Wednesday briefing: How ‘unprecedented’ vet costs have made pets almost unaffordable

<span>Vet listening to a puppy’s heartbeat.</span><span>Photograph: zoranm/Getty Images</span>
Vet listening to a puppy’s heartbeat.Photograph: zoranm/Getty Images

Good morning. If like 16 million people in the UK – including me – you have a pet, today’s newsletter might not contain too many surprises. Vets are expensive, the cost of treatment is often unclear, and this can lead to owners “potentially overpaying”.

It might not be surprising, but it is now official as the Competition and Markets Authority regulator has announced it is launching a “formal market investigation” after receiving an “unprecedented” 56,000 responses from concerned pet owners – and vets themselves.

It’s certainly no surprise to owners who have taken to social media and radio call-in shows to complain about being charged £400 to treat a rabbit with a dislocated toe or finding drugs online for a third of the price they were charged at the vet.

It’s not just the cost that has got the CMA concerned – the regulator is also worried that independent practices like James Herriot’s in All Creatures Great And Small have mostly been taken over by “six large corporate groups”.

That, the regulator says, has led to “weak competition”, particularly as the big companies often keep the name and branding of the previously independent practices they takeover.

For today’s newsletter I spoke to Robin Hargreaves, a vet in the Yorkshire Dales who sold his independent practices to one of the “big six” in 2021. That’s after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Post Office | Ministers will publish legislation to quash the convictions of hundreds of post office operators who were prosecuted during the Horizon scandal, marking a significant victory for victims after decades of campaigning.

  2. Politics | Diane Abbott has said it is “frightening” to hear of remarks made by Conservative donor Frank Hester, who told colleagues that looking at her made you “want to hate all black women” and that the MP “should be shot”. No 10 has agreed the comments were “racist and wrong”.

  3. Gaza | A UK Foreign Office minister has called for an investigation into a report that medical staff in Gaza faced violent and humiliating treatment in detention after an Israeli raid.

  4. Thames Water | Ministers must come clean on the secret details of an emergency plan for a taxpayer bailout in the event of Thames Water collapsing, a Liberal Democrat MP has said. Sarah Olney will press in parliament this week for details of a behind-the-scenes rescue operation being drawn up for the biggest privatised water company in England. Olney said keeping the details of the contingency plan secret amounted to a cover-up.

  5. UK news | The bodies of 35 people and the suspected ashes of a number of others have now been recovered by police investigating a funeral director’s over “concern for care of the deceased”.

In depth: ‘No one goes into veterinary medicine to make money’

As most vets don’t display prices online its hard to know how much treatment costs have risen but a recent survey of 2,000 pet owners by consumer champions Which? found that 34% of customers of the large chains thought vet consultation fees had “increased a lot” over the past two years. That compares to 26% at independent or small group vets.

Hargreaves, 61, who grew up on a farm in Hanlith in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales and still lives and works nearby, knows that the cost of vets is expensive. He hears about it every time he goes to the pub for a pint (to the extent that he’s stopped going). But he says it’s not individual vets who are responsible for rising prices but the big corporations, and huge advances in medical treatments made possible by the costs being covered by pet insurance.

“No one goes into veterinary medicine to make money,” says Hargreaves, a former president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), which represents 19,000 vets. “Find me a vet who didn’t know they wanted to be a vet from a very young age – it really is a calling. But I chance that the pay would surprise you.”

GP-style general medicine vets, he says, get paid about £45,000 a year on average. “Which is far less than a doctor, or other professions that require a similar amount of training.”

When he graduated from University of Liverpool School of Veterinary Science in 1985 the only way to make a decent living, he says, was to own a stake in a practice. Eventually that’s exactly what he did. But for today’s vets it is a much harder dream to achieve as big companies – mostly backed by billions of dollars of US private equity – have bought up many independent practices.


The ‘big six’ corporate giant vets own 60% of all practices

A change in law relating to the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 was introduced in 1999, allowing people who are not vets to legally own veterinary practices for the first time in the UK. Since then big businesses have been buying them up drawn by their often healthy profit margins, which could be increased by consolidating services under a big corporate umbrella.

In 2013 about 10% of practices were owned by the “big six” – now almost 60% are. And the CMA says, “many of the large groups have expressed an intention to continue expanding their business through acquisition of independently owned practices”.


Is your vet really independent?

It’s also hard for owners to know if their vet is still independent, as the CMA says “four out of six of the largest groups don’t change the name or branding when they take over an independently owned vet practice”.

In and around Kings Heath, in Birmingham, there are three vets all within two miles of each other. They are: The Vet Clinic, Five Lands and White Cross Vets. They are all owned by IVC-Evidensia, the largest of the big six, but it’s hard to figure that out from their websites. Click the links and try for yourself.


Who are the ‘big six’?

IVC Evidensia owns more than 2,200 clinics, hospitals and out-of-hours sites across 19 countries. It employs more than 28,000 people, and treats more than 6.5 million pets a year. It is owned by Swiss food company Nestlé and a couple of private equity firms, and valued at about £11bn. That’s more than the market value of Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer combined.

