Pigeon Post: Ian Neville writes from the UK

The trend toward corporate veterinary practice ownership has been accelerating noticeably in recent years. Ten years ago it was estimated that around only 3 per cent of UK practices were owned by corporate companies, by last year that had risen to 10 per cent. In April this year a takeover merged two of the largest veterinary joint venture partnership (JVP) groups under a single management team.

Pets At Home is a nationwide retail chain of 345 stores selling pet foods and products, accessories, insurance and small pets employing 6,250 staff. Eighty six of the stores have grooming parlours and 116 house branches of Companion Care veterinary surgeries employing a further 1,200 people. The subject of the takeover, Vets 4 Pets, is another substantial JVP company with 93 practices spread across the UK. Both groups were formed in 2001, but their merger creates a single and formidable buying, discounting, advertising, training and management capability that independent, established practitioners and new start-up hopefuls will probably find very difficult to compete with. It also significantly reduces competition between veterinary JVP groups, with possible adverse impacts on job opportunities and conditions. Combined sales for both groups in the year to March 2013 amounted to £100 million (A$ 158 million). Pets At Home plan to retain both veterinary group ‘brand’ identities but continue to expand their operations and open more new franchised clinics. 

Plans also continue to open the UK’s eighth veterinary school at the University of Surrey in 2014, despite widespread opposition from the profession (see Pigeon Post December 2012). In March the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) made it clear that it could not and would not oppose the venture. ‘It is not within our remit to determine whether a new school is necessary or not. It is up to prospective universities to consider the market they wish to serve and where they want to invest their resources,’ said the college. However, the RCVS does have the power to withhold the accreditation of veterinary degrees when acceptable educational standards are not attained. Graduates of non-accredited courses cannot register to work in the UK.

The RCVS made it clear that accreditation cannot take place until the first student cohort has graduated – which in Surrey’s case would provisionally be in 2019. It seems highly unlikely that any university having spent such considerable time, effort and money establishing a vet school would be denied accreditation at the final hurdle? Meanwhile the RCVS cheerfully acknowledges that workforce modelling based upon the existing seven vet schools indicates that the deficit in ‘home grown’ graduates will continue until ‘at least 2014’. Mind that gap!

Meanwhile, at Edinburgh Zoo the UK’s only giant pandas are similarly failing to ‘get it together’. Female Tian Tian (Sweetie) and male Yang Guang (Sunshine) came to Edinburgh from China in December 2011. The animals are kept separately except during the mid-April to May breeding season. Unfortunately they failed to mate naturally in 2012 and only Yang Guang showed any inclination to perform this year. Worried that Tian Tian’s chances of becoming pregnant were declining with each passing year the zoo decided to perform the first panda artificial insemination procedure in the UK on the reluctant pair.

Pandas are only fertile for a 36 hour period, which was assessed by monitoring Tian Tian’s hormone levels. When the time was right fresh semen was obtained from Yang Guang but frozen semen from a third panda Bao Bao (who died in Berlin Zoo last year at the age of 34) was also introduced to try and improve the chances of a successful fertilization. In the wild female pandas normally mate with more than one male during their brief period of receptivity.

The team at Edinburgh won’t know if their efforts have been successful until about mid-July as pandas are delayed implanters. The team of Scots, German & Chinese experts pronounced the procedure a success and confirmed that both pandas had made a full recovery. Any cubs will be born towards the end of August or in early September. If you want to see how things are progressing over the next few months you can log onto the zoo’s ‘panda cam’ on their website at www.edinburghzoo.org.uk … though when I looked in eating bamboo and sitting around seemed to be the diversions of choice.


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