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In 2015, when Colorado native Jay Brekke opened his first veterinary clinic in Castle Pines, the majority of the veterinarians in the area were small, independently operated 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 a large number of local vet clinics being sold to big corporations like Veterinary Centers of America (VCA) or BluePearl. While the big vet business may provide more convenience, it comes with a price: custom, quality care and a flexible pricing structure. And in a time of veterinarian shortages and high demand for treatment, many pet owners are left looking for independent vets to work with—and coming up short.
“What happens is that the nurse they always liked is not there, the doctor that was there is now gone,” he says. “Their [bandwidth for] care is going down, and they’re having issues with communication or something. We’re just getting bombarded with a lot of new clients from these types of situations.”
More and more pet owners are coming to Brekke in search of the personal and familiar feel they had with a previous vet—and while that might be a good thing for the Brekke business, he argues that it’s bad for the industry as a whole. As more clinics slap on corporate branding, pet owners are faced with a more rigid approach to pet care and pricing, and a potential degradation in the quality of care.
The change is palpable, says Preston Stubbs, a mobile veterinary speciality surgeon who works with dozens of clinics around the Front Range, including Brekke’s.
“It’s been a massive, massive change,” Stubbs says. Before 2017, Stubbs, who has practiced veterinary medicine for over 30 years, said most of the clinics he worked with were private. Now, it’s rare he visits privately owned practices. The majority—around 80 percent—are corporate-owned.
“When clinics are sold, I can sense a vibe in the building—most of the time the vibe is different,” Stubbs says. “Much of the staff will exit in unison, or they don’t seem as invested in the company or not as happy. Sometimes you lose that small business feel.”
Historically, as veterinarians who owned clinics approached retirement, they sold their clinics to younger vets. Before he was a mobile surgeon, Stubbs was one of seven partners who owned a clinic in East Denver, which was purchased by VCA in 2007. At that time, he says, it wasn’t unheard of for corporations to buy private clinics, but most clinics were privately owned.
Corporatization stretches back to the 1990s and 2000s when VCA—a 36-year-old company that now operates over 1,000 veterinary offices 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 emerged hardily from the Great Recession, enticing opportunists.
“That’s when we started to say, ‘Hey, we went through a recession and veterinarians are still doing well,’ ” Bragdon says. “Yes, we lost some money, and yes we had some economic financial euthanasia, but overall, the veterinary profession is recession-proof. And that drew the attention of private equity and outside investors, I think.”
Bragdon, Stubbs, and Brekke say the corporatization of veterinary clinics accelerated in the past five years. In 2017, VCA, was acquired by Mars, Incorporated—the parent company of M&Ms, Snickers, and Pedigree pet food—for about $9 billion. Mars had also previously acquired Banfield, BluePearl, and Pet Partners, leading to extensive consolidation in the market.
Since this acquisition, a slew of factors have only expedited corporatization. During the pandemic, pet purchases soared, and burnout (and staffing shortages) increased among the veterinary community. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the percentage of households that own at least one dog increased from 38 to 45 percent between 2016 and 2020, and cat ownership has increased from 25 percent in 2016 to 29 percent in 2022. Consumer spending on cats and dogs between 2020 and 2022 increased across the board, with mean annual expenditures on vet care for a dog rising from $224 in 2020 to $362 in 2022. Annual spending on veterinary visits with a cat increased 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 mean educational debt for veterinary college graduates in 2020 was $157,146, but it’s not unusual for some to owe more than twice as much.
“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,” Stubbs says.
Bragdon notes that corporate pet medicine is not uniformly bad, but the quality of care, options for treatment, and rigid pricing structures can feel distinct from privately owned clinics.
“Larger networks give you standardization and maybe some convenience,” she says. “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.”
Corporate practices tend to feature codified menus and tend to be more risk averse, meaning vets may suggest potentially unnecessary treatments as ways to mitigate risk to the pet—sometimes raising the cost of an otherwise normal visit. Independent vets argue they are more flexible with price, especially when the owner has less means, and can typically give pet owners a more comprehensive list of treatment options.
The VCA didn’t respond to an inquiry by 5280 before publishing, but in a 2014 VIN News article, VCA’s founders argue that the company’s intentions are beneficial for small hospital owners and it can improve the quality of care through its resources.
Bragdon is skeptical. She says that as views on pet ownership have changed and younger people treat pets more like children, it can be tough having realistic conversations about what operations are and are not worth having on their pets.
Bragdon recalls an 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 risk in perspective.
“I told the client, if you can’t afford to go to Las Vegas and lose $500 to $1,000 gambling, and that $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 at a corporate clinic.
What can pet owners do? First, find out who owns your clinic. It may not be clear that a vet is corporately owned until you’ve asked, Bragdon says. Then, find out if your vet’s views on pet care align with your own. What is your own risk tolerance for veterinary care? What is the vet’s? Who makes the standards for care, and are they willing to bend if the owner faces constraints?
Bragdon believes more veterinary practices will be acquired by corporations in the future.
In the meantime, IVPA is trying to band independent vets together to make private practice sustainable. IVPA and other independent vet associations can embolden purchasing power for independent vets to help keep medication costs lower, in turn helping pet owners. Otherwise, it’s hard to compete with the purchasing power of a corporation, independent vets say.
The other major component is student outreach. Bragdon says corporations are aggressively recruiting new vets from universities, but the IVPA is striving to help students realize that private practice ownership is still attainable.
“Once we open up students’ eyes that the way for a veterinarian to have professional financial freedom and pay back their financial student loans is for them to own,” she says, “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.”