When I graduated from veterinary school in the late ’80s, I never thought I would see the corporatization of my profession.
Just as I began practicing medicine, the seeds were being sown by corporate consolidators like Banfield and Veterinary Centers of America (VCA) to change veterinary medicine in this country forever. Mars, Inc. controls Banfield, having been an investor since 1994. In 2015, Mars added BluePearl and its 55 clinics, and on Jan. 9, 2017, Mars agreed to buy VCA and its nearly 800 facilities for over $9 billion.
After the VCA deal closes, Mars will control roughly 20% of the animal hospitals in America.
The corporate veterinary hospital conglomerates are consolidating the pet care industry, the same fate that changed human health care forever back in the ’90s.
There are very few independent physicians left. My physician friends tell me life has changed since they began working for corporate health systems. They are asked to push medical services and diagnostics to please the corporate bottom line.
And in the same way, Mars is looking at veterinary medicine as a product. How many Snickers bars can they sell? How many vaccinations can they force their veterinarians to give?
The Ethics of Vaccination
Vaccination guidelines have changed dramatically over the last 15 years. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommended almost 15 years ago that dogs and cats receive fewer vaccines and at longer intervals. Ethical veterinarians have tried over the last 2 decades to minimize vaccination for the pets’ safety.
Unfortunately, the corporate hospitals pushed and still push “wellness” packages that promote excessive vaccination. ll dogs and cats on the wellness plans, no matter the lifestyle, have been over-vaccinated for years.
A toy poodle in a studio apartment would be given the same vaccines as a hound that bounds free in the woods. An indoor cat and a barn cat would be given the same vaccines. The toy poodle and the indoor cat would be vaccinated with “non-core” vaccines like the Lyme disease vaccine for dogs and the leukemia vaccine for cats, even though they are at very low risk.
There is only 1 explanation for such vaccine protocols: profit for the corporation.
The corporations train their doctors to conform to corporate protocols and provide standardized care. In-house software guides corporate veterinarians through diagnosis and treatment. An individual veterinarian’s expertise, intuition and insight may lose out to a software program.
Bloomberg News recently reported that veterinarians working for corporate entities are heavily urged to “work-up” every case to the max. A simple first-time flea allergy in a dog, for example, could be given a full dermatological workup to the tune of $900.
Corporations also frequently stress pet drop-off policies to maximize the doctor’s time. The guardian leaves her pet at the door in the morning and picks him up at the end of the day — while never once talking with the vet. Vets see these “drop-offs” between appointments and procedures, perhaps giving a physical exam that lasts 1–2 minutes. But at the end of the day, the pet goes home with a bill and the guardian receives no face time with the vet.
Sales Targets Replacing Veterinary Practice
In the Bloomberg article, employees of these veterinary corporations say Mars is primarily interested in the bottom line.
The Banfield practice managers are taught to treat veterinary medicine like a retail business, with many coming from large retail outfits like Office Depot or Starbucks. Sales targets and the APC (average patient charge) rule the corporate landscape, like a quota system. Did only 10 heartworm tests this month instead of 20? Then you must attend seminars to learn how to increase your APC.
The End of the Independent Veterinarian?
Industry projections suggest that this is the beginning of the end for private veterinarians, just like Walmart and Target killed Main Street mom-and-pop businesses.
Yes, you can buy chew toys while seeing the Banfield-employed vet-in-a-box at PetSmart. You may save a little time, but you lose individual attention and expertise while corporate vets are pressured to increase your bill — sometimes at the expense of your pet’s health.
Over 20 years ago, an independent study of American professions found that veterinarians were among the most trusted professionals across the board. Public opinion has changed. The veterinary profession is not as trusted as it once was, and I believe this is in large part due to the rise of the corporate veterinary structure.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Jan. 18, 2017.