Why Are Colorado Veterinarians Concerned About Pet Medicine Corporatization?

Published on Dec 29, 2022 12:00 AM
Why Are Colorado Veterinarians Concerned About Pet Medicine Corporatization?

As pet ownership in Colorado has increased and veterinarians face pandemic-induced burnout, corporations are consolidating the veterinary field, leaving pet owners with fewer options for care.

Previously, most of the veterinarians in Colorado were small, independently owned businesses. However, in recent years, large corporations have purchased many local veterinary clinics. With veterinarian shortages and treatment in high demand, many pet owners are left looking for independent vets to work with.

"What happens is that the nurse they always liked is not there, the doctor that was there is now gone," said Jay Brekke of Brekke Veterinary Clinic. 

More and more pet owners are coming to Brekke in search of the personalized and familiar experience they had with a previous vet. Jay believes it is bad for the industry. As more clinics adopt corporate branding, pet owners will face a more rigid approach to pet care and pricing and a potential decline in care quality. According to Preston Stubbs, a mobile veterinary specialty surgeon, the difference is palpable. Stubbs said that the majority of clinics are now corporate-owned.

According to Bonnie Bragdon, president of the Independent Veterinarians Practitioners Association, corporatization began when VCA, which now operates over 1,000 veterinary offices in North America, began acquiring clinics. 

According to Bragdon, Stubbs, and Brekke, the corporatization of veterinary clinics has accelerated over the last five years. Mars purchased VCA in 2017, which had previously acquired Banfield, BluePearl, and Pet Partners, resulting in extensive market consolidation.

Many factors have accelerated corporatization since this acquisition. For example, pet purchases skyrocketed during the pandemic, as did veterinary burnout and staffing shortages. The number of households with dogs or cats increased dramatically, with consumer spending on cats and dogs rising across the board. In such circumstances, selling a clinic may be an appealing option for vets suffering from pandemic-related burnout who are still paying off student debt.

"If you've got a nice clinic that's running smoothly, it's grossing a decent revenue, the corporates will come in and pay them cash, write a big check and off they go," said Stubbs.

Bragdon says corporate pet medicine is okay, but the quality of care, treatment options, and rigid pricing structures can feel different from privately owned clinics.

"The larger corporate practices are able to do more things with technology like telemedicine, home delivery of drugs, and things that are convenient for consumers. But what consumers don't understand is that with larger corporations, they become more risk averse," said Bragdon.

Corporate veterinarians may recommend potentially unnecessary treatments to reduce risk to the pet, sometimes raising the cost of an otherwise routine visit. Independent veterinarians claim to be more price flexible, especially when the owner has limited financial resources, and to be able to provide pet owners with a more comprehensive list of treatment options.

VCA's founders argue that the company's intentions benefit small hospital owners and can improve the quality of care through its resources. Bragdon is dubious about this and says that people's attitudes toward pet ownership have shifted, and younger people treat their pets more like children. It can be difficult to have realistic conversations about what operations are and are not worth having on their pets.

Meanwhile, IVPA is attempting to unite independent veterinarians to sustain private practice. IVPA and other independent vet associations can empower independent veterinarians to use their purchasing power to keep medication costs low, benefiting pet owners. 

Student outreach is another important component. According to Bragdon, corporations are aggressively recruiting new veterinarians from universities, but the IVPA works to help students understand that private practice ownership is still attainable.

"I think we're going to help new veterinarians understand that they really should be opening their own practices and managing their own medical careers. And the way to do that is with ownership," said Bragdon.