Updated: May 26
In the world of veterinary diagnostics, there are many laboratories scattered across the country providing services for identifying infections, cancers, and other illnesses. Pathology is a critical part of diagnostics, which means it's essential to any veterinary practice. You won't have pathology services in-house, so you contract with a lab, and the only question is, which one?
A Narrow Field
One of the most significant challenges in the modern market for pet diagnostics is the limited scope of the field.
While there are hundreds – if not thousands – of labs across the country, the vast majority of them are actually owned by one of a few specific companies. Those companies include Antech, IDEXX, and Zoetis.
What this means is that when you identify a pathology lab to use for your samples and testing, it often doesn't matter what their name is or who they're branded as since they're just going to be using the tests and policies of one of the Big Three. If you're dissatisfied with the way one lab handles your samples or produces reports, you can turn to another, but there's a reasonable chance that they'll be owned by the same overarching corporation.
Some vets have even taken a hard stance against the corporatization of pathology labs. They fear that the entire veterinary industry is shifting away from a traditional relationship-based network of recommendations and towards a more corporatized and transactional atmosphere.
"I fear we are seeing the end of the profession as we know it," said Dr. Margie Scherk, a feline practitioner with family ties to True North Veterinary Diagnostics, an independent reference lab in British Columbia, Canada, that's being pressured competitively by Antech and IDEXX. "I'm seeing the end of relationships in this profession: relationships with your pathologist, relationships with the client through unfortunately expected and hasty referral, resulting in, at times, the end of personalized/individualized tailored client- and patient-based care. This is an era of corporate medicine." – VIN.
There are pros and cons to this shift, of course. Even after putting aside the profit motives of the big companies looking to get a slice of the $2.6 Billion-and-growing pie, there are some benefits to having the backing of a large multinational company rather than working as an independent lab.
Those labs have greater access to standard testing, larger banks of resources to identify and compare illnesses and correctly identify them, and can contribute to a larger and more unified body of research.
On the other hand, the larger the scale of the corporation behind it all, the stricter and more one-size-fits-all the policies and practices will be. That means, as mentioned in the quote above, that you build less of a relationship with the people at the lab you use, and they have less familiarity with the individual patients you refer. Larger perspectives lead to less detail.
Of course, this is nothing new. These companies didn't spring up out of nowhere. While Zoetis is a relative newcomer to the game, Antech and IDEXX have dominated the lab space for decades.
Picking an Option
The politics, finances, and international drama playing out in the business world are only somewhat relevant to those of us on the ground. As vets, we only have a little power individually to influence the decisions of these billion-dollar companies. We have to make do with what we have, and what we have is a relatively simple choice.
Which lab do you pick?
One operated by Antech, one owned by Zoetis, or one run by IDEXX? Or are there other options? Let's run through the choices and offer some pros, cons, and points of consideration for each.
Antech is a company that dominates the animal diagnostics and pathology space, but they aren't at the top of the chain. Antech is owned by Mars Veterinary Health, which is itself a division of Mars PetCare, which is a division of Mars, Inc. Yes, the same Mars that makes so many of the candy bars on store shelves, along with a wide range of different pet foods and similar products.
If you're working with labs under the names Banfield Pet Hospital, BluePearl Veterinary Partners, Pet Partners, VCA Animal Hospitals, AniCura, Asia Veterinary Diagnostics, Linnaeus Veterinary Group, Mount Pleasant Veterinary Group, Veterinary Emergency, and Specialty Hospital Singapore, or VSH Hong Kong (along with others, of course), you're working with Antech/Mars.
Antech has a ton of diagnostics and testing services on offer, though which ones you get through any specific lab may depend on what testing equipment that lab has on hand.
In general, they tend to offer:
Predictive diagnostics, which predict genetic markers, warning signs, and predisposition (along with modern AI-driven predictions) to attempt to identify illnesses in pets before they strike and ward them off or catch them early.
Molecular diagnostics, including some of the most reputable diagnostics for canine bladder and prostate cancers.
Both Anatomic and Clinical pathology diagnostics, with an entire staff of over 70 board-certified pathologists working to identify and produce test results with short turnaround times.
Antech is well-integrated and provides fast, reliable diagnostics pretty much anywhere in the world, with consistent, accurate results. Overall, they're generally an excellent option for canine pathology, which is good, because it can be hard to avoid them even if you try. Chances are good that many of the regional labs in your area are backed by Antech.
In general, you can think of Antech as setting the bar. If a company doesn't provide at least as good a set of pathology services as Antech, well, you can always choose an Antech lab instead.
IDEXX is right up there with Antech as one of the prominent three industry leaders in pet diagnostics.
They provide a wide range of testing services and, more importantly, equipment. In fact, one of the most significant stakes IDEXX has on the market is a set of proprietary machines and testing supplies you can't get or use elsewhere.
