A pending merger will put a number of the nation’s biggest veterinary care chains — VCA Inc., Banfield Pet Hospital, and BluePearl Veterinary Partners — under the ownership umbrella of candy and packaged foods giant Mars Inc. This deal will add VCA’s nearly 800 hospitals into what some critics say is a one-size-fits-all medical assembly line.
Why does Mars––a company more associated with Snickers and Twix than with veterinary care––want to be so heavily involved in animal hospitals? Pet care is becoming a big business, as pet owners increasingly treat their dogs and cats like family members, paying top dollar to keep them healthy and extend their lives. At the same time, chain clinics are replacing smaller, independently owned clinics.
Mars Inc. bought the Banfield chain in 2007. The clinics, conveniently connected to Petsmart stores, sell their wellness plans as something that isn’t quite health insurance, but that spreads a pet’s medical costs throughout the year. Since 2008, we’ve shared consumers’ problems with these plans.
Pet owners are often shocked to learn that they have to keep paying for the plan for the rest of the year after their pet dies, since the plans sound like health insurance to the average consumer. Hospital employees have told consumers that they can “cancel at any time,” leaving owners on the hook for another year of payments when they don’t want to continue the plans.
In a recent, lengthy piece that every pet owner should read about the rise of Banfield, Bloomberg Businessweek heard from former Banfield vets and patients that the wellness plans include services that a pet might not necessarily need and that could put it at risk, like an annual teeth cleaning under general anesthesia, and annual doses of vaccines that animals don’t need every year to maintain immunity.
Now Mars will be adding nearly 800 VCA hospitals to its existing 900 or so Banfield clinics, raising concerns that these problematic plans will be the norm for thousands of additional pets and their owners.
At the same time, the sheer size of the Mars Inc. animal care business raises questions about the future about the veterinary care industry. This same sort of rapid consolidation has already occurred in certain niche care businesses, like funeral homes, where bereavement Voltrons like Service Corporation International are allowed to gobble up independent, traditionally family owned funeral homes as the owners of these smaller businesses retire or sell out.