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Impact of Animals’ Changing Status on the Veterinary Profession

When Jim Schwartz’s 11-year-old poodle died of immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, he blamed the death of his beloved companion on over-vaccination by his family veterinarian. But the Centennial, CO., resident didn’t just get angry. In February, he sought a legislative remedy, working with Rep. Mark Gloer (R-Colorado Springs) on a bill that would let pet owners seek damages of up to $100,000 for the loss of a pet, impose written informed consent requirements on veterinarians and regulate rabies vaccination frequency. The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), animal welfare agencies and animal-related organizations fought the bill, which was postponed indefinitely on February 14.

“The CVMA and animal welfare organizations saw the bill as an attempt to regulate animal care and believed that the unintended consequences of the bill would diminish the level of care currently provided,” said Ralph Johnson, executive director of the CVMA in Denver . The Colorado bill is one of many finding its way into state legislatures. After years of promoting the human-animal bond, veterinarians, animal organizations and caregivers are realizing the legal consequences lie ahead.

Property law principles that apply to animals are now changing to reflect the emotional attachments and relationships that people share with pets. Pet guardian statutes have been introduced or passed in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon and Rhode Island. Now legislation looms in New Jersey .

To help veterinarians develop a responsible response to the growing legislation, the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Society in Tampa, FL., organized a Feb. 22 workshop with more than 50 veterinarians, including representatives from the AVMA, AAHA, California Veterinary Medical Association, University of Florida-Gainesville, National PetCare Centers, Veterinary Centers of America and more than a dozen local veterinary medical associations in Florida.

During the Feb. 22 workshop sponsored by the Hillsborough County Veterinary Medical Association, veterinarians and association leaders discussed the positive and negative effects of animals’ changing legal status. “If we’re trying to promote the profession, we should work on animals that are worth more than $50,” said James F. Wilson, DVM, JD, of Priority Veterinary Management Consultants in Yardley , PA. “How much longer can veterinarians tout the bond and ignore the legal consequences?”

Dr. Wilson facilitated the discussion of more than 500 veterinarians and association leaders, which included these highlights:

Good for the Profession Bad for the Profession
Higher expectations for owners/guardians Increased lawsuits and state board scrutiny
More medicine and surgery, less euthanasia More emotional distress for veterinarians
Increased income and prestige for veterinarians

Higher costs for professional liability insurance
Improved medical records Greater costs for informed consents and recordkeeping
More and earlier referrals to specialists Veterinarians must practice more defensive medicine
Higher accountability of veterinarians Greater liability for not referring cases
More value and need for continuing education More costs for continuing education
No more hiding behind the dollar value of pets Practitioner attrition
Increased opportunity for third-party payment Risks from third-party payment
Elevates the status of the veterinary profession May reduce desires for pet ownership
Animals are no longer seen as disposable Unwanted pets may flood shelters from owners who don't want the legal responsibilities of serving as the "guardian"
Veterinarians could practice better medicine, which leads to better revenue Could encourage frivolous lawsuits
Reduces "bottom feeder" clients who only comply with minimal recommendations May make client relationships too formal with so many consent forms to sign

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