Most veterinarians, evidence indicates, are honest with pet owners

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I am a journalist, not a veterinarian. At this moment, I'm ashamed for my profession rather than the veterinary professional targeted in an ABC-TV "20/20" story called "Is Your Veterinarian Being Honest With You?" broadcast Sunday, Nov. 24.

Dr. Andrew Jones, a veterinarian in British Columbia, Canada, looked into the camera and told pet owners that veterinarians were "upcharging" them and preying on their emotional attachment to their pets.

Jones is hawking a book called "Veterinary Secrets Revealed" and a DVD, "Healing Your Pets at Home." More later on why that DVD title flies in the face of good medicine, and why I believe Jones is actually the one preying on pet owners.

By the way, Jones no longer practices veterinary medicine. He quit in 2010, just after being fined by the British Columbia Veterinary Medical Association for multiple offenses, ranging from false claims on products with his name on them, to denigrating other veterinarians. (For more, check

Producers and the "20/20" reporter followed two dogs, Maeby (cq) and Honey. First, to insure that both pets were healthy, a New York City veterinarian initially examined them. Then, with hidden cameras in place, the canines were taken from clinic to clinic in the New York-New Jersey region for what were supposed to be routine exams. The idea was to catch veterinarians being dishonest.

For starters, most veterinarians, according to the "20/20" report, agreed that both dogs were healthy.

One veterinarian at a New Jersey clinic noticed tartar on Maeby's teeth and recommended the owner come in for an annual teeth cleaning, for which a general anesthesia would be needed. The veterinarian commented, "She could have a lot of worse stuff going on and I'd never see it unless she was under anesthesia."

The narration in the segment, with a comment from Jones, suggested this was a "gotcha" moment -- an example of the way veterinarians often recommend dental procedures.

"It's the big up-sell, like the McDonald's equation, 'Would you like fries with that?'" Jones said.

In fact, the veterinarian was spot on. Most dental disease does occur below the gum line, as nearly any veterinarian would concur. So, if a veterinarian visually can see a slight problem, it's likely more may be going on which is out of sight and can only be detected under anesthesia. In fact, increasingly, practices are purchasing x-ray equipment equivalent to what human dentists use for similar reasons.

The New Jersey vet never suggested Maeby needed a dental immediately; the implication was sometime in the future. Maybe the veterinarian was guilty of not thoroughly explaining his recommendation, or perhaps that explanation landed on the cutting room floor.

The "20/20" report also seemed to exploit pet owners' long-standing concerns about anesthesia. Problems related to anesthesia occur about once in 5,000 to 10,000 times, according to veterinary dentist Jan Bellows, of Weston, Fla. When preventive blood work is done, those numbers may be even lower.

Of course, doing things dogs don't need can be dangerous, as Dr. Marty Becker, a well-known veterinarian in Twin Falls, Idaho, suggested in the "20/20" segment, but the way his comment was framed seemed to indicate Becker was agreeing that unneeded dentals are common, and that anesthetic is problematic.

I've known Becker for nearly 20 years, and I also know his comments were taken out of context. In fact, Becker agrees (based on dozens of conversations with my friend) that proactive dental care (or for that matter, preventive veterinary care in general) is not only good medicine, but can also can avoid unnecessary suffering, and ultimately saves pet owners money.

The "20/20" reporter continued, "Another big ticket item on vet bills -- vaccination costs."

Not true. Think about it, vaccines aren't exactly up there with surgeries or cancer treatment. Sure, there's a cost associated with vaccines, but veterinarians don't exactly make their living on them.

For the next "gotcha moment" on the "20/20" program, which took place at a New York clinic, the vet ordered Honey (who'd had the distemper vaccine two years earlier) a new round of shots without asking about the dog's vaccination status, then told Honey's owner that distemper was "typically an annual vaccine."

True, the American Animal Hospital Association Canine Vaccination Guidelines suggest distemper vaccine every three years, but that's based on veterinary discretion.

Absolutely, that veterinarian should have inquired about previous vaccine history (unless those questions also could be found on the cutting room floor), and misinformed the pet owner that distemper vaccine is typically given annually -- though perhaps that veterinarian sees frequent distemper and was using his own medical discretion. I can't say.

So, what if that one veterinarian was attempting to give the dog an unneeded vaccine? That is wrong. But it's also wrong to assume over-vaccination is an industry-wide trend.

In fact, in my opinion, it's Jones who is dangerous. The topic of his DVD, "Healing Your Pets At Home," seems contradictory to responsible veterinary medicine. Our pets can't tell us when something is wrong, and until pet owners have stethoscopes at home and are trained to detect heart irregularities, and can do blood work in their kitchens to test for tick or heartworm disease, avoiding regular veterinary checkups is medically not in our pets' best interest.

Quite apparently, selling DVDs and books is in Jones' best interest.

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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