Big dog’s got a bone. So what does he do with it when a little one comes around? He snarls and growls, showing off those big white teeth and prodigious hackles so as not to let the itty-witty thing below him get the wrong impression. ‘Cause no way is he planning on sharing. 

So it goes with veterinarians and the army of pet care providers who offer ancillary healthcare services such as chiropractics, massage and acupuncture, for example. If the person providing these services is not a veterinarian or under the direct supervision of a veterinarian, my profession is staunchly opposed to the practice. ‘Cause no way are we planning on sharing.

I got to thinking about this perennial issue after one of you posed this question:

Every now and then I see [an] attempt to pass legislation that will outlaw common husbandry practices by anyone except a veterinarian. Here is an example of the fallout: This case has to do with floating teeth in horses, but the law is so vague it could apply to other things as well, even to dog trainers. I have a great deal of respect for veterinarians, but I don't think they are the experts in everything to do with animals, so I am concerned about attempts to take over husbandry. Do you have any thoughts on this issue?

Why yes, as a matter of fact, I do.

But first up, some basic background on this case, one that pits a trained, experienced "floater" (someone who provides a common dental service to keep horses' teeth nice and even), Brooke Gray, against the Missouri Veterinary Medical Board. According to what appears to be her legal counsel’s website:

On September 9, 2010, the Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit accusing Brooke (the offending floater) of practicing veterinary medicine without a license. The Veterinary Medical Board, the plaintiff in the case, invoked the authority of a 1992 law that makes it a criminal offense for any non-veterinarian other than an owner or the owner’s full-time employee to change an animal’s physical or mental condition. Violation of the law is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and a year in prison for each separate animal involved.

"The breadth of this law is truly astonishing," said Dave Roland, the attorney who has taken up Mrs. Gray’s defense. "The law offers no exceptions or narrowing definitions, meaning that if it chose to do so, the Board could prevent non-veterinarians from providing such common services as horseshoeing and cattle branding — or even dog grooming and training!"

The page offered no link to the statute, but if their claim with respect to its language is correct (and no, it would not surprise me if it were), this example offers more of the same kind of professional protectionism we veterinarians have been increasingly guilty of. Here’s what I mean:

With our culture’s seemingly inexorable drive toward a more enlightened appreciation of animal welfare principles to consider, and more of the same barn-to-backyard-to-bed evolution to look forward to, it only makes sense that the public demand higher quality care for all animals.

The veterinary profession has responded to these social and economic pressures by ramping up production of specialists, drugs, procedures, and specialty facilities, among other niceties. In so doing, it has sought to enact restrictions on the degree to which non-veterinary service providers could commercially offer procedures we veterinarians now consider worthy of greater quality care (e.g., equine floating vs. veterinary dentistry).

So you see, the point here is ostensibly all about ensuring that our animals are treated with a high standard of care and not at all about making sure veterinarians are the ones to reap the available economic benefits of floating, chiropractics, acupuncture, etc.

But is it really?

In many cases I’ll hasten to agree. Our animals really do deserve the higher quality of protection afforded by the kind of work that only a licensed practitioner can provide. Traditional medicine and surgery fall into that camp. I happen to be conflicted over the twin issues of chiropractics and acupuncture. But floating and horseshoeing?

Just as for dog training and grooming ... not so much. These are highly skilled areas where those who do lots of it will almost always do it better. And while attention to medical issues is critical to both practices, they're amenable to the kind of schooling these trade groups offer.

So back to the question: Is it fair to let veterinarians take over husbandry? Not at all! Veterinarians should not be the de facto boss of all things related to animal care. Nonetheless, if veterinarians are charged with standing up for what’s best for animals' healthcare, is it not our role to try and raise husbandry standards across the spectrum?

I think so. The trouble comes when instead of lending our related trade groups a hand when it comes to training, certification, and adoption of higher standards, we prefer to snarl and growl and bare our teeth. Which helps animals not at all.


Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: "I could eat a horse" by publicenergy