Updated: Jul 30
Aspiring vets, vet techs, fresh graduates, and others entering the field have a handful of options in front of them. The biggest choice is where you want to work. Do you go to work for a private practice, or do you work for a corporate vet clinic?
Over the years, I've practiced in both corporate and private settings, so I won't sugarcoat it for you. Let's get into the good, the bad, and the ugly of corporate clinics and the benefits of working in a private practice.
What are Corporate Vet Clinics?
We all know what a private practice is; a veterinary clinic owned and operated by a single vet or partnership, with a single location (or maybe a couple of branches around a city), operating independently of larger corporate control.
What, then, is a corporate vet clinic?
As you might expect, a corporate vet clinic is a larger corporation that controls vet clinics throughout a region. Smaller corporate clinic chains might have a dozen locations throughout a state or region, while larger networks may have hundreds of clinics across the country. Some are even international, throughout North America and Europe.
The largest example of a corporate chain is VCA. VCA owns more than 1,000 different clinics in North America and is a subsidiary of Mars, Inc. Yes, that Mars, the same company that owns M&Ms (and pet food brands like Pedigree).
The corporatization and consolidation of vet clinics across the country have been growing over the last decade. Studies like this one serve to showcase the way the industry is consolidating and how various forms of corporate buyers are snapping up vet practices or opening their own.
Generally, corporate consolidation comes from four sources.
Retail-Associated Groups, like Walmart investing in VIP Pet Care or Petco's store-brand vet services, Thrive. These are usually vet groups working in partnership with retail chains rather than the retail chains opening up vet practices.
Single-Family Groups, like Mars (which, despite being a global brand, is still basically one family) or Desmarais. These corporations buy vet groups or clinics as a way to diversify their portfolios.
Private Equity Firms. A PE Firm will spin up a corporation and use immense amounts of money to buy clinics and vet groups, then impose restrictions and rules to force profitability for a return on their investment.
Vet-Led Groups, such as AZ Pet Vet and MedVet. These are slower and more sustainable and are usually growth forms of partnerships between vets. They tend to be less baldly profit-motivated than the other groups.
According to the survey above, there are 48 groups consolidating the vet market. The largest owns over 3,700 clinics, while the smallest currently only owns four, but between them all, they own nearly 11,000 clinics.
In some areas, corporate clinics are viewed almost as intruders and don't get very much traction. In others, they've taken over, and it's difficult – if not impossible – to find a clinic that isn't owned by one of the groups.
What Are The Disadvantages of Working for Corporate Vet Networks?
The cynical among us might say that there are no real benefits to corporate vet clinics, that they exist to enrich the investors, not to provide better service for patients.
Corporate support, regardless of whether the company is run by veterans or owns a few or many practices, typically offers higher salaries, long working hours, and attractive benefits. This can be particularly appealing to recent college graduates who are burdened with substantial student loan debts, but this will come at a cost.
It's equally important to understand and consider the drawbacks of working as a corporate veterinarian:
Corporate vets tend to have the longest hours and overtime. Corporate veterinarians often find themselves working beyond standard hours. Despite being part of a corporate chain where standardization is emphasized, the reality of veterinary work often defies this principle. Work hours can be unpredictable and long, with vets and associates sometimes clocking in 60-80 hours a week. It's also not uncommon for the workload to be so heavy that you may have to turn away patients due to a lack of capacity. Even though there are usually other vets at the clinic, the high demand for services can be overwhelming and it's not always possible for another vet to step in when you're unable to attend to a patient.
Your workload will generally be heavy. In contrast to the description given, a veterinarian's workload can be quite heavy, particularly in emergency and specialty services. These services tend to add many cases to an already full schedule, and given the financial requirements of the practice, it's rare for clients to be turned away.
Support staff is not always readily available to handle paperwork or administrative tasks. In many cases, veterinarians are left to complete these tasks themselves, often outside of their standard working hours. This can lead to long hours, sometimes resulting in shifts exceeding 20 hours, as the paperwork can only be addressed once the day's clinical work has been completed.
The emotional toll of this profession is another factor that can't be overlooked. Veterinarians, being passionate animal lovers, strive to provide the best care for their patients, often leading to them taking on more than they can handle. This can be a key contributor to burnout. On the flip side, if they are unable to take on as many patients as they'd like, they often grapple with feelings of inadequacy, which can lead to depression. This is a significant concern in the veterinary profession, and this reality may be a serious drawback for those sensitive to such issues.
Most corporate clinics are quite expensive. A notable drawback of working as a corporate veterinarian can be the high pricing of services and products. Many corporate entities mark up their services and goods to three times the base cost. For veterinarians who genuinely want to help their patients, this can pose a significant hurdle if the pet owners can't afford the necessary treatments. The mental strain of this reality can be severe. It's distressing to witness patients being euthanized or leaving without the necessary treatment purely due to financial constraints. This situation can lead to a profound sense of helplessness and contributes significantly to professional burnout.
Corporate policies can be out of touch, oppressive, or obstructive. When corporate sets policy, it's one-size-fits-all, and as we all know, that means it almost never fits quite right. You may feel unnecessarily limited or restricted or forced to jump through hoops you know aren't necessary just to satisfy a corporate checklist. This can add delays and stress to a process that would, in private practice, be a lot easier.
