Complaints about veterinary practices have soared by 64 per cent in just two years, a Daily Mail investigation reveals today.
But despite horror stories suggesting that our pets are being put at risk by corporate giants swallowing up the sector, a shocking 99 per cent of professional misconduct claims were not upheld in 2020.
A multi-billion pound takeover spree, starting when ownership rules were relaxed in 1999, means more than half of the 6,000 veterinary practices are owned by just six companies. And three of them are private equity firms.
It has led to concerns that profit-hungry firms are creating monopolies, leaving customers with nowhere else to go, potentially having to pay inflated fees – and putting animal welfare at risk.
Referral: Lynne Bowley was told that Eva should have been sent to specialists earlier
And when something does go wrong, some pet owners say the process in the big-money era is stacked against them.
Take the story of Crufts winner Eva, a five-year-old Bracco Italiano worth £125,000, who fell ill ten days after winning Best of Breed in 2019. Owner Lynne Bowley, 56, took her to her local vet, owned by CVS, a publicly-listed company that owns about 500 surgeries, but Eva died several days after emergency treatment for a suspected intestinal blockage.
Another vet believed Eva should have been referred to pet hospital for specialist treatment much earlier, but her complaint to CVS was dismissed.
So too was her approach to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, which deals with complaints about professional misconduct. Some 99 per cent of such complaints were not upheld in 2020.
And Trace Brown, 33, claims she was ‘gaslighted and stonewalled’ by lawyers for 17 months after her dog Honey nearly died after she lost 16 inches of intestine in botched surgery. Miss Brown is ‘traumatised and unable to move on’.
Trace Brown was offered just £120 after she had paid £12,000 for corrective treatment after mistakes she claims were made by a corporate vet
A scroll through Facebook reveals a host of stories about vets missing warning signs about pets’ health, and claims of management bullying when owners raise concerns. Experts characterise the state of the industry as a David and Goliath battle – putting standards at risk as firms can’t be held to account.
Since the rules changed in 1999 investors have been quick to cash in on a booming industry, which saw spending on services reach £4.5 billion in 2019, up by 57 per cent since 2015.
But there are now fears that takeovers are behind a rise in complaints as pet owners lose faith in faceless corporations. The Veterinary Client Mediation Service (VCMS) recorded 3,151 complaints in 2019-20, up from 1,941 in 2017-18. The VCMS, set up in 2016, says the rise could be partly due to more awareness of the service and a boom in pet ownership.
Hospital help was too late
Lynne Bowley says her £125,000 Crufts prize-winning dog Eva died because of mistakes at her local veterinary practice.
When Eva, a five-year-old Bracco Italiano, fell ill the CVS-owned surgery operated on her for an intestinal blockage. Four days later blood poured from her wound and the vet, in Elgin, Scotland, said it was a reaction to stitches.
Eva had a second operation but went downhill. She was then taken to an animal hospital in Edinburgh but died after surgery. Mrs Bowley, 56, says she was told Eva should have been referred to hospital earlier, but that was rejected.
CVS said it was ‘committed to providing the highest quality clinical services’.
£120 payout for £12k bill
Trace Brown was offered just £120 after she had paid £12,000 for corrective treatment after mistakes she claims were made by a corporate vet. Her rescue dog Honey needed five operations, and she was told the first vet, a locum at VetPartners, had made mistakes. Miss Brown, 53, from Tranent, near Edinburgh, went to mediation where she got £120.
But Chris Deadman, of The Good Vet & Pet Guide, says the buyout of independent practices has caused ‘a genuine diminution of quality and increased complaints’. About 55 per cent of complaints to the VCMS related to corporate groups, compared to 30 per cent for independent vets.
This reflects market share – two thirds of practices belong to a group of three or more. But pet lovers are angry at the reaction of big firms to complaints. The VCMS is voluntary and practices declined mediation in around one in ten cases last year, although its data shows no difference in engagement between independents and corporates.
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 bond with the individual client.’
He said the only way pet owners could get redress is via a civil case, but the costs are prohibitive.
‘There’s a complete disparity of arms. It’s David and Goliath,’ he said. Critics also fear firms are taking advantage of a complaints process stacked in their favour. David Anderson, founder of the Facebook group Vets, Vets Now & RCVS Complaints, says this is partly because the RCVS requires complainants to prove misconduct ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. Most regulators work on ‘the balance of probabilities’.
Mr Anderson says corporate practices know complaints are likely to be rejected and so have little incentive to admit mistakes.
He added: ‘Groups like Vets Now, who have a monopoly of practices in certain areas, have so little to lose because customers have no choice but to keep coming back.’
Vets Now is the leading provider of emergency veterinary care. In 2019, it was bought by private-equity backed IVC Evidensia, which owns 993 practices, almost 20 per cent of the market.
The RCVS has approved a plan to introduce a standard of proof based on balance of probabilities in future. A spokesman said: ‘We investigate all concerns that are raised with us about veterinary professionals, irrespective of the type of practice or workplace they work in.’ IVC Evidensia declined to comment.