Invisible chains

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Oscar's death took place out of hours and the piece was inspired by what happened at the emergency vet that night. Photo by Penelope Malby

When you hear talk about cartels, you normally think of illegal drugs, not vets and pet funerals! But increasingly, the same shareholders will profit from almost every aspect of your dog’s life and death

Article originally published in the July 2019 edition
By Beverley Cuddy

Last issue, I revealed how upsetting Oscar’s final evening on earth had been. I won’t go into it all again, but we ended up at the nearest emergency chain vet, late at night. They literally had a card machine in one hand and the lethal injection in the other. I asked other readers to tell me about their end-of-life experiences: we had such a response, we just couldn’t fit them all in this month.

Veterinary medicine has definitely changed in the last decade, but you may not have spotted a huge difference on the high street.

A family-owned vet practice is now rarer than an independent coffee shop. Your surgery may look the same, the people you used to deal with may still be there, but in some towns 80 per cent of the vets have already sold out to a chain.

ROLLING THE DICE

Corporate strategy is often a bit like playing Monopoly. If you can own everything, you keep more of the money. In recent years, competing chains have been racing to buy vet clinics – emergency vet practices, referral centres, hospitals, online drug companies – you name it!

But did you know they’ve also quietly been buying up pet crematoria, too? I didn’t.

When corporatisation first started, vet chains were much less subtle: they’d give the vet’s surgery a makeover and rebrand it, so it was obvious that it had become part of something bigger. Now, for many, the change of ownership is almost covert.

It’s not all bad news. There are advantages to being part of something bigger. Running a one-man band can take a talented vet’s focus away from saving pets’ lives. A chain can reduce the growing HR headache. Plus, corporates can bulk buy their drugs at better prices and invest in new equipment. They

can probably offer the staff more training, more perks and better career development.

But if the ultimate bosses are the shareholders, and they are hungry for growth and profit on their investment, will these economies of scale be passed on to you, the customer?

That fateful night we said goodbye to Oscar, I was handed the jaw-dropping receipt plus a leaflet from what looked like a quaint independent pet crematorium.

I’d been told to take off Oscar’s collar in case it got lost, which made me uncomfortable. If I couldn’t trust the crematorium to return the collar, what chance was there I’d get my own dog’s ashes back? I didn’t like leaving Oscar there and it played on my mind.

The next day, Facebook friend Kevin Spurgeon from Dignity Pet Crematoria in Hampshire saw my sad post about Oscar and the regrets I was having.

Many years ago, Dignity had helped give my beloved Sally the most serene end of life experience imaginable.

Kevin very kindly offered to go at once to pick up Oscar. The emergency vet wasn’t at all keen on letting Kevin take him, though. I had to instruct them directly, even though I was already really very upset. (They said it was because of ‘data protection’.)

But Kevin knew it would be all right – that they’d still have Oscar in the freezer. They only had a bi-weekly collection from their own crematoria.

Their own crematoria? That was news to me! I looked at the leaflet again. ‘Family run’ it said; there was no obvious clue that the two businesses were linked. I thought that was very sharp.

MORE THAN MONEY

The bill had been huge, but we’d not really been paying attention, as we were grieving. Nearly half of it had been the cremation costs. And it was all paid in advance before they’d consider putting Oscar out of his suffering. No one should ever feel ripped off at this most vulnerable time.

Somehow, despite the huge commercial competition in the sector, there are still many genuine, caring pet crematoria if you look for them. (Check out www.appcc.org.uk to see your nearest privately owned pet crematoria.)

Many vets used to recommend these very personal, bespoke companies before they sold their practices to one of the big chains. The new bosses prefer all their outlets to refer to other in-house partners to maximize profits.

It may be inevitable that vet care will become more and more of a business rather than a vocation, but the shareholders really need to recognise that pets are family and that running a successful business should be much more than selling products with generous margins to exploit. A bad experience at the end of a lifetime of good care will sour the business model very quickly.

And while a bulk commercial incinerator might be the most cost-effective way of emptying a freezer, I don’t think it’s the ending most of us would envisage when we don’t tick the ‘individual cremation’ box. I’ve seen a photo of one of these big machines; it looks more like a factory.

Would anyone ever consciously opt for landfill for their pet’s ashes? In the midst of grief, we really need to be confident that our pet will be treated with respect at all times.

