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In the year When Colorado native Jay Brake opened his first veterinary clinic in Castle Pines in 2015, most veterinarians in the area were small, independent businesses. Clients were able to build familiar relationships with their providers, and pets received personalized treatment. In the seven years since, however, the landscape has changed dramatically, with large numbers of local veterinary clinics being sold to larger corporations such as Veterinary Centers of America (VCA) or BluePearl. While the larger pet business may offer more convenience, it comes with a price: customized, quality care and a flexible pricing structure. And with a shortage of vets and high medical demand, many pet owners are looking for a free vet to work with — and they’re short.
“What happens is that the nurse you always loved isn’t there, the doctor who was there is now gone,” he said. “Theirs [bandwidth for] Care is going down, and they’re having problems with communications or something. We’re getting a lot of new customers from situations like this.”
More and more pet owners are coming to Brekke in search of that personal, familiar feeling they had with their former vet – and while this may be a good thing for Brekke’s business, they argue that it’s bad for the industry as a whole. As more clinics slap on corporate branding, pet owners face a more rigid approach to pet care and pricing and a deterioration in quality of care.
Preston Stubbs, a mobile veterinary specialty surgeon who works with dozens of clinics around the Front Range, including Brake, said the change is palpable.
“It was a big, big change,” says Stubbs. Before 2017, Stubbs, who practiced veterinary medicine for more than 30 years, said that most of the clinics he worked with were private. Now, visiting private practices is rare. Most of them – about 80 percent – are owned by corporations.
“When clinics sell out, I feel a vibe in the building—often the vibe is different,” Stubbs says. “Most employees leave together, or they don’t seem invested in the company, or they’re unhappy. “Sometimes you lose that little business sense.”
Historically, as veterinarians with clinics approach retirement; They sold their clinics to young veterinarians. Before he became a mobile surgeon, Stubbs was one of seven partners at East Denver Clinic, which was acquired by VCA in 2007. Most of the clinics were privately owned.
Bonnie Bragdon, president of the Independent Veterinarians Association (IVPA), said the 36-year-old VCA — a company that now operates more than 1,000 veterinary offices across North America — has corporate roots dating back to the 1990s and 2000s. But in the year In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the veterinary field barely emerged from the Great Recession, alarming the opportunists.
“That’s when we started saying, ‘Hey, we’re in a recession and vets are still doing well,'” Bragden says. “Yes, we’ve lost some money, and yes we’ve had some economic financial euthanasia, but the veterinary profession as a whole is recession proof. I think this has attracted the attention of private equity and foreign investors.
Bragden, Stubbs & Brake Veterinary Clinics Corp. has grown over the past five years. In the year In 2017, VCA was acquired by Mars, Inc. — the parent company of M&Ms, Snickers and Pedigree pet food — for about $9 billion. Mars previously acquired Banfield, BluePearl and Pett Partners, leading to extensive consolidation in the market.
Since this acquisition, several factors have accelerated corporatization. Pet purchases increased during the pandemic, and burnout (and staff shortages) increased among the veterinary community. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the percentage of households with at least one dog will increase from 38 to 45 percent between 2016 and 2020, and cat ownership will increase from 25 percent in 2016 to 29 percent in 2022. Consumer spending. Between 2020 and 2022, spending on cats and dogs increased across the board, with the average annual cost of veterinary care per dog rising from $224 in 2020 to $362 in 2022. The annual cost of visiting a cat increased from $189 to $321 over the same period. years.
For vets facing pandemic-related burnout — and still paying off student debt — selling a clinic can be tempting. According to the AVMA, the average tuition debt for 2020 veterinary college graduates was $157,146, but it’s not unusual for some to take on more than double the debt.
“If you have a good clinic that’s running smoothly, making good money, the corporations will come in and pay them, write them a big check and leave,” Stubbs says.
Bragdon notes that corporate pet medicine isn’t all bad. But the quality of care, treatment options, and strict pricing structures may feel different from privately owned clinics.
“The big networks are standardized and maybe give you some comfort,” she says. “The big corporate practices can do things with the technology like telemedicine, home delivery, and things that are convenient for consumers. But what consumers don’t understand is that the bigger the companies, the more risk they have to reverse.”
Corporate practices tend to feature fixed menus and tend to be more risk-averse, meaning veterinarians may suggest unnecessary treatments that could be ways to reduce the pet’s risk — sometimes adding to the cost of a regular visit. Independent veterinarians argue that they are more flexible with prices, especially when the owner has less money, and typically can offer more comprehensive treatment options to pet owners.
The VCA did not respond to the request. 5280 Before publication, however, in a 2014 VN News article, VCA’s founders argued that the company’s mission was to benefit small hospital owners and improve the quality of care through its resources.
Bragdon is skeptical. With attitudes about pet ownership changing and young people treating pets like children, it can be difficult to have a realistic conversation about what jobs and what pets shouldn’t have, she says.
Bragdon remembers one owner bringing in a dog with heartworm disease that had a very low chance of survival. The owner wasn’t sure what to do. Bragdon tried to put the cost and danger in perspective.
“I told the client: If you go to Las Vegas and lose $500 to $1,000 gambling, $500 to $1,000 means you can’t pay your rent, you can’t pay your car bill. Feed your kids. We need to humanely dispose of this dog.” Such conversations may not be routine in a corporate clinic, she says.
What can pet owners do? First, find out who owns your clinic. It may not be obvious that a vet is corporate until you ask, says Bragden. Then find out if your vet’s perspective on pet care aligns with your own. What is your own risk tolerance for veterinary medicine? What is a veterinarian? Who sets the standards of care and is the owner willing to bend if there are restrictions?
Bragdon believes more veterinary practices will be owned by corporations in the future.
In the meantime, the IVPA is trying to bring independent veterinarians together to make private practices sustainable. IVPA and other independent veterinary associations can encourage purchasing power for private veterinarians to help reduce drug costs, which in turn help pet owners. Otherwise, it will be difficult to compete with corporate purchasing power, say independent vets.
Another major component is student outreach. Corporations are heavily recruiting new veterinarians from universities, Bragdon said, but the IVPA is trying to help students understand that owning a private practice is still within reach.
“Once we open students’ eyes to the fact that a veterinarian can have professional financial independence and have their own way to pay off their student loans, I think we’ll help new vets understand it,” she says. Of course, they should open their own practices and manage their own medical profession. The way to do this is through ownership.