Earlier this month the veterinary industry was surprised with the news that Mars, the ubiquitous candy maker, acquired VCA in a deal valued at over seven billion dollars. With this news, pet care will become the largest portfolio in Mars- whose current pet brand portfolio already includes Banfield, BluePearl, Pedigree, Whiskas, Iams, Eukanuba, and Royal Canin.
The reaction in the veterinary community is mixed- varying from apprehension to optimism to cynicism. Is it one more step in the end of mom-and-pop small business ownership, or an opportunity that may drive improvement in the industry? We asked several veterinarians out in the trenches what they thought of the growth of corporate veterinary medicine. Here’s what they said: (Note- Names have been changed.)
A current VCA veterinarian’s thoughts:
“Years ago, when I found out that the hospital I was working for was being bought by VCA I was very concerned, as were most of the people I worked with. I’d heard a lot of stories about corporate hospitals telling doctors how to practice medicine, and I did not want to work that way. As VCA started the take-over, I was pleasantly surprised at how they did not interfere in my practice. They had some preferred products of course, and we occasionally got told that we should be running more of this or that—but minor things, and nothing more than when I had worked for a private veterinarian who wanted to only carry one or two heartworm preventatives or always reminded me to run more fecals.
Overall, they were very hands off. In fact, I was disappointed that VCA did not do more to establish SOPs and train staff, etc. So this time around, I am not concerned, at least in the foreseeable future, about me or my hospital. I fully believe that very little if anything will change where I work.
What I am concerned about is what this will mean for the veterinary industry as a whole. I am worried for the veterinarians who work for or own private animal hospitals. There was enough concern when the two major corporations were owned separately. With that set up, there was more room for competition for other smaller veterinary groups and even individual hospitals. I am concerned that a merger like this will monopolize the industry accelerating the decline of the privately owned animal hospitals.
As someone who hopes to one day own their own hospital I fear I will never be able to compete with these guys on a offer to buy a hospital. I fear that If I try to start a new practice they will be able to run me out of business. I do believe corporate medicine can have its place in the industry, but I do not believe that one huge corporation should own so much and have so much control over the entire field.” –Debbie, veterinarian at a VCA hospital
From a practice owner:
As a practice owner of a small clinic, the acquisition of VCA by Mars concerns me. Although corporate clinics have not moved into my region yet, I am sure it will happen soon. Once they do, I am concerned they may have an impact on my business. Mars will now own the two largest veterinary chains in the country, a group of specialty practices, two food companies, and a veterinary laboratory. Will this allow them to be able to acquire supplies, medications, and food at a lower price than the privately owned practice? I am not sure if this will happen, but if it does, small clinics will not be able to compete. We may be choked out of business, like the neighborhood bike shop in my town that was forced to close when Walmart opened and people found they could purchase the same bike for significantly less.
“Living in an area with a lower population density, finding veterinarians to employ can be challenging. This is made even more challenging by corporations. A VCA representative told me they have one of the largest internship programs in the country and have a large pool of candidates to fill their practices. The small clinic private practice pool of applicants is significantly diminished by the internal mobilization of veterinarians within corporate practices. Now that VCA will be joined with Banfield and Blue Pearl, there will be even more veterinarians in their system. As the corporations become bigger and acquire more and more, we have a harder time finding veterinarians to work for us.
A lot of small animal practice owners consider their practice as a significant part of their retirement. However, many younger veterinarians have no interest in practice ownership and retiring veterinarians only option is to sell to a corporation. Many of the corporations have specific requirements before they will consider acquisition and a small clinic like mine does not meet their criteria. Will I be able to find a buyer interested in my practice when I want to retire or will I be forced to just sell my assets and close my doors? It makes me sad to think that small, family owned neighborhood veterinary clinics may become a thing of the past.” –Sarah, owns a two doctor small animal practice in a semi-rural area in the midwest.
An associate vet weighs in:
“I’ve been in both private and corporate practice. Private practice has lots of perks in the sense of freedom to practice and a sense of individuality but also has a degree of restriction in terms of room to grow as a vet. My time in private practice was variable, with some bosses telling me they didn’t want me to get CE in certain areas where others encouraged me to grow. One corporate practice I spent some time with was so restrictive that only specific drugs were allowed to be used and a book was given saying THE way to treat everything.
