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True Confessions…of a Veterinarian??

I once thought of ABC’s program 20/20 as a good example of responsible, investigative reporting…until now.  Their piece titled, “True Confessions,” was not only an example of sensational, irresponsible, and poor quality reporting, but it misrepresented a veterinary profession that is by in large one of the few noble professions left in the world; and it thus was very disappointing and even heartbreaking to those of us who take great pride in using our years of schooling and sacrifice to improve the lives of animals and the families that love them each day of our existence.

Before I get into the fundamentally flawed reporting of 20/20 in their “expose’” of evil veterinarians, let me first discuss the character and motives of the vast majority of veterinarians.  Most of us decide we want to be veterinarians well before we are really thinking about things like money, from childhood during the most innocent time of our existence when we first become fascinated and moved by the beauty and majesty of animals.  For me, it was the age of 4, when I fell in love with our first family puppy, a puppy that was intended for my brother as a Christmas present, but was quickly recognized by both family and dog as the novelty of the puppy gradually wore off for my brother but not for me; he was clearly my dog, and my best friend.

As a young boy, I watched on two occasions that veterinarians came to my best friend’s rescue, once when he became obstructed with chicken bones after having gotten into the garbage, another time when he got burned during a grease fire that broke out in the kitchen of my childhood home.  Having been so grateful for the professionals that healed my best friend, becoming an animal doctor became all I ever wanted to do.  If you talk to most veterinarians and what motivated them to pursue this profession, most have similar stories.

Of course with that passion and fascination for animals, a high degree of intelligence and affinity for science and mathematics is also necessary for one to become a veterinarian.  With only 28 veterinary schools in the U.S. compared to 144 medical schools, it is 4-5 times more competitive to get accepted to veterinary school than it is to get accepted to medical school.  With all due respect to human doctors, any veterinarian had the intelligence, the ability, and the grades to attend medical school and ultimately earn in most cases 2-3 times the amount of money we do as veterinarians; only money was clearly not our primary motivator.

Of course, 20/20 seems to think differently of veterinarians, reporting about us in the same light as scandalous bartenders and car thieves.  As the centerpiece of their report, they used Canadian veterinarian Andrew Jones, a man who had previously surrendered his veterinary license.   Even if the producers of 20/20 did not care to vet or consider the motives of a man like this, did they not think that a country full of offended veterinarians that endured the nausea of watching their reporting would not call them out on this?  Shame on them for relying on a disgraced veterinarian to represent an entire profession, accusing veterinarians of upselling procedures; such as dentals that are unnecessary, in order to make a buck.

They go on to showcase Honey and Maybee, two “obviously healthy” dogs for which dentals were recommended that were supposedly not necessary.  The only problem was that there was no way that a camera could offer the same vantage point that the hands on veterinarian had, a perspective where stage one tartar and more subtle gingival lesions can be visualized.  If you speak to any board certified veterinary dentist – which 20/20 did not bother to do – the time to engage in a cleaning and thorough oral examination under anesthesia for gingival pockets, tooth root disease, and damage to alveolar bone (the bone that houses the tooth root), is when subtle lesions are present, not when periodontal disease has progressed to stage 2 or greater when expensive and invasive oral surgery is necessary to salvage the pet’s oral health.  20/20 also did not bother to mention that greater than 40% of painful and health compromising dental lesions occur below the gum line, often only visible with routine dental x-rays, an imaging tool that is quick, inexpensive, and invaluable for monitoring and maintaining the oral health of pets.

20/20 also failed to mention that untreated periodontal disease whether visible above the gum line or invisible below, negatively affects patent health.  It has been clearly linked to kidney failure, the number 1 killer of cats and number 2 killer of dogs; heart disease, and immune compromise.  That is why every year, I perform dentalson my own dogs and cats.  Is 20/20 now going to accuse me of trying to scam myself for money?

Let’s talk about the unnecessary vaccines 20/20 accused us of upselling, ordering one year vaccines for those which there are 3 year options.  What they did not discuss, is that the 3 year rabies (because of a substance called an adjuvant that extends its protective qualities), is less safe for use in cats.  Not only has the 3 year rabies been linked to malignant tumor formation at injection sites in cats, they cause a higher incidence of both local and systemic adverse vaccine reaction than the one year non-adjuvanted version.  As such, most RESPONSIBLE veterinarians recommend the one year rabies Purevax for cats.

