Vet sector trends

Vet checking a golden retrievers paws

(last updated July 2019)

Despite an overall increase in demand for veterinary services some types of practice have not fared as well as others.

Large animal practices

Key events and developments in the farming sector in the last 20 years or so have reduced the size of the farmed livestock population in the UK and have led to farmers cutting costs - including the amount spent on veterinary treatment - wherever possible to improve profitability. Many veterinary practices no longer offer large animal services as a result. Also, remaining large animal practices have found it increasingly difficult to recruit young vets, and has resulted in more practices withdrawing treatment for farm animals. There has been a shift in the nature of farm animal treatment as a result of these changes, with preventative 'population' medicine more common than reactive treatment of individual sick animals. Nevertheless, somewhat better fortunes for livestock farmers in the 2010s have seen the amount spent on veterinary services by the agriculture sector increase, having remained largely static for much of the 2000s. However, as a result of the economic slump at the end of the 2000s and opening years of the 2010s the size of the horse population reduced significantly because very many horse owners couldn't afford to keep them. This inevitably had an impact on some equine veterinary practices. Although the economy has recovered since the second half of 2013, the horse population remains a lot lower than at its recent peak and it's likely that it will take a few years to return to its pre-downturn levels.

Small animal practices

The small animal, or companion animal, sector has fared much better because of:

  • increased numbers of small animals as pets
  • significant advances in the range of treatment that can be offered
  • the introduction of pet insurance, to help animal owners to offset the cost of treatment
  • a rise in the amount of money that many owners are prepared to spend on their animals. Growth in the number of owners taking out pet insurance policies has also resulted in an increase in the cost - and complexity - of the procedures that are agreed to
  • the introduction of the Pet Travel Scheme, which requires vets to blood test and vaccinate the animal and implant a microchip, all of which can be charged for. In January 2012 the UK brought the Pet Travel Scheme into line with the EU's animal movement policy

However, because of the decline in the large animal sector, more vets have targeted the small animal market and this may have led to increased competition and to downward pressure on fees. The squeeze on consumers' disposable income in the late 2000s and early 2010s also reportedly resulted in some animal owners skipping routine treatments like immunisation boosters and annual check-ups and despite recent improvements in the economy, spending on veterinary services for pets only grew by just over 2% a year during the mid 2010s.

In 2012, the government consulted on introducing compulsory microchipping for all dogs and this requirement was introduced in England, Scotland and Wales in 2016. (It's already a requirement of obtaining a dog licence in Northern Ireland)

Changes to animal medicines legislation

Following the implementation of the Veterinary Medicines Regulations and the Supply of Relevant Veterinary Medicinal Products Order in late 2005, a number of changes were made to the process of distributing veterinary medicines. These changes include:

  • allowing veterinary surgeons and pharmacists to dispense other vets' prescriptions
  • the introduction of a new, tiered distribution system for Prescription Only Medicines (POMs). The classifications for POMs are POM-V, which can only be prescribed by vets and pharmacists and POM-VPS, which can be prescribed by vets, pharmacists and retailers such as saddlers and agricultural merchants, provided they are suitably qualified persons (SQPs). The classification for medicines for non-food producing animals is NFA-VPS, which can be prescribed by vets, pharmacists and suitably qualified persons
  • an extension of record keeping requirements
  • for three years after the implentation of the legislation, vets were not allowed to charge for providing a prescription. From 1 November 2008 the ban on charging ended after which point vets were permitted to charge for providing a prescription. The amount charged is up to the individual practice

Also, since 2009 all veterinary premises from which animal medicines are supplied must be registered. Registration is carried out by the RCVS on behalf of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate.

About half of the vets working in the UK were trained overseas, mainly in the EU. The BVA wants the government to allow overseas vets and veterinary nurses working in the UK at present to continue to work here, particularly as having sufficient vets will be crucial to making a success of Brexit and maintaining high standards of animal welfare.

You will need to decide whether:

  • there is sufficient demand in your area to support your practice
  • you will be able to compete against other local veterinary practices and suppliers of animal products
  • your fee scales and your planned mark-up on medicines will generate enough income

Keep up to date with developments

Joining a trade association is an excellent way of keeping up with developments in your industry. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) represents the interests of the veterinary profession as a whole. There are also a number of specialist associations such as:

  • The British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA)
  • The British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA)
  • The Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS)

All practising vets must be registered with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and abide by the RCVS Guide to Professional Conduct. And all practice premises from which medicines are dispensed must also be registered with the RCVS. The RCVS produces a regular newsletter RCVS News and its website contains a great deal of useful information.

There are a number of online sources of news and information for the veterinary sector such as VetBuzz and Vet Times, which also includes information about a number of veterinary journals. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) section of the website is also a useful source of information.

The National Office of Animal Health (NOAH) represents the animal medicines industry in the UK and its website includes information about animal medicines and their applications.

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