Dr. Bruce Silverman was one year behind me in vet school at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a loudmouth back then and he's a loudmouth now (and I say that in the nicest of ways). You can say whatever you want about opinions, but when they're thoughtful and well written, I'll take 'em.

Here's his take on one veterinary business microcosm: Chicago's. His observations represent the sign of the times and the shape of things to come so pay attention...and discuss...

Vet Wars: How veterinarians in Chicago are battling it out over animal turf

by Bruce E. Silverman, VMD MBA

I received a letter in the mail today from a local veterinary establishment. This letter was from a suburban veterinary emergency room and critical care center on Chicago’s north side. It’s an ER that’s been around for years, complete with a couple of specialists who generally have daytime hours at the same location when the emergency room is closed from dawn until dusk. Apparently, this ER has decided to take the plunge into the world of 24/7 emergency services.

Why wouldn’t they, you might ask? Good question. On the face of it, this is a logical service for an ER to offer. After all, human hospitals don’t shut down their ERs, vampire-like, just because the daylight has come. Yet, this hasn’t always been the case for most veterinary emergency rooms around Chicago and its suburbs. Most have been open only at night. Traditionally, general practice neighborhood hospitals function during the daylight hours, and emergency rooms take over for the city’s pets once the neighborhood hospitals shut their doors and turn off the lights at night. Sure, a few of the metro area’s specialty/critical care centers, chock full of radiologists, surgeons, cardiologists, etc, of technicians and fancy equipment, stay open round the clock. But these have been more the exception. So what’s changed? Simply put: competition. Less simply put: more hospitals, more ancillary businesses, expanded hours, rising supply costs, fewer pet visits and less client discretionary income, and more general practice doctors and specialists.

The peaceful status quo balance in the veterinary medical sector had been kept stable over many years by basic supply and demand economics, segmented markets, and a stable economy with high business and income growth. Neighborhoods had one, maybe two veterinary hospitals, and cities had one, maybe two emergency rooms. Throw in a specialty center or two, maybe a university hospital, and things get more complicated, but not by much if the city, like Chicago, is large enough (for the record, Chicago had no university veterinary presence until recently). The non-profits had their own little niche, as well, in taking in indigent pets, cleaning them up, and finding them homes. But there was ample room for this, and it only helped clinics get new patients, anyway, so this was very welcome. Everyone got along fairly well without too much stepping on toes. The local medical association meetings were congenial. There was lightness in the air.

But then things changed, and continue to change. A number of new hospitals sprung up within or between neighborhoods. Another ER and specialty center were added here or there in a suburb. A specialist was added to one or another general practice hospital. New, non-traditional services are being introduced by some hospitals, overlapping with those of other clinics nearby already offering those services. General practice hospitals have started adding doctors and expanding their hours earlier and later to better cater to clients’ work schedules. Non-profits are expanding their services well beyond simple adoptions and spay and neuter clinics only for those most in need. To these add the plethora of new doggie day care centers, dog-walking services, boarding facilities, pet groomers, homeopathic and therapy centers, and low-cost vaccine clinics that are springing up everywhere, with rumors of more to come. Competition is on the rise at a time when suppliers of all things needed for the smooth functioning of a veterinary hospital are increasing the costs of goods sold, and at the same time that pet owners are losing jobs or seeing their savings evaporate (fortunately, as I write this, the Dow is back over 10,000 points). Doom and gloom? Could it get worse?

In Chicago, it did, and only just recently. The straw that broke the camel’s back (a very sad, yet improbable, cliché in the veterinary world) was the addition of yet another emergency room and critical care center close to an already established nighttime ER. This new emergency room, however, happens to be open 24/7, and is staffed by specialists in critical care and surgery – similar to the specialty and critical care centers already in outlying suburbs, but heavy on the emergency services. And did I mention its impressive new facility with expansive lobby and high-tech equipment? The tension in the Chicago veterinary market has become palpable. Expecting impending devastation if no evasive action were taken, the traditional ER down the street expanded its hours to 24/7, regardless of any foreseeable economy of scale. And this brings us full-circle to the letter I received in the mail today: yet another ER expanding hours in the face of obsolescence.

Is there really a critical mass being reached on Chicago’s veterinary battleground, and perhaps in other parts of the country? From the veterinary business operator’s point of view, the competition for a largely unchanging pet population is becoming much more intense. Perhaps the long established larger hospitals and pet service businesses have had it too easy for too long, and will feel the squeeze much more than the newer, more nimble businesses springing up. Or perhaps the newer businesses will find that reaching an economy of scale while growing a startup is extremely difficult while costs are squeezing from below and pet owners’ financial limitations create a glass ceiling from above. Perhaps on this expanding battlefield, ingenuity and perseverance will be the greatest weapons. Fortunately there will likely be little overt carnage, knowing the overall goodly demeanor of my veterinary colleagues. The weapons will be wielded gently, and with little ill will intended. Who wins and who loses may not be apparent for some time. Perhaps the medical association meetings will still be quite congenial. And while perhaps we’ll all feel some pain, hopefully no doors will ever need to be shuttered.

Will anyone be a clear winner? Absolutely. In this battle for pets, the innocent -- those pet owners reading this story -- will find that these developments mean fairer times ahead. Competition may be the mother of invention, but it’s also the father of better pricing, or at least expanded services and improved client (pet owner) care for the discriminating consumer. So be discriminating, but know that we’ve all made these great investments in knowledge, skills and equipment for you and your pets. And remember, at the end of the day (or night), there may be a thinner smear of butter on our bread, or a thicker layer of sweat on our brow…and the battle will yet go on, and on, and on.