Competiton watchdogs have signalled a cap could be imposed on some extortionate vet fees amid fears pet owners are being exploited.

At the same time, large companies which have allegedly captured a monopoly of vet services in some parts of the country could be forced to sell off some practices to boost choice.

The Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) has signalled the potential moves to protect pet lovers after announcing plans to push ahead with a formal investigation into the UK’s veterinarian services.

The official watchdog is concerned that vet practices are owned by a small group of corporate giants that are overcharging for treatments and medicines.

Many fail to provide clear price lists on their websites, which can see pet owners hit with very large surprise bills.

As a result, some vets may charge £30 or £40 – or even more – as a ‘consultation fee’ just to see a sick or injured pet.

Costs range from £89 for neutering a male cat, to £369 for an x-ray, right up to £1,599 for an operation for a knee repair, according to the Animal Trust.

At the same time prescription fees for medicines, such as anti-inflamatory pain killers, can be much higher than the human equivalent.

Today the CMA said: “Examples of potential remedies include mandating the provision of certain information to consumers, imposing maximum prescription fees and ordering the sale or disposal of a business or assets – all of which are legally enforceable.

“The CMA can also make recommendations to government – for example, suggesting changes to the regulatory framework.”

Fees have become so expensive that the cost of pet insurance has soared to the point that families are paying higher premiums to cover vets bills than they do to insure their home and belongings.

A typical policy is around £144 a year, however some owners of older dogs are paying more than £1,700.

The main concerns identified by the CMA are:

* Most vet practices do not display prices on their website. Of those practices checked, over 80 percent had no pricing information online, even for the most basic services.

* People are not always informed of the cost of treatment before agreeing to it – around one fifth of said that they were not provided with any cost information before agreeing to tests.

Around one in ten said they were not provided with cost information before their pet had surgery, and around half said they were not informed about costs before agreeing to out of hours treatment.

* A company can own multiple vet practices in a local area without making that clear – for example, only 4 out of 6 of the largest groups don’t change the name or branding when they take over an independently owned vet practice. This means pet owners are not always comparing competitors when choosing a vet practice.

The CMA’s top 3 tips for pet owners

1. Look further than the closest vet

Many pet owners told us they choose a vet based simply on how close it is to where they live. It might feel convenient, but fees and services do differ between practices so check to be sure it’s the right one for you.

2. Ask if there are other treatment options
Getting a treatment that works for you and your pet is what matters most. It’s important that you understand why your vet has recommended a particular treatment or test. But if you’re not sure about a treatment, or you’re worried about the cost, speak to your vet.

3. If it’s not urgent, consider buying the medication elsewhere
When it’s an emergency, we just want to get our pet the medication they need as quickly as possible. But if your pet needs non-urgent care, then it can be cheaper, even when you include your vet’s prescription fee, to buy the medication elsewhere – such as an online pharmacy or specialist pet shop. Around a quarter of pet owners who responded to our call for information were not aware of this.

The chief executive of the CMA, Sarah Cardell, said: “The message from our vets work so far has been loud and clear – many pet owners and professionals have concerns that need further investigation.

“We’ve heard from people who are struggling to pay vet bills, potentially overpaying for medicines and don’t always know the best treatment options available to them. We also remain concerned about the potential impact of sector consolidation and the incentives for large, integrated vet groups to act in ways which reduce consumer choice.

“In March we proposed that a formal market investigation was the best route to fully explore these concerns and, if appropriate, take direct action to address them. That proposal has been overwhelmingly endorsed through our consultation.

“While we’re aware of acute staff shortages and difficult working conditions for vets, we consider a formal market investigation is essential to ensure good outcomes for the millions of pet owners in the UK as well as professionals working in the sector. The independent inquiry group will now take this investigation forward and, in the meantime, we’re publishing some tips to help pet owners better navigate vet services.”

The market investigation will be led by Martin Coleman who said: “The vet services market is worth an estimated £5 billion a year and provides a necessary service to pet owners so it’s right that we fully investigate competition concerns – this matters to businesses, veterinary professionals and, crucially, the 16 million households in the UK who have pets.

.“Market investigations are, by their nature, comprehensive and complex. They require time to fully explore concerns and to ensure that all points of view are heard so we can reach the right outcomes and take appropriate action, if needed, to make the market work for everyone.”

The British Veterinary Associatioh said it welcomes the inquiry.

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