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.