“When our pets are sick, they can't describe their symptoms, so we depend on veterinarians to tell us what's wrong. But are some vets are going too far, and taking advantage of helpless pets and their owners?”

Such is investigative reporter Ana Garcia’s intro for the “Vet Investigation” series undertaken by Los Angeles’ local NBC affiliate. Predictably, it’s generating significant consumer angst…and great ratings for KNBC.

Here’s a snippet of the transcript provided on KNBC’s website:

Dr. Jeff Werber, Century Veterinary Group: The problem is pet parents don't know enough to protect themselves.

Garcia: Dr. Jeff Werber runs his own pet hospital in Culver City, and is the official veterinarian of the legendary Lassie franchise.

Werber: Unscrupulous vets will create fear in the pet parent to maybe do more than needs to be done now.

Garcia: We wanted to know what would happen if we took healthy dogs with common, minor problems in for a checkup. So we went undercover and visited 15 veterinarian clinics all over Southern California, but first we had Dr. Werber examine them.

Garcia: So he looks like a healthy year-old French bulldog?

Werber: Yes he does. Sweet as can be.

Garcia: Guapo's only problem is that he throws up every once in a while. Werber says that could come from eating grass or heartburn.

Werber: Use some Pepcid or any over-the-counter antacids.

Garcia: Before we take Guapo undercover, our insider tells us what to look out for.

Insider: They're going to run a bunch of tests. If a pet comes in for vomiting, offer them this, this, this and this.

Garcia: KNBC Producer Fred Mamoun takes Guapo to the Cahuenga Pet Hospital in Hollywood.

Mamoun (undercover KNBC employee): He threw up a couple of times.

Garcia: Dr. Marina Kotlarenko orders a battery of tests, charges us $395 and recommends we change dog food for the vomiting. Then she claims to discover a new and unrelated problem.

Mamoun (on undercover video): So you scrape the eyelid? I'm confused.

Kotlarenko (on undercover video): I need to scrape, to smoothen it. An eye infection.

Mamoun (on undercover video): How much is that? About 300?

Garcia: Another, $300 for an eye problem our expert and nine other vets didn't see.

Garcia (at Cahuenga Pet Hospital): We want to talk to you about a diagnosis you made about his eyelid.

Garcia: At first, they wouldn't let us in.

Garcia (at Cahuenga Pet Hospital): ...but she won't come out and talk on camera?

Garcia: So we took Guapo and his records inside. Dr. Kotlarenko told me she didn't do anything wrong, and explained eyelid scraping is not done in the states, but she used to do it in Austria. On this visit, she admitted Guapo eyes looked perfect.

This is pretty much exemplary of all the transcripts I read. You’ve got a vet doing her thing and another telling you she’s a fear-mongering money-grubber since he’d never have done any of it.

It’s embarrassing for Dr. Kotlarenko, I’m sure, but would I have done any different? OK, so I have no idea what the eyelid scraping thing is all about. But that doesn’t mean she can’t produce a number of European papers describing it and its proper indications. It doesn’t show she’s being unethical.

Veterinary medicine is a science. It’s not a series of recipes we follow when faced with one obvious problem. $395? That’s an office visit, abdominal X-rays and basic tests (CBC, Chem and fecal). At my place that would come to just under $300, but Dr. Kotlarenko runs an AAHA hospital in Hollywood. The price seems reasonable.

What? You think she shouldn’t have done all those tests?

What do you think would have happened if she hadn’t recommended them and the dog had parasites, evidence of infection or some sort of gastrointestinal cancer she missed because she’d simply put it on Pepcid AC as Lassie’s doc recommended? 

Damned if you do…(you know the rest).

Why doesn’t the transcript reflect her whole conversation? I guess it’s not too camera-worthy to have a vet describe what she needs to do and why. Neither is it camera-worthy to show that the “owner” had a chance to decline all of these services in favor of a more “conservative” approach.

Frankly, I’m disgusted by this investigation. But it’s not just the sneaky tactics and the neat editing. And it’s not just that I want to protect my profession’s reputation, which has clearly been undermined by this inflammatory series of local news spots.

What I really abhor is the depiction of veterinary medicine as somehow straightforward and simple; that there’s always one, best way to treat a sick animal.

Medicine is far more complicated than that. Pets are no different than people when it comes down to the complexity of making diagnoses and arriving at treatment options. So why was Dr. Kotlarenko singled out for doing exactly what we’re taught to do in vet school?

Then there’s the back story to this post that I’ve been holding out on:

Last month I called about ten vets in the L.A. area trying to reach someone who would talk to me about cruciate ligament costs in the area (for my Pet Economics 101 posts on cruciates). The only one who returned my call? Dr. Kotlarenko.

I’m not saying she’s a great vet—I don’t know her personally. I’m just saying she’s one out of ten on the issue of collegiality. So who’s to say the nine other vets who saw nothing in that dog’s eyes are right?—at the expense of her reputation.

The next time Ms. Garcia takes aim at a profession using the very same scare tactics she claims to uncover, I’d hope she’d take a look at her own first. There’s nothing more unseemly than building your reputation and your fame by tearing down others’ indiscriminately from high atop your bully pulpit.