Change is hard. Adopting a new treatment policy, changing according to the pressures of the industry, or responding to sudden changes in the market can all be very difficult when you have a national organization that needs to be rumbled into action. Private practices tend to be a lot more adaptable and responsive to change.
You are a smaller part of a larger team. While working in a private practice, particularly one that you own, it often places you as a central figure, but the dynamics in a corporate setting are different. Here, you contribute as a member of an extensive team rather than being the sole or one of the few veterinarians. While this means your individual profile may not be as highlighted as it might be in a private setting, it underscores the collaborative nature of corporate clinics. However, it's worth noting that this structure could lead to job uncertainty in certain circumstances, such as policy disagreements, management conflicts, or budget cuts, which can add to stress about job security, especially if you are not well-established in the practice.
What Are The Advantages of Private Veterinarian Practices?
Private practices have some significant benefits. The fact that you own them or you work closely with a senior vet who owns them means they can be very adaptable, customized, and personalized to your specialty and your patient load. I was published in an interview by Vet Advantage a couple of years ago and spoke in greater detail about this.
The greatest challenge to a private practice is all of the non-care work that goes into running it. All of the decision-making, all of the paperwork, all of the accounting, all of the patient contact, all of the record-keeping, all of the marketing, all of that, and so much more, is on your plate and demanding your attention. Either you do it yourself, or you hire someone to handle it, and when the latter costs money, it becomes a tricky decision.
Once up, running, and established, a private practice can be very resilient. But they can also live or die based on their reputation. They can be surprisingly precarious, which is why some vets have formed those vet-owned corporations to help build and support one another.
Many private practice veterinarians risk burnout, depression, and other stress illnesses because they take on too much and wear themselves thinner than paper trying to hold it all together. Many of us have a hard time saying no when patient care is involved, but that can risk harming both our own capability and the care we provide.
Mental Health Benefits: One significant advantage of private practice for veterinarians is the potential for improved mental health. Working in a large corporate entity often requires extended hours, including overtime, which can lead to increased stress and potential burnout. In contrast, veterinarians in private practice usually have more control over their schedules. This control allows them to maintain a healthier work-life balance, reducing stress and the risk of burnout.
Moreover, the freedom and autonomy that come with owning a private practice can also contribute to better mental health. Veterinarians can make decisions based on their own professional judgment and ethical standards rather than having to comply with corporate policies that they may not agree with. This sense of control and the ability to act in the best interest of their patients can lead to greater job satisfaction and improved mental well-being.
The more personalized relationship with their patients in a private practice setting can also provide a sense of fulfillment that contributes positively to mental health. Deep care for animals often drives veterinarians, and the ability to form lasting relationships with pets and their owners can provide a level of personal satisfaction that is less commonly found in larger corporate practices.
While the pressures and challenges of running a private practice should not be underestimated, the flexibility, autonomy, and deeper relationships with patients can offer significant benefits for a veterinarian's mental health.
Adaptability: Private veterinary practices provide an opportunity for flexibility. The owners, often veterinarians themselves, can tailor the services offered according to their specializations and the volume of patients they handle. This could include focusing on specific types of animals, offering emergency services, or even providing at-home care. Additionally, due to their close involvement in the business, they can make quick changes in response to shifts in demand or market conditions, making them more adaptable than larger corporate entities.
Personalization: Unlike larger corporate practices that may have a more generic approach to veterinary care, private practices can offer a more personalized service. They can cater specifically to the needs of their local community and their patients, making adjustments based on unique conditions and preferences. For example, if a private practice is in a rural area, it can focus on large animal care, while an urban practice might concentrate more on small pets.
Resilience: Once established, a private practice often demonstrates remarkable resilience. Although the early stages of setting up the practice can be challenging, a well-managed private practice can survive various external challenges, such as economic downturns or shifts in demographics. This resilience stems from the strong connections they build with their clients and the ability to adjust services based on local needs.
Veterinarian-Owned Support: Veterinarians who own their own practices sometimes form corporations or associations, allowing them to support each other. This network can provide shared resources, advice, and support, which can strengthen their individual practices. For example, they might share knowledge on new treatments, discuss best practices in managing the business side of their operations, or even provide backup support when one of the vets is unavailable. This type of mutual support can significantly enhance the strength and stability of private practices.
Augmenting Private Practice
Vets that join veterinary associations or smaller vet-owned corporate groups can benefit from a lot more partnership and support to help keep private practices afloat in tough times and provide more comprehensive care for patients. Moreover, this can be done without "selling out" to a corporate chain, as those usually demand 100% ownership and control over the practices they purchase.
Another thing that vets operating private practices can do to lighten the load is work with us here at Hope Vet. We're specialists on call, able to cover the bases you can't and provide insight you might miss. If you have challenging cases in internal medicine, critical care, dermatology, neurology, or oncology, you can call us for advice and assistance. You may not be a specialist in these fields, but that doesn't mean you have to go it alone. We're here to help.