The CMA has announced today (12 March 2024) is going to launch a formal investigation into vet surgery costs.

An initial review prompted over 56,000 responses from public and vet industry amid concerns pet owners could be paying over the odds for medicine or prescriptions and rapidly rising costs of urgent treatments.

57% of households own a pet.

The vet sector is worth £2bn.

89% of veterinary practices were independent in 2013. This fell to 45% in 2021, meaning that the veterinary market is now dominated by a small number of large chains which own hundreds of vet practices.

47% of pet owners are concerned about vet bills. Some pet owners are sacrificing holidays, heating and food to make sure their pet stays safe and healthy. The average cost for a trip to the vets is £400.

People will do anything for their pets. Corporate veterinary groups know this and are exploiting consumers.

The aim of this review is to make it cheaper and fairer to own a pet. Cost, choice and transparency are the key aims, although this will take some time to implement and benefit consumers.

CMA-launches-investigation-into-vet-surgery-costs

The CMA review highlights multiple concerns in the market, including:

Consumers may not be given enough information to enable them to choose the best veterinary practice or the right treatment for their needs.

Large corporate groups may have incentives to act in ways which reduce choice and weaken competition.

  • The large, integrated corporate groups (especially those whose business models include significant investment in advanced equipment) may concentrate on providing more sophisticated, higher cost treatments, meaning that consumers are less able to access simpler, lower cost treatments even if they would prefer that option.
  • To varying extents, the large vet groups have also bought businesses which offer related services such as specialised referral centres, out of hours care, diagnostic labs and/or crematoria. These large groups may have the incentive and ability to keep provision of these related services within the group, potentially leading to reduced choice, higher prices, lower quality and exit of independent competitors.

The 6 largest veterinary groups are: CVS, IVC, Linnaeus, Medivet, Pets at Home and VetPartners.

Vet surgery costs – key concerns

Pricing

People may not be getting the information they need. Most vet practices do not display prices on their website. The CMA found over 80% of veterinary practices had no pricing information on their website. People are not being informed about cost of treatment until afterwards. Pet owners tend not to shop around and assume prices will be similar elsewhere. This is not always the case.

Lack of competition

6 large corporates own almost 60% of all vet practices. A single group often owns multiple practices in the same area. Pet owners may not realise as the names and branding often remains unchanged. These groups also own many of the services vets use such as specialist treatment centres or out of hours care. This can lead to less competition and choice for pet owners.

Medication

Many pet owners did not realise they could get a prescription from their vet but buy the medicine elsewhere. They may be overpaying as a result.

Vets must use signs in reception or treatment rooms to tell customers that they can get a prescription for medicine and buy it elsewhere, but the CMA is concerned that these may not be effective. While it can be convenient to buy a medicine directly from the vet as part of a consultation, around 25% of pet owners did not know that getting a prescription filled elsewhere was an option – meaning they are missing out on potential savings, even with the prescription fee.

Some vet practices may make up to a quarter of their income selling medicines, so there may be little incentive to make pet owners aware of alternatives.

The current regulatory regime may contribute to concerns by restricting veterinary practices’ ability to source cheaper medicines online.

Regulation

The rules vets must abide by date back to 1966. The Veterinary Regulations 1966 may no longer be fit for purpose as the veterinary sector is quite different now.

The main regulation in the industry dates from 1966, before non-vets were able to own vet practices. It relates to individual practitioners, not practice owners or vet practices as businesses. This means that the statutory regulator, the RCVS, has limited leverage over the commercial and consumer-facing aspects of veterinary businesses, for example how prices are communicated or whether there is transparency about ownership of vet practices or related services.

The RCVS has put in place a Practice Standards Scheme which applies to the vet practice rather than individual vets. Only 69% of eligible practices have signed up to this voluntary scheme, meaning that almost a third of the market has not committed to this approach.

The provisional view is that outcomes for consumers could be improved if regulatory requirements and/or elements of best practice could be monitored or enforced more effectively.

Sarah Cardell, Chief Executive of the CMA, said:

We launched our review of the veterinary sector last September because this is a critical market for the UK’s 16 million pet owners. The unprecedented response we received from the public and veterinary professionals shows the strength of feeling on this issue is high and why we were right to look into this.

We have heard concerns from those working in the sector about the pressures they face, including acute staff shortages, and the impact this has on individual professionals. But our review has identified multiple concerns with the market that we think should be investigated further.

These include pet owners finding it difficult to access basic information like price lists and prescription costs – and potentially overpaying for medicines. We are also concerned about weak competition in some areas, driven in part by sector consolidation, and the incentives for large corporate groups to act in ways which may reduce competition and choice.

Given these strong indications of potential concern, it is time to put our work on a formal footing. We have provisionally decided to launch a market investigation because that’s the quickest route to enable us to take direct action, if needed.

Sue Davies, Which? Head of Consumer Protection Policy, said:

“Which? research found that UK pet owners are being exposed to unclear pricing practices and that they are at risk of being ripped off when using veterinary services – so it is positive that the CMA has provisionally decided that it should launch a formal market investigation.

“The CMA must get to the bottom of these issues and, if it concludes there are problems, the regulator needs to be prepared to take strong action to ensure pet owners are treated fairly when they use vet services.”

Next steps

The CMA has launched a 4-week consultation to seek views from the sector on the proposal to launch a market investigation. The consultation closes on 11 April 2023. A decision will be made on how to proceed afterwards.

What are your thoughts on vet surgery costs? Do you think pet owners are being ripped off?