Pets are ‘endangered’ as private equity giants gobble up vets

Complaints on veterinary practices have soared 64% in just two years, a Daily Mail survey reveals today.

But despite horror stories suggesting our pets are being put at risk by corporate giants gobbling up the industry, 99% of malpractice claims weren’t upheld in 2020.

A wave of multibillion-pound takeovers, which began when ownership rules were relaxed in 1999, means more than half of the 6,000 vet practices are owned by just six companies. And three of them are private equity firms.

It has raised fears that profit-hungry companies are creating monopolies, leaving customers nowhere to go, potentially having to pay inflated fees – and putting animal welfare at risk.

Dismissal: Lynne Bowley told Eva should have been sent to specialists sooner

And when something goes wrong, some pet owners say the process in the age of big bucks is against them.

Take the story of Eva, winner of Crufts, a £125,000 five-year-old Bracco Italiano, who fell ill ten days after winning the Best of Breed award in 2019. Owner Lynne Bowley, 56 years, took her to her local vet, owned by CVS, a publicly traded company that owns around 500 medical practices, but Eva died several days after emergency treatment for a suspected intestinal blockage.

Another vet thought Eva should have been referred to a pet hospital for specialist treatment much sooner, but her CVS complaint was dismissed.

The same goes for its approach to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, which deals with malpractice claims. Some 99% of these complaints were not upheld in 2020.

And Trace Brown, 33, claims she was ‘gassed and gassed’ by lawyers for 17 months after her dog Honey nearly died after losing 16 inches of intestine in a botched operation. Miss Brown is ‘traumatized and unable to move on’.

Trace Brown has been offered just £120 after paying £12,000 for corrective treatment after mistakes she claims were made by a works vet

Trace Brown has been offered just £120 after paying £12,000 for corrective treatment after mistakes she claims were made by a works vet

A Facebook scroll reveals a host of stories about vets missing warning signs about pet health and allegations of bullying from management when owners raise concerns. Experts characterize the state of the industry as a battle of David against Goliath – putting standards at risk as companies cannot be held accountable.

Since the rules changed in 1999, investors have quickly taken advantage of a booming industry, which saw spending on services hit £4.5billion in 2019, up 57% since 2015.

But there are now fears the takeovers are behind a rise in complaints as pet owners lose faith in the faceless companies. The Veterinary Client Mediation Service (VCMS) recorded 3,151 complaints in 2019-2020, compared to 1,941 in 2017-2018. The VCMS, established in 2016, says the increase may be due in part to greater awareness of the service and a boom in pet ownership.

Help from the hospital was too late

Lynne Bowley says her dog Eva, winner of the £125,000 Crufts Prize, died due to mistakes at her local veterinary practice.

When five-year-old Bracco Italiano Eva fell ill, CVS-owned surgery operated on her for an intestinal blockage. Four days later blood flowed from his wound and the vet, in Elgin, Scotland, said it was a reaction to the stitches.

Eva underwent a second operation, but deteriorated. She was then taken to a veterinary hospital in Edinburgh but died after surgery. Ms Bowley, 56, says she was told Eva should have been referred to hospital sooner, but that was dismissed.

CVS said it was “committed to providing the highest quality clinical services.”

Payment of £120 for a bill of £12,000

Trace Brown has been offered just £120 after paying £12,000 for corrective treatment after mistakes she claims were made by a works vet. Her rescue dog Honey needed five surgeries, and she was told the first vet, a back-up at VetPartners, made mistakes. Miss Brown, 53, from Tranent, near Edinburgh, went to mediation where she was awarded £120.

But Chris Deadman of The Good Vet & Pet Guide says the takeover of independent practices has caused “a real decrease in quality and an increase in complaints”. About 55% of complaints to the VCMS were about business groups, compared to 30% about independent vets.

This reflects market share – two-thirds of practices belong to a group of three or more. But animal lovers are unhappy with the big companies’ reaction to the complaints. The VCMS is voluntary and refused mediation in around one in ten cases last year, although its data shows no difference in commitment between freelancers and businesses.

Mr Deadman said he had been threatened with legal action over negative reviews on his website. He added: “The corporate culture is to shut things down and threaten people because there is no kind of connection to the individual customer.”

He said the only way pet owners can get redress is through a civil case, but the costs are prohibitive.

“There is a total disparity of weapons. It’s David and Goliath, he said. Critics also worry that the companies are taking advantage of a complaint process stacked in their favor. David Anderson, founder of the Facebook group Vets, Vets Now & RCVS Complaints, explains that this is partly because the RCVS requires complainants to prove misconduct “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Most regulators work on “the balance of probabilities”.

Mr Anderson says company practices know that complaints are likely to be dismissed and therefore have little incentive to admit mistakes.

He added: “Groups like Vets Now, which have a monopoly on practices in certain areas, have so little to lose because customers have no choice but to come back.”

Vets Now is the leading provider of emergency veterinary care. In 2019, it was acquired by private equity-backed IVC Evidensia, which owns 993 firms, or almost 20% of the market.

The RCVS has approved a plan to introduce a standard of proof based on the balance of probabilities in the future. A spokesperson said: “We investigate all concerns brought to us about veterinary professionals, regardless of the type of practice or workplace in which they work.” IVC Evidensia declined to comment.

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