The other corporate practice was a lot different. They encouraged growth and expansion of skills and didn’t make a lot of changes after buying the practice. Ultimately, everything feels driven by money though and there’s a lot of red tape to get changes made or new equipment. There are pros & cons to both types of practice and while things may or may not change with a corporate buyout there is always uncertainty amongst the staff. Additionally, it makes me wonder about the future of private practice. My former boss bypassed even asking me about buying the practice because it was thought that I couldn’t afford it. Money talks and that’s all some people care about; legacy be damned. ” –Jason, associate veterinarian in private practice
“When I started at Banfield, I was just leaving a high stress emergency hospital job when the demands of being a mom with two young kids no longer jibed with overnights. They offered me a salary 25% higher than any other clinic in the area, with no on-call and stable hours.
A former Banfield veterinarian’s perspective:
There are limitations when you work in that environment, both for you and for the clients. The standardization of protocols meant you weren’t able to take a lot of risks or try out the newest and coolest techniques and meds, but it also meant a lot of the sketchier things I saw in some places also wouldn’t fly (you know, the old pred and penicillin for everything approach.) I really hate seeing my colleagues who still work there demonized; we were all compassionate, dedicated to our clients, and just as determined to do right by them as any other vet I know.
I feel like I spent my time there in a solid and steady middle ground, practicing good solid medicine that was neither over the top cutting edge, nor bottom of the barrel. It has its place for sure, and I am so grateful to have spent that time in my life there, but I want it to be one part of a bigger puzzle- not the only piece. We thrive on options.” -Tara, associate veterinarian in a big city
From a former VCA vet:
“I started interviewing with VCA when my then-boyfriend got a job in central PA and asked me to move with him from upstate NY. I had a couple of friends from school who were fairly happy with their VCA jobs and I had only been out a year – I was happy to find so many open positions.
The practice at which I ended up was a tiny offshoot of a bigger AAHA practice about ten mins away. In the big hospital, they had a surgeon and a dentist and 24 hour care when needed, along with clients who wanted that and could pay for it. We had the rabies-only, financially strapped clients who wanted Depo injections.
I worked most days with a 2010 grad (this was in 2010 – making us a vet staff with a total of one year experience) and a support staff of two techs along with one receptionist and possibly, sometimes, if the kennel was full, a kennel tech. The hospital was old and the layout was horrible. We were suddenly operating with the same prices as the big clinic, which none of our clients could or would pay. Because we never could bring in enough money to make payroll, we kept getting scolded for low ACTs and had visits by the regional medical director who would tell us it was all in the delivery (“best medicine is, every limping dog gets radiographs – make that your mission this week” when most of our clients would not even pay for Rimadyl).
They would not let me send certain tests out because they were Idexx tests. There were no special prices on Antech testing, even though they owned it, to sweeten the deal since we literally were trapped into using them. We were told we HAD to give a written estimate to every client, including vaccine appointments, before doing anything to the pet. So in a building where you literally had to walk through the waiting room to get from the exam rooms to the treatment area, we were constantly running 30-60 minutes behind and carrying pets back and forth in front of enraged clients who were sick of waiting.
A lot of the problems we faced were due to a corporation taking over a tiny practice that had one big thing going for it – the mom and pop feeling that is so hard to find now. That’s what the clients were used to and what they kept on wanting. The company raised prices, told us how to practice, gave us a skeleton staff and speeches about how the money follows the medicine, and essentially wrote a recipe for failure.
I know this has not been everyone’s experience. I did get great, cheap insurance and good free CE. My salary was fair for the amount I was working and my lack of experience, but I was pro-sal and couldn’t make my base. I was there 55-60 hours a week a lot of the time and when I left I was about 7 grand “in the hole,” which luckily for them they did not try to get back.
Big practices in upper middle class areas and specialty practices which select for a certain clientele can probably do pretty well under corporate ownership. But my situation was a “what not to do” and the best parts about it were my amazing fellow associate, who was the smartest and most capable new grad EVER, and the fact that when I left I knew exactly what I did not want ever again.” –Elizabeth, associate veterinarian in private practice