On 7 September 2023, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced that it has launched a review into the veterinary services market for household pets in the UK (i.e. small animals such as dogs and cats). The CMA intends to explore how well the market is working for pet owners who are paying for veterinary services, including whether they are receiving the necessary information to obtain appropriate treatment for their pets. The CMA is carrying out this review pursuant to its general information-gathering powers in section 5 of the Enterprise Act 2002.
Almost two-thirds of households in the UK own a pet, with the number of pet owners having increased significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic. The market for veterinary services is worth over £2 billion in the UK.
The review has been prompted by concerns that pet owners may not find it easy to access the information they need about prices and treatment options in order to make good choices about which vet to use and which services to purchase. Sarah Cardell, Chief Executive of the CMA, has highlighted the importance of receiving clear information and pricing:
“When a pet is unwell they often need urgent treatment, which means that pet owners may not shop around for the best deal, like they do with other services. This means they may not have the relevant information to make informed decisions at what can be a distressing time."
The CMA is also concerned about the financial pressure that can result from caring for an ill pet, particularly at a time when households are under increasing strain from the rising cost of living. The CMA committed in its ‘Annual Plan 2023 to 2024’ to act in areas of essential spending and where people are under particular financial pressure, such as accommodation and caring for ourselves and others. Figures suggest that the cost of vet services has risen faster than the rate of inflation, which is something that the CMA will bear in mind when considering whether pet owners are getting value for money from their vets.
Background to the sector
The CMA is very familiar with the veterinary services market as it has undertaken several merger reviews in the sector over the past 18 months, all of which have resulted in the parties proposing to divest part or all of the acquired business to address local competition concerns identified by the CMA. The sector has seen significant consolidation over the past decade, with a handful of large vet groups acquiring many independent practices. As a result, the number of independent practices has fallen from 89% in 2013 to 45% in 2021.
In its merger reviews, the CMA observed a number of market features which third parties had raised concerns about. One of these is an increase in vertical integration, whereby large vet groups also offer other services such as diagnostics, referral treatment, out-of-hours care and cremation services, which they cross-sell to their veterinary customers. The CMA also noted concerns around the lack of visibility of ownership in the industry and suspects that it may be unclear to customers whether a particular vet is part of a large group, whether that group owns other practices in their area, and whether other services being sold are provided by that group. This could impact pet owners' choices and reduce the incentives of local vet practices to compete.
Scope of the review
The CMA has published three separate questionnaires on its website, which are aimed at (i) pet owners; (ii) people who work in veterinary practices; and (iii) people who supply products and services to the veterinary services market. The CMA is seeking information from interested parties, in particular regarding their experiences with:
- pricing, including vet owners’ awareness of treatment costs and how they pay for them (e.g. insurance or self-pay);
- access to prescriptions and medications;
- how pet owners choose a vet surgery and whether they are aware that a vet may be part of a larger vet group; and
- the variety of services that are available.
The questionnaires will remain available on the CMA’s website (see here) for up to six weeks, i.e. until around mid-October 2023.
Next steps and possible outcomes
The CMA will analyse the questionnaire responses, alongside other information that the CMA is gathering (e.g. consumer research) and consider how well the veterinary services market is working for pet owners who are paying for veterinary services and for veterinary practices.
The CMA has stated that it will provide an update on its findings in early 2024. At that stage, the possible outcomes of this initial review include:
- A market study to further investigate any possible competition or consumer protection concerns. Such a study could lead to the CMA issuing guidance to the sector or recommendations to government (e.g. if policy or regulatory intervention is needed), or the CMA could decide to make a reference for a full market investigation; or
- Consumer enforcement action if the CMA identifies breaches of consumer protection law.
In all of its recent merger decisions in the veterinary sector, the CMA required remedies to address the competition concerns identified. Furthermore, in a 2023 speech on the CMA’s enforcement priorities, Sarah Cardell referred to the CMA’s “conscious strategy” to look out for “roll-up” acquisitions, where investors purchase companies within the same market and merge these together. The CMA is well aware of the potential competition issues arising from such roll-up acquisitions in the veterinary sector and it is not surprising that it has now decided to seek further information from industry stakeholders about how well the market is working.
If you would like assistance responding to the CMA’s market review, please do not hesitate to contact one of our specialists.