TV News Report Upsets Vets

‘America’s Vet’ quits as a CBS correspondent after ‘20/20’ reports veterinarians can’t be trusted.

I am ashamed for the news business rather than the veterinary profession it targeted in a recent episode of ABC News’ magazine “20/20.”

After the news magazine segment “Is Your Veterinarian Being Honest With You?” aired on the program Nov. 22, I wrote the above comment on my blog and my nationally syndicated newspaper column.

The segment was based on allegations made by Andrew Jones, DVM, a former veterinarian in British Columbia, Canada. Jones looked into the TV camera and told pet owners that veterinarians are up-charging their clients, playing off emotional attachments to their pets.

Jones was an odd choice for the segment. He’s no longer a practicing veterinarian. In 2010, he quit the profession after being assessed the highest fine ever levied by the British Columbia Veterinary Medical Association.

According to the Association’s findings, his multiple offenses ranged from false claims on products  bearing only his name to denigrating other veterinarians.

Jones is also promoting a book called “Veterinary Secrets Revealed,” and this TV segment was intended blow the profession wide open, revealing dark secrets.

The “20/20” segment was remarkably similar to a segment called “Barking Mad,” which aired months earlier on CBC-TV in Canada. In both segments, dogs visiting veterinary clinics were followed with hidden cameras.

In the ABC piece, the narrator notes that most veterinarians consulted found nothing wrong with the two healthy dogs. I suspect, though, at this point producers were committed to the “expose.”

Finally one veterinarian did note tartar on the gum line on a dog named Maeby; it was even obvious on camera. A dental prophylaxis was suggested.    

Stop the presses! Really? This is news?
Dr. Jones apparently thought so, calling the dental an unneeded procedure. He said, “It’s the big upsell like the McDonald’s equation of ‘Would you like fries with that?’”

Producers needed something to back up that opinion, so they interviewed long time ABC “Good Morning America” contributor Marty Becker, DVM. The implication is that Becker was commenting on the report, but in fact he had not been told anything about the piece.  

So Becker said on camera: “I wouldn’t recommend cleaning unless the dog needed it. If it does not have periodontal disease, there’s no use putting it through the risk of anesthesia.”

“Because doing things that a dog doesn’t need can be dangerous?” reporter Gio Benitez eagerly asks.

“Absolutely,” Becker replies.

Aha! The famous Becker agrees – or at least that was the implication.

But Becker had no idea that his general comments would be linked to any specific dog, nor was he ever asked about Maeby’s teeth.

The implication was that Becker agreed with Jones, and even added a concern about anesthesia, which clients often worry about.

“I was shocked at how they put the segment together,” Becker told me days after the segment aired. “I was absolutely demoralized. This is the worst thing that’s happened to me. I am crushed.”

In fact, he was so crushed that after the segment aired, he ended his 17-year association with ABC and “Good Morning America.”

“I felt betrayed by the producers,” he added.

Back to the tartar on Maeby’s teeth — note that the veterinarian never said that a dental needed to be done immediately, but rather it was something she suggested be done in the future.

It’s possible that veterinarian was guilty of not explaining the justification for the suggested dental, or perhaps, based on Becker’s experience, that explanation landed on the cutting room floor.

The reporter switched gears and said, “Another big ticket item on the vet bills, vaccination costs.”

Vaccination is a big ticket item; really? Cancer surgery, now that’s big ticket; a vaccination for distemper, not so much. The implication is that veterinarians unnecessarily vaccinate for profit.

In the segment, a veterinarian said that a dog named Honey needed a distemper vaccine, suggesting the vaccine for the canine distemper virus should be give annually.

Of course, according to the 2011 American Animal Hospital Association Canine Vaccination Guidelines, canine distemper is suggested every three years, based on veterinary discretion.

So if distemper is common in a given area, for example, a veterinarian may suggest annual vaccination. The report never mentioned veterinary discretion, just assumed the veterinarian was up-charging.

At worst, one veterinarian featured in the segment may be guilty of vaccinating too often, and another guilty of proactive medicine in suggesting a dental is needed.
The segment’s message, though baseless, is that veterinarians can’t be trusted. Some pet owners will assume the worst rather than the best of veterinary professionals, or may continue to skip visits.

We already have a pet health crisis as a result of pets not seeing veterinarians for checkups. There are myriad reasons for this, from so-called Dr. Google to simply being unable to get the cat in the carrier.  

But healing your pets at home shouldn’t be one of them, and that’s the title of Jones DVD, which is sold on his website. If the content follows the title, it is a downright dangerous and, in my opinion, irresponsible view.

Standing by veterinarians, for me, is equivalent to standing for our pets’ health.  

When I speak at conferences, I tell veterinarians that if you bond with your clients, if they like you, trust you and respect you, TV segments like this one won’t matter a bit.

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