IDEXX machines require IDEXX testing supplies, so once you're part of their ecosystem, it
can be difficult to leave.
IDEXX has a few benefits going for it. Foremost among them is a two-hour turnaround time on testing, at least for specific tests they offer in cytology. Other types of testing, like biopsy analysis, will have a 2-3 day turnaround for priority cases.
The ability to keep specific common testing machines and their accompanying tests in your office can also help cut down on how frequently you need to reach out to a lab – and the expenses of doing so.
That said, the biggest drawback of IDEXX is one we already mentioned: being locked into their ecosystem.
It's not easy to transition from one lab to another, but it can be even more complicated if doing so means you're left with boxes of unused and unusable testing equipment. Of course, this is more of a problem for labs than for vets, but it can still be relevant if you keep their equipment on hand.
Zoetis may or may not be a familiar name to you if you've spent time in various areas of pharmaceuticals and medicine. Zoetis was originally just the pet and animal health wing of Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant. When the company split off and became its own thing, it did so with a very significant budget and had been growing primarily by buying other companies in the spaces they wanted to take over.
That's what happened in laboratory and pathology spaces. Numerous animal health companies, like Embrex, Catapult Genetics, Bovigen, Wyeth, Vetnex, and Synbiotics, have all come under the greater Zoetis banner.
Zoetis has attained significant enough market share to compete against Antech and IDEXX, but they're still quite a bit smaller than the other two. They're also likely to struggle in future expansions, particularly into Europe, where they can't just buy their way to prominence.
Zoetis has a few benefits for vets looking for a lab. Foremost among them is the vast range of tests and options they offer. While canine pathology is undoubtedly one of them, they can do a little bit of everything in every realm of animal health, including large animals like cows and horses, aquatic animals, and much more. Many Zoetis labs are capable of nearly any animal pathology you could need.
At the same time, Zoetis seems to have a bit of a rocky internal structure. When you staple a hundred companies together without firm integration processes, there's bound to be conflict, and it sounds like a lot of strife has cropped up over the years.
"The buyouts, which sent shockwaves through the profession, have led to high employee turnover and low morale, unhappy clients, and only modest growth, if any. Disgruntled employees say internal politics and poor decision-making by higher-ups have hampered the company's success, dragging it down with slow turnaround and poor customer service." – VIN.
What does this mean for vets looking for a lab? It really hearkens back to the pre-corporate world and the little details of individual labs, small companies, and independent research institutions. Unlike Antech, with standardized everything across its facilities, Zoetis tends to be a lot more individualized, so each lab will need to be analyzed on its own merits.
Other Companies (Heska, IDVet, Virbac, Prionics)
While the big three do dominate pet diagnostics, there are always going to be smaller companies operating in the space as well. Often, there isn't much way to tell what a pathology lab offers and who they're part of unless you call them and ask, though if you familiarize yourself with the common tests and other offerings, you can make some educated guesses.
Alternatively, you can always go with smaller companies, like the ones on the list below.
Heska. One of Heska's biggest claims to fame currently is a blood test capable of detecting several common forms of canine cancer, which can be a huge benefit if those are common cases in your practice.
They've been on the rise as well, though they're still far from the major players:
IDVet. IDVet is largely focused on farm animals and livestock, along with testing for various zoonotic ailments across the board. They have some companion animal tests available, but their pathology services are relatively limited.
Virbac. Virbac is the 6th largest pet pharmaceutical company in the world, based out of France; they're also the minds behind STELFONTA, an effective cancer treatment for dogs, which we wrote about here. They are less comprehensive than other labs, but they're good at what they do.
Prionics. Prion diseases are caused by proteins that haven't formed correctly, unlike more conventional diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, and other nasties. Prion diseases are quite rare but poorly understood, and Prionics focuses on them more than other forms of diagnostics. They're most relevant for livestock (Mad Cow is a prion disease) and less so for dogs.
There are certainly plenty of other pathology providers out there as well, but you'll want to look at your local labs to see who is available.
Truthfully, the biggest drawback to a smaller company like this is that there's a reasonable chance one of the big three will buy them at some point, and you'll be back to square one.
A final option is to find a local independent lab, research lab, or educational lab working without the backing or ownership of one of the bigger companies. It's impossible to judge these as a whole; some are great, some are mediocre, and some won't handle your cases at all.
At Hope Vet Specialty Services, we can not only help you interpret canine pathology results and provide guidance on them, but we also have several other offerings. If you need opinions, advice, or more information about oncology, neurology, complex internal medicine cases, emergency and critical care, and dermatology, please send us a message. We're more than happy to link you up with our experts on a case-by-case basis so you get the best and most relevant information you can get for any needs you have. We're on speed dial for forward-thinking veterinarians across the country, and when you need us the most, we are here to help with your most challenging clients.