Two new bills just got voted on in the Colorado legislature. And vets all over the country have been watching carefully to see which way the pendulum would swing. At stake is our ability to remain the exclusive providers of animal health services in cases where physical therapyand alternative treatments (like chiropractics and acupuncture) are concerned.
One bill would give licensed physical therapists the ability to legally provide services to pets in need of rehabilitation after injury or in the case of chronic diseases (like arthritis)—with the supervision of a veterinarian. The other would allow alternative practitioners of various stripes to practice on pets—without a license and without vet oversight.
The first one passed, in March. The other failed, this month, by a slim 3-4 margin. And though I’m pleased about the physical therapy bill, the near-miss on the alternative medicine bill scares me; it doesn’t bode well for the future of vet-guided care for animals. By design, both bills would effectively take responsibility away from vets. So what’s the difference? Why support one and decry another, as most vets did?
Here’s a little history to help you with that:
Most vets get hopping mad when human practitioners try to get in on our game. We say things like, “I went to school for eight years and now some yahoo, community college flunkie uses my patients as pincushions—and makes more money at it than I do!” Or what about, “I just spent $80K on new rehab equipment and now every physical therapist who cares to can vie for my pool of potential patients.”? And so most bills like the two above have historically been considered losers in the face of the vet lobby.
To be sure, I have some sympathy for my fellow vets who feel this way. But I see it more from the point of view of quality and safety—not income. My tech may be better able to neuter a dog than I do but that doesn’t mean her certification should allow her the right to set up a spay and neuter clinic. And that has much more to do with quality, education and consumer safeguards than it does with my income.
You may think that surgery is a poor example. But trust me on this: physical therapists, acupuncturists, chiropractors and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners can do more harm than good if they’re not trained to work on animals—not to mention the in-house emergencies that can arise from their care. This is my biggest reservation.
Still, I wouldn’t bar licensed professionals (who secure pet-specific certification) from practicing their art and science on animals. As long as they stick to the role they’ve been trained for and as long as there’s an in-house vet to deal with any fallout, I firmly believe pets can find better care this way.
After all, my community doesn’t offer enough of these services. And most of us aren’t about to seek special training in these areas. So why not expand pet owner choices with different therapeutic modalities?
The physical therapy bill does just that. It specifies certain licensing parameters and how vets would interact with these adjunct, animal-care providers. In the second Colorado bill, though, these practitioners would be granted the right to work on their own—with no vets around and nary a license in sight. I wouldn’t trust that situation and I certainly wouldn’t refer my patients there.
Call me a conservative protectionist if you like, but I think there’s something to be said for vet school, board examinations and multiple years of experience with animals before the state should sanction your non-licensed shingle way clear of veterinary oversight. It’s hard enough to know what you’re getting when you choose a professional. Add the lack of specialized training, licensing and supervision into the mix and animal care will doubtless suffer.
I’m in favor of an expanded menu of offerings for our pets, and so are most vets. That’s why the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association supported the first bill. But I’m totally opposed to handing over the reigns to anyone who wants to call himself an animal health practitioner. Where would we be if we allowed the same for humans? Our pets deserve as many safeguards and stopgaps as we do.