How much?? Why are vets' prices so high

How much?? Why are vets' prices so high

The cost of veterinary care has been in the news a lot recently, with the Competition and Markets Authority planning a detailed review of the veterinary industry after an initial inquiry triggered an “unprecedented response” from 56,000 people, including customers and vet professionals, who raised a number of concerns about practices within the £2bn industry.

So, what is going on? Are vets really the money-grabbing villains that some in the media would like to portray them as, or is the problem more to do with the rising quality (and quantity) of veterinary care available to increasingly doting ‘pet parents’ and the lack of an NHS for pets?

The first thing to say is that this is not a new story – people have been complaining about vets’ fees for ever, or at least ever since I’ve been a vet (which is getting worryingly close to 30 years now). In fact, concern over the affordability of veterinary care was one of the driving forces for me when I set up my first vet practice in Swindon in 2012. This practice, called Vet’s Klinic, was built from scratch with the aim to offer affordable and transparent pricing, and to do this we pioneered the use of airline-style demand pricing. This allowed people to book and pay for routine procedures such as vaccinations and neutering in advance and benefit from reduced costs, with the practice benefiting from improved cashflow and being able to better plan staffing rotas.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of practices like Vet’s Klinic, the problem of vet’s fees has only got worse in the last few years. Although I am no longer working as a first-opinion vet in practice, I still hear regularly from pet owners who complain to me about the costs of care for their beloved animals, with bills for relatively simple procedures often exceeding £1000, and bills of more than £5000 not being unusual for more complex cases.

One significant causal factor that the CMA are concerned about is the rise in ‘corporatisation’ in the veterinary market. When I first qualified in 1996, all vet practices were owned by vets, which meant that the vast majority were individual practices or small groups serving their local community – and crucially, operating in a competitive market with neighbouring practices which ensured a reasonable level of pressure to keep prices reasonable.

However, since 1999 the restrictions on vet practice ownership have gone and vet practices are no different from any other business, meaning they can be owned by non-vets. This change in the law has led directly to the growth of the corporate vet groups, and as a result the veterinary market is a very different place, with more than half of all practices now owned by one of the big 6 corporate groups which include CVS, IVC, Medivet, Pets at Home and even Mars through their Linnaeus subsidiary.

With most vets now working for large corporate paymasters, it is no surprise that prices have risen, with profit and sales-based targets now increasingly used to incentivise vets who are under pressure to recommend more tests and more expensive treatments. And with so many practices owned by so few companies, the level of true competition in the market has dropped away significantly, and there are many areas of the country where all the practices in a town or area are owned by the same company, despite having different branding or names.

It is hard to know what will happen and how tough the CMA will be if their investigation does confirm that the market is not working properly – but for now, my advice for pet owners out there is to shop around, ask questions around pricing, and check who really owns your local veterinary practice.

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