The other five are:

CVS Group, which owns more than 500 practices, a string of diagnostic laboratories, and seven pet crematoria. It is listed on the stock market in London and worth about £780m. Its shares fell 25% yesterday on the news of the full CMA investigation.

Pets at Home, the pet supermarket, owns more than 650 practices via its VetPartners and Companion Care subsidiaries. Its shares fell 4% yesterday.

Medivet, which has more than 500 branches and 27 veterinary hospitals across the UK, Germany, Spain and France.

VetPartners, which was founded by vet Jo Malone in 2015, has more than 500 sites, two veterinary nursing schools, laboratories, a locum agency, online pharmacy, and 14 pet crematorium sites.

Mars, the American conglomerate famous for the chocolate bar, owns 59 primary care practices and 17 referral vet hospitals in the UK via its Linnaeus subsidiary. Mars owns a further 2,500 vet clinics or hospitals around the world, and more than 40 pet food brands including Pedigree, Whiskas, Cesar, Sheba and Royal Canin. It also owns “cat crack” treats Dreamies and cat litter brand Catsan.

Hargreaves, and his three partners, joined the long list of independent vets who have sold out to the big six in 2021. He won’t say how much he collected, but says it was “significantly more than we would have got through the traditional route [of selling to more junior vets]. Why would you sell for X when you could sell for 2X?”

It wasn’t just the lure of money that led Hargreaves to sell. “I’d never had a full Christmas off in 31 years,” he says. “It is very stressful running a practice.”

If you have a story about your local vet you would like to tell us, please email me:

What else we’ve been reading

  • Yesterday’s TechScape was a doozy as Alex Hern laid out his theory that the app Waze led to the creation of LTNs which in turn resulted in a rightwing backlash that could help Keir Starmer into No10. Sign up here to get the newsletter every Tuesday. Toby Moses, head of newsletters

  • Ibrahima Bah, an asylum seeker from Senegal, couldn’t afford the going rate of £2,000 for a space on a dinghy across the Channel from France to the UK. Instead he agreed to steer the boat in exchange for free passage. The boat collapsed and four people drowned. He was sentenced to nine and a half years in prison under new “stop the boats” laws. But was he also a victim? Diane Taylor’s report on his life is a must read. Rupert

  • The backlash against those who accused comedian Louis CK of sexual misconduct was vicious – Rachel Healy talks to the women caught up in the storm as a film, Sorry/Not Sorry, about the experience is released. Toby

  • Jack Chadwick, a 27-year-old bartender, picked up a 1934 book in Salford Working Class Movement Library, and became obsessed with it. He spent months tracing the life of the late author, Jack Hilton, and convinced Penguin to republish it. Both Jacks’ stories are fascinating. Rupert

  • Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff candidly discusses her growing fears about becoming a parent, and the industry that’s popped up around sharing horror stories to those approaching that stage of life. Toby


Football | David Raya was the shootout hero as Arsenal battled past Porto 1-0 and into the Champions League quarter-finals.

Paris 2024 | The World Anti-Doping Agency says it remains “deeply sceptical and worried” about Russia’s anti-doping practices as some of its athletes prepare to compete as neutrals at this year’s Olympics.

Rugby | Immanuel Feyi-Waboso has been ruled out of England’s Six Nations fixture with France on Saturday after self-reporting symptoms of concussion. The winger took a head knock in the 23-22 victory over Ireland in round four that has revived England’s title hopes and, while he finished the match, he later began to feel the effects of a possible concussion.

The front pages

Our Guardian print edition opens with “Tory donor’s remarks were ‘racist and wrong’ – No 10”, which the i does as “Sunak bows to Tory pressure to admit donor was racist”. “Rwanda plan will offer migrants £3000 to leave” reports the Times. The Metro has “3 held over ‘76m care home con’” and the Daily Telegraph says “Starmer will allow assisted dying vote”. “What have they done with our loved ones’ bodies?” – that’s the Daily Mail while the Daily Mirror has “Heartbreak and horror” after 35 corpses were found in a funeral home, raising fears among families about whether their loved ones were ever actually cremated or put in their graves. The Daily Express enthuses “Boris vows to campaign on ‘Great Brexit Freedoms’” as it says the ex-PM will “hit the campaign trail” – but if you read the story it sounds a bit hypothetical. Top story in the Financial Times is “Inflation’s rise to 3.2% challenges Fed stamina for ‘last mile’ in prices battle”.

Today in Focus

How an infamous ransomware gang found itself hacked

LockBit was a sophisticated criminal operation, offering the tools needed to steal a company’s data and hold it to ransom. Then it was itself hacked. Alex Hern reports

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

“I’m kneeling on the snow outside the king’s house, impersonating a 1980s heart-throb, with a man named Harald and an electric car. It’s a situation that probably needs some explanation.”

The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston is correct. He’s also correct that a world-high 92.1% of new cars sold in Norway are electric, as he discovered in this piece investigating how the Scandinavian nation became the global leader in electric vehicles.

Among the many reasons Norway is leaving the world in the dust? “Oil money, civil disobedience – and Morten from a-ha”.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.