I’ve been communicating lately with a sharp animal rights attorney who’s prosecuting a malpractice case I’m frustratingly (and peripherally) involved in. She sent me a great article she wrote about vets and their association with pet stores. It’s titled, “Why a relationship with a pet shop is like a pact with the devil.”

So you get the background, you should know that a small percentage of vets “enjoy” relationships with pet shops. In most cases the affiliation goes like this: The vet examines the animals and signs health certificates before sale, usually at a reduced fee. In turn, the pet shop sends their buyers back to this vet, where they receive free or discounted exams and/or services. The new pet owner is either satisfied or lazy enough to stay with this vet for life.

It’s a simple kickback scheme that’s considered a good “practice-builder.” But, technically, it’s illegal in my state (according to the Florida Board of Veterinary Medicine). That’s because it violates clauses on fair competition and “kickbacks.” But because no money changes hands between pet shop and hospital (except for discounts on services legitimately rendered) and because there are typically no executed contracts between the parties, it’s hard to prove any law’s been broken or any ethical boundaries violated.

All vets hate to speak ill of their colleagues. We try hard to respect one another in spite of our differing practices. Whenever I’m tempted otherwise, I’m reminded of something my mother likes to say (translated from Spanish for your benefit), “Don’t spit upwards. It may end up falling in your face.”

But, somehow, nothing gives me a full infusion of unattractive, righteous indignation like this kind of commercial conduct among my peers. I like to think I offer a balanced perspective on most issues but—so sorry—I’ve not one to offer you on this score.

But I will make an attempt to be fair: Just because a veterinarian chooses to have a relationship with a pet store doesn’t necessarily mean it’s illegal or unethical behavior. It’s just that the vast majority of these practitioners do so in the way described above (with financial incentives in the form of reduced fees or so-called “volume discounts” in exchange for referrals).

As this animal rights attorney points out, relationships with pet stores are not only largely unethical, they’re a double-edged sword for vets. As in any pact with the devil, you give up your soul. But in this case, she points out, you could lose your license, too.

Or you could get sued. Or the client might get angry and give you headaches if the pet isn’t perfectly healthy. (You wrote the original health certificate, after all, so who are they going to come after, even if the pet wasn’t actually sick when you examined her?) Or the pet store will blame you should they get any legal heat. (Again, who signed the health certificate? They didn’t. And they’ll throw you under the bus as fast as they’ll sell a sick pup.)

She also makes another fine point (after citing the specific Florida Board of Veterinary Medicine rules violated by this practice): Sagely, she notes that, “[should you engage in this behavior] your colleagues won’t respect you.”

And she’s right. We may not mention it to them at the next meeting. We’ll just talk shop or boats or golf or whatever small talk we can source so we don’t have to look them in the eye and tell them we believe their relationship to X pet store conglomerate effectively renders them an embarrassment to our profession.

Finally, there’s this one bit she writes that hits home more than all others: “You know damn well where these puppies came from.” So true. A consumer can be forgiven for his ignorance but a vet has a pretty good idea what goes on behind the scenes.

Nope. There’s no excuse for getting into bed with puppy mill purveyors. The devil may or may not wear Prada…but he certainly knows how to sell puppies.