20/20 also failed to mention the expensive and comprehensive effort that the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) and AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) to engage in research to enact vaccine reform in the early 2000s.  The result of that effort was the establishment of 3 year vaccine protocols even for vaccines not labeled for such use where protection was found to be adequate for that period of time, while calling for veterinarians to establish more lifestyle based vaccine protocols, as well as refraining from vaccinating for diseases that are not endemic to their given area.  For example, an apartment cat with no contact with other cats outside of the household should not receive a feline leukemia vaccine beyond the kitten series.   Likewise, I do not vaccinate dogs for Lyme disease in this area of Florida in which I practice where the disease is rare.  But in the end, it financially does not matter for clients of my hospital how many vaccines their pets receive, as I offer all vaccines for free when owners pay for an exam and parasite screening.  I have therefore have no financial incentive to plug pets with as many vaccines as possible…but that is not sensational enough to report, so I doubt that 20/20 will be calling me any time soon.

I am afraid that the result of the careless reporting by 20/20 in their misguided zeal to cast veterinarians in a controversial light will have repercussions.   Pet owners may generally begin to view their veterinarian with undeserved suspicion.  Pet owners may refuse important vaccines and leave their pets at risk for disease that could not only the pet, but also the human family in danger.  From a larger view, for some, they will have successfully driven a distrustful wedge between pet owners and their veterinarians; a situation that disrupts the sacred doctor-patient-client relationship.

Are all veterinarians’ scrupulous, idealistic people?  Of course not, and I would not ever make that assertion.  However, most of us got into this line of work for the right reasons, maintaining an ethical and honest approach to the way we practice medicine.  At the same time, we generally do a good job of policing our own profession, not engaging in the “protect your own” culture we see too often in other professions.  Most of us would not hesitate to report or call out unscrupulous or unethical veterinarians.   We certainly did not deserve to be showcased and generalized in the negative light that 20/20 reporting and their token disgraced veterinarian cast us in.

I for one, will never take 20/20 seriously again.

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital and CEO/Chief Editor of the veterinary information and blog online community, Web-DVM.

19 thoughts on “True Confessions…of a Veterinarian??

  1. Deborah Ebersold says:

    I agree, most vets are concerned with the animal’s welfare and chose the profession for that reason.
    I do recommend people stick with one vet they like and trust. They need a vet to see the and know the pet better and this takes time.
    Our vet has been taking care of our animal companions for about 15 years. He also gives us breaks and I know he’s operating at a minimum profit in this economy. Yet, he still can give loyal, trustworthy customers a break.

    • Dr. Roger says:

      Thank you for the thoughtful response. I think that as in any other industry, one must engage in their due diligence to make certain they are in good hands. Sounds like you have a good one…15 years is a long relationship, one that both you and your vet are lucky to have nurtured. 🙂

  2. T Brooks says:

    I would just like to add, the one year rabies vaccination should be the only one used. I say this because, it is better for your animal to get in ATLEAST once a year to see the Vet., the yearly vaccination is the only time of year that alot of pets even see a vet, unless something bad happens. Its better for your dog to have preventive care, rather than dealing with problems as they become visible. As a person currently trying my hardest to graduate with a 4.0 in hopes that it will help my chances at acceptance to Veterinary College, I can say, money isnt a factor, I worked for a Schutzhund training center and watched incompetence allow a dog to escape to the main road out front, after watching the dog struck by multiple cars, that never even slowed after hitting this poor baby, I ran across 3 lanes of traffic to pick her up, carried her to my car, asked for a driver and held her until we made it to the local vet, hoping that her breathing and movements were a good sign she would make it. Unfortunately, it was merely involuntary body movements. That was my first encounter with a dog’s life cut short without need, it made me join the training program to become qualified obedience trainer. I now have titled dogs in the akc ring and on the schutzhund field, but 5 years ago, I went looking for the perfect puppy to start competing at national/world level competitions. I researched for a year until I found the perfect mix of parents and immediately put the deposit for pick female. at 16 weeks I took her home, I was a bit late but I had a medical emergency with my daughter so left her with the breeder/kennel until I was able to give the dog the attention it deserved. 2 days after she got home I noticed she wasnt eating, then wouldnt drink, then bloody stool. I rushed her immediately to the vet, she was diagnosed with parvo. The vet said given her age that it was likely she was never vaccinated. I spent 5k in every attempt to save that poor baby. The vet had known me for years and told me it wasnt the smart investment, but he IVed her and showed me how he was inserting the IV incase she ripped it out. 6 hours later she ripped it out, and I tried, SO HARD to reinsert the needle, but for the life of me I couldnt. The are no 24 hour vets in my town, and I held that poor pup until she quit breathing in the wee hours of the morning. The vet took her from me the next morning for disposal as it is illegal to bury in the ground here. He said no matter how hard i tried I wouldnt have gotten the IV in the vein because she was to dehydrated, but I still dont believe it. Had I known what I was doing, she may have made it. Then I went to the breeder to find out how this happened. Asked for his vet # to verify shot records, he stated they did them at the kennel with shots from a local feed store. when I informed him she had died from parvo, he said “well that happens, ill let ya know if i get a replacement in. At that point I realized that to most people in the dog industry, theyre just dollar signs, the only person who treated her as more than a paycheck, was the veterinarian, and at that moment I realized what I wanted to do everyday for the rest of my life. I could care less about the money, saving one persons best friend is worth more than money could ever buy!!