CORPORATE CREMATION

Several employees of chain vets have told us (nervously, off the record) that despite generous staff discounts, they still use private crematoria for their own pets. They say they feel very uncomfortable selling the corporate cremation service and dearly wish they didn’t have to.

I hope the corporate bosses read this and react; they are obviously making very good staff unhappy, making them hard-sell the company funeral services.

Kevin from Dignity would like there to be a government enquiry into the pet cremation business – just as there has recently been for human funerals. He’d also like the RCVS to consider whether it’s ethical for vets to be hard-selling related products at such a mark-up in this way.

“Corporate veterinary companies have an increasing market share of pet crematoria. Sadly, after the buy-outs, the crematorias’ previous names are not changed. Vulnerable grieving clients are not made aware that there are other options.”

Kevin has calculated that last year, corporate crematoria turned over nearly £28 million. The big ompanies have only bought 20 per cent of the independent crematoria, but their market share is much larger because their veterinary practices have now mainly switched to sell only the in-house packages. And that £28 million becomes very much more revenue, as the vet’s mark-up is very chunky for just putting a dog or a cat in the freezer.

But surely if this led to a cheaper service for customers, that’s good, isn’t it?

PRICE COMPARISON

Kevin sighed, “One chain charged £307.66 via their out-of-hours vet while selling exactly the same cremation through the chain’s day vet for £75 less. A comparative price for the same service at an independent crematorium in the same area would be just £160.”

The corporate chains prefer their crematoria working at full capacity, so they also sell their services cheaply to the remaining independent vets in the area, undercutting the already struggling private crematoria.

I am told (by an industry insider) that the cost to the indie vet is a very attractive £50 per individual cremation with a suggestion they etail this to their customers for £300. A huge profit.

If an individual cremation isn’t specified by the owner, bulk incinerators can reduce the cost price per pet considerably and ashes will often just go to landfill. Apparently, the cost to the independent vet for this service is just £3 to £5 per body, but vets are encouraged to charge very much more to their customers.

Recent research suggests that in some towns, as many as 80 per cent of vet practices are now corporately owned and acquisitions are still rising steeply.

So, what can you do if the best vet in town is now part of a chain and you want to avoid their expensive and often inferior corporate funeral service?

Plan ahead. You can opt out. Write a letter of wishes before the final day. This would instruct the vet, so you don’t have to make hurried decisions immediately after euthanasia, or have the awkwardness of refusing their service.

Vets aren’t allowed to sell you financial services, such as pet insurance, any more – so should they be allowed to sell their own expensive cremation without making it clear there is a vested interest in you choosing it?

A decade or so ago, chain vets didn’t exist, so the names of these huge businesses may not yet be familiar to you. Finding out who owns your vet may not be easy, it’s far from obvious. I didn’t even spot when my own lovely vet had sold out – it had to be pointed out to me!

Independent Vetcare (IVC) seems to be the largest. Founded in 2011, it is based in Bristol and is now established in 10 European countries. In the UK, it has more than 600 vet clinics and employs 1,832 vets.

MARKET LEADER

CVS Group plc has more than 500 practices, employing 1,570 vets. It acquired 52 new surgeries in 2018, so is growing fast. Its annual report says it has four main business areas: veterinary practices, diagnostic laboratories, pet crematoria and e-commerce. It has MiPet Cover -its own pet insurance company, its own online pharmacy (Animed) and the night vet chain MiNight.

Its online report states: “The Group’s crematoria division will focus on growth from higher value individual cremations for both companion animal and equine clients. Opportunities exist for the development of further laboratory and crematoria sites n Ireland and the Netherlands in order to complement our existing practices.

“The Board is confident that the Group is positioned to deliver enhanced shareholder value in the future.”

But not all is well. Brexit has probably made recruitment harder. In January this year, the Times reported: “CVS has issued a profit warning, sending shares down by more than a third and triggering speculation that it was vulnerable to a predatory takeover. CVS Group said that a shortage of vets had led to above-inflation salary rises and left the company reliant on contractor cover, pushing up costs and hitting profits.”

Vets4Pets has 2,450 vets, Medivet 1,850, VetPartners employs 1,250 and Mars (yes, as in the chocolate bar and Pedigree Petfoods) has not long bought the Linnaeus Group, and has 87 vet practices already. Mars has been acquiring practices in the USA since 1994 and now employs around 50,000 veterinary professionals globally, caring for 10 million animals.

