, we need to humanely euthanize this dog Conversations like these, she says, may not be the norm in a corporate clinic .
What can pet owners do? First, find out who owns your clinic. It may not be clear that a veterinarian belongs to a company until you ask, Bragdon says. Next, find out if your veterinarian’s opinions on animal care match your own. What is your own risk tolerance for veterinary care? What is the veterinarian? Who sets the standards of care, and are they willing to comply if the owner faces constraints?
Bragdon believes that more veterinary practices will be acquired by companies in the future.
In the meantime, the IVPA is trying to bring independent vets together to make private practice sustainable. The IVPA and other independent veterinary associations can boost the purchasing power of independent veterinarians to help reduce drug costs, thereby helping pet owners. Otherwise, it’s hard to compete with a company’s buying power, independent vets say.
The other major element is student awareness. Bragdon says companies are aggressively recruiting new vets from universities, but the IVPA is working to help students realize that private practice ownership is still possible.
“Once we open students’ eyes to the fact that the way for a vet to have professional financial freedom and pay off their financial student loans is if they own it,” she says, “I think we’re going to help new vets understand that they really should be opening their own practice and managing their own medical career. And the way to do that is with ownership.
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