Disgruntled pet owners disillusioned with private equity-owned veterinary practices in UK

NEWS AND OPINION: Britain has changed in almost all respects and for the worse. One area of life that has gone to the dogs is veterinary clinics since the independently owned businesses were bought up by private equity firms. Back in the day each veterinary clinic was owned and managed by the vets themselves who were partners in their business. This fostered excellence in service. Then the greedy, corporate era commenced, and the independents sold out to the corporate giants who created a chain of clinics where the decisions of the vets are dictated to by the men in grey suits and spreadsheets. Why did they sell out? I guess they were presented with an offer they could not refuse.

Barkley a bright and loving cockapoo who was injured by an animal hospital leaving him doubly incontinent
Barkley a bright and loving cockapoo who was injured by an animal hospital leaving him doubly incontinent. Image: Tamazin Morley.
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Corporate vet chains

Modern vet practices employ young vets who dreamt of doing good. Of helping sick animals. They were driven by a concern for animal welfare. Profit was secondary to excellence in treatment and making the right decisions that were the best for the patient.

Under corporate governance the first concern is making a good profit. Decisions about treatments are based on how to make the most money out of the process not what is best for the patient. It seems that the managers have squashed the goodness out of young vets.

The clinics are called ‘CGUs’ (Cash-Generating Units) not ‘the vets’ as in the old days. CGUs is what the chain Medivet label their clinics.

Medivet is a 400-unit chain of clinics. It is owned by a Luxembourg based private equity firm. I guess they are based in Luxembourg, but operate in the UK, in order to pay less tax with devious tax avoidance schemes worked out by more men in grey suits.

The majority of vet practices in the UK (51% according to the Daily Mail) are owned by six companies, three of which are private equity-owned. While 66% are part of a chain.

Those sweat, single vet practices owned by a sole practitioner and her staff are rapidly disappearing. One more aspect of British life that has gone down the toilet. The country feels broken.

Often vets now offer complex and expensive procedures sometimes made more expensive by new machinery and methods.

And what can be worse is that they tend to prolong the life of a patient where in the past they would have recommended humanely ending life.

And there are accusations of vets doing unnecessary and dangerous procedures and operations to drum up more cash. What follows is a classic and tragic example.

Cockapoo Barkley and his owner Tamazin Morley

Tamazin loves Barkley describing him as ‘amazing’. He developed a trapped nerve as diagnosed by a local vet who treated it with Calpol which is a paracetamol pain killer for babies. It is not designed for dogs, but it temporarily fixed the problem because it killed the pain. That was a bad decision by the way because vet simply treated the symptom not the cause. Horrible decision.

The trapped nerve problem returned (as it would), so the vet recommended an animal hospital in Alton, Hampshire. Tamazin alleges that they carried out procedures that were unnecessary one of which, a lumbar puncture, caused bleeding on his spine which left him doubly incontinent and with no control over his tail.

This appears to be a permanent disability although Tamazin is spending more money to try and fix it. The hospital is being uncooperative and uncommunicative as they would. They recommend that if things don’t improve Barkley should be euthanised. It is a tragedy.

Their reaction is typical of the NHS in the UK: brick wall everything when it goes wrong and challenge the client to sue which is often untenable. But this is attitude of the big corporations. That personal, more honest care and integrity is hard to find in the corporate vet world.

The Daily Mail reports on another case of excessive costs and overtreatment to hike up profits.

Apparently, the veterinary business has become dog-eat dog. We can only look back nostalgically to the relative innocence of yesteryear.

Dr Polly Taylor, a senior vet and academic, is a member of EthicsFirst said: “Our recent research has shown that major surgery can have a very traumatic effect on any pet. It’s not like operating on a human being — the poor animal will have no idea what is going on.” That’s another big downside of overtreatment.

It isn’t just exposing animals to the dangers of operations and procedures but the distress of the procedures. They have no say and they can’t give consent.

Veterinarians in the UK and USA have a duty to act responsibly and within the ethics as stated in their oath, but the oath is now devalued and on occasions worthless.

The almost 2,000 comments on the Daily Mail article indicate that pet owners are disgruntled with modern day vets, and they no longer trust them. They are right. Cat and dog owners need to swot up on cat and dog health to enable them to ask pertinent questions and challenge greedy vets.

But let’s be clear the vets on the front line are often decent people. It’s their managers who push them with monetary targets who are the greedy ones and who distort the decision-making process as to the best treatment.

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