These are just some of the chains; there will probably be more by the time we come out – or less as they try to buy each other out! A bulk commercial incinerator might be the most cost-effective way of emptying a freezer, but I don’t think it’s the ending most of us would envisage when we don’t tick the ‘individual cremation’ box

BIGGER CAN BE BETTER

My vets have been part of a chain since I started using them over 20 years ago. They keep their staff and promote them. I know the founder and many of the vets from different branches. I can phone up 24/7 and there are vets able to access records and advise and treat if necessary.

Sharon Rose

 

CHAIN REACTION

My wonderful vets sold out to a chain. I was willing to give it a go, but it was appalling. All the support staff and best nurses left. I was given 5mg steroid tablets in a bottle that said that they were 1mg. Prices of some drugs doubled; when I queried it, I was told it was because the previous vet hadn’t charged the right price.

They use an out-of-hours emergency service. Having had treatment for a very aggressive cancer, I cannot always remember things and the thought of having to remember my dog’s various meds when under pressure was really worrying me.

Instead, I found a really nice vet practice that wasn’t part of a group. It does its own emergency cover, so I am happy that I changed.

Last year, Sulley had to go to the emergency vet after eating half  his Jolly ball. He was given an injection to make him sick and when it was all over, an injection to stop him feeling sick. The cost was £160

(£100 out-of-hours and £60 for the drugs). My friend had a similar situation last week when her dog ate a sponge. The chain

out-of-hours vet charged over £300 for very similar treatment. Michelle Allen

 

The Association of Private Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria advice:

Pet cremation is unregulated, has a history of fraud and mis-selling, is sold by third parties as a source of profit, and is usually carried out in secret behind closed doors. ‘Caveat emptor’ or ‘buyer beware’  has never been more relevant…

Your idea of the service you want for your pet may be very different from someone else’s. One person’s cremation can be another’s disposal. In view of this, only select a facility where you have a full written description of what happens. Don’t worry – there shouldn’t be any gruesome descriptions, as there are no gruesome elements to a proper cremation service.

The description should include:

How and when the pet will be transported to the crematorium. Will the pet be piled into a van with other pets and possibly the veterinary waste collected at the same time, or carefully transported on its own or alongside other pets?

How will the pet be kept at the crematorium before cremation?

Different options, such as individual or communal cremation, burial or simple disposal.

How will the cremation be carried out?

For an individual cremation, will the pet be in a chamber on its own, and how will they guarantee there are no remains of other pets and that all remains will be collected? For a communal cremation, will the pet be piled into a large incinerator or handled carefully and just placed side by side with other pets?

The choices for the presentation of the ashes.

Timescale and cost

Don’t be pushed into using a service sold by your veterinary surgery if it does not meet your needs. Take time to make a decision and remember that you will probably not be thinking clearly at the moment of your pet’s death.

The Association of Private Pet Cemeteries and Crematoria reserve the term ‘cremation’ for cremation services that transport, store and carry out the cremation in a respectful and dignified way that adheres to their detailed code of practice. However, the term cremation can also be used by other parties to hide a basic disposal service, sometimes through a misguided attempt not to upset a client.

If you can obtain all the information and are satisfied with the service, then you can arrange a cremation through your vet. However, you may find it offers more peace of mind to deal directly with the crematorium, possibly even to attend the cremation to reassure yourself and feel a part of the process. Whatever you choose, be sure it is the right thing for you.

Key messages

Do your research well ahead of needing a service. How the pet is identified and cremated (and how the remains are extracted from the chamber and identified afterwards) are all important. Only after ensuring the basics are carried out properly should people be concerned about what urn to have. If choosing an individualcremation service, the most important part is ensuring you get all of – and only – your pet’s ashes back!

On costs, pay little attention to the price charged by vets. It may be reassuringly expensive, but until vets are forced to itemise their prices to show the cost price they are charged separately to their administrative fees, you may be paying over the odds for a basic weekly service.

Give yourself time after your loss to make an informed decision – don’t be rushed by your vet. A good vet will give you time to decide what you want and whether you want to use a different company to the one they are offering you.

Article originally published in the July 2019 edition

 

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