  3. kitty says:

    @T. Brooke – while I do believe Purevax is the only vaccine that should be used for cats, and as a cat owner I happily took my cat to the vet that offers Purevax even though it required annual boosters, I don’t accept your argument of doing one year booster just to force an exam. To me the reason of using a safer vaccine is valid and I am happy my vet is using Purevax (though now that there is a 3-year Purevax available, it’ll soon stop being the reason) But the reason you site – unnecessary boosters in order to enforce yearly visit is just plain unethical. Not only you are forcing your client to pay for the booster they may not need (unless you use Purevax and it was before 3-year Purevax became available or you/your clients cannot afford 3-year Purevax).

    Providing unnecessary treatment that can result in fatal cancer is not ethical unless there is a safety issue (e.g. 1 year PureVax vs 3-year adjuvanted). It’s up to you as a vet to convince that yearly visits are important, and if the owner believes it – great, if not, you have no right forcing the owner to do it by offering unnecessary intervention that can harm the cat.

    • Dr. Roger says:

      Hello, and thanks for your comment. I actually agree with you about the Purevax, but it was the 20/20 piece that insinuated that it is not necessary and a ploy to get cats in yearly. So when you state that “I don’t accept your argument,” you are referring to 20/20, not me, correct?


      Dr. Roger

      • kitty says:

        I forgot this web page, so I didn’t see your reply earlier. I was replying to T Brooks comment about using vaccinations to make sure people come for yearly visits. This is the argument I find unethical (and yes, I know, it’s only some vets that use it) and paternalistic. Exams are important in themselves so send people the cards about them, but don’t give unnecessary vaccinations to cats (!) and increase cats’ risk of getting sarcomas because of it. The 3-year Purevax was made available in August of 2014, so why most vet websites still say there is only 1 year non-adjuvanted vaccine? T Brooks justifies increasing cats’ risk of cancer because he feels it’s important for people to bring their pets in every year. I think it’s not his or her call.

        I did see a couple of vets switch to 3 year Purevax nationally (from looking at clinic web pages also one vet blog that I follow where the vet is using it), but I cannot find a single one in my area. Other informed cat owners across the US are having similar problems – no vet would carry this new vaccine. If vets care about our cats getting sarcoma, why don’t they ask us whether we are willing to pay the premium for this expensive new vaccine. I’d gladly pay 3 times the price of one year Purevax, maybe even more, but nobody asks me. Really, what is the difference – paying an amount once a year vs paying triple that amount (more or less) once every three years? Oh, and AAFP didn’t bother to update the guidelines either.

        Additionally, when I asked my vet whom I liked and respected about it, she outright lied to me. She told “This vaccine makes cats incredibly sick. In fact, I was at a conference and I saw a Merial representative and I asked him, and he said it’s only intended for barn cats”. I was so shocked at the time at this obvious and frankly stupid, unnecessary and easily verifiable lie that I didn’t say anything, just nodded. But the more time passes, the angrier I get. No, I am not going to name names or complain, I don’t like to get people in trouble. But tell me, why is it acceptable for vets to lie?

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