Veterinarians and groomers square off over pet plaque

Brushing a dog’s teeth probably isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. But a group of pet-grooming services are snarling over an effort by a statewide group of veterinarians to monopolize the use of dental picks for dogs and cats.

It’s the latest in a class of battles that has long been fought in state politics — the “scope of practice” rules that determine who is allowed to do what under state law.

The California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) is trying to get “scalers” added to the list of tools that can only be used on animals by a licensed veterinarian. A scaler is really nothing more than a dental pick — a slim piece of metal typically about six inches long — optimized for the shape of dog or cat’s teeth. They’re available online and in pet supply stores for prices starting around $3. Anybody can use one on their own pet legally. 

On Monday morning, the California Veterinary Medical Board will take up the question of whether anyone besides a vet can charge for using one on a pet’s teeth.

Vets say the fight is about animal health, and they cite a 2004 case in which a small dog allegedly had its jaw broken in three places by a groomer wielding a scaler. Groomers say the move to limit scalers is simply an attempt to protect the veterinarians’ pocketbooks.

Meanwhile, the woman whose grooming business allegedly was at fault said the entire premise that a groomer caused the injuries in the 2004 case is preposterous, noting that it appeared the animal had been hit by a car. She says the Veterinary Medical Association has been attempting to use a made-up incident for years as part of a money grab.

“Did she (the owner) get the license plate of the car that hit her dog?” asked Cindy Collins, owner of Canine Care, Inc. She added, “I’m being tried over and over and over again.”

The case involved a small dog named “Rowdy” who was brought to a Canine Care outlet in late 2004. Rowdy’s owner brought him to a vet the next day bleeding heavily from his mouth; an exam found that his jaw was broken in three places. But Collins said his injuries were far beyond what even a careless groomer could do with a scaler, and was more consistent with blunt for trauma like being hit by a car. A court case brought against her in Burbank was quickly dismissed, she said.

Collins started Canine Care in 1988 and now has 650 outlets in California — mainly within pet stores and grooming shops run by others. About a dozen of her outlets are located inside of veterinary hospitals, Collins said. Over that time, she said, her company has had over 100,000 customers.

The Veterinary Board has been trolling for years for incidents where animals have been injured, Collins claimed, and hasn’t come up much. This includes sending letters to veterinarians asking them to report animals brought to them with injuries from grooming shops, she said.

The cleaning services offered at Canine Care and a veterinarian’s office are quite different.

Canine Care groomers do not use anesthesia, and do not clean below the gum line. Contrary to what one might think, Collins said, most animals sit still for the procedure, and many “like the attention.” Animals that won’t sit still, she said, they refer to a veterinarian.

At a vet’s office, the animal is put under, which the industry refers to as “chemical restraint.” The technician will do a more thorough cleaning below the gum line. Collins said they recommend animals get this kind of cleaning periodically — preferable at the same time the animal is put under anesthesia for other reasons — but that’s it’s not necessary for the recommended twice-a-year cleaning.

“You’re talking about putting your best friend under anesthesia more than 20 times in their life,” Collins said. “We know that is not a good thing for people or animals.”

The real fight, she said, is about money. Her services typically cost around $100. A vet will charge anywhere from $300 to $800.

Collins also alleged that holding the meeting at a conference room at the San Diego Zoo was an attempt to keep away public comment. A phone call to the zoo confirmed that a visitor to the meeting would not need to pay zoo admission first. Collins said that when she called last week she was told she would have to pay admission, at a cost of $40. 

Attempts to speak with a spokesperson for the Vets Association on Friday were not successful. But the group has long maintained that they’re just pushing for enforcement of existing laws.

The group has been active recently in a renewed push to crack down on groomers who use scalers. According to an action alert sent out to member’s ahead of Monday’s meeting: “While the CVMA believes that current language clearly outlaws the use of a scaler without veterinary supervision, illegal activity has continued to thrive as unlicensed teeth cleaners have blatantly used scalers without veterinary supervision for many years without repercussions. The results of the CVMA’s Illegal Practice survey show anesthesia-free teeth cleaning by laypersons without veterinary supervision continues to cause severe harm to animals.”

The fight over pet tooth care goes back at least to the 1980s. In 1989, a Legislative Counsel opinion found that cleaning an animal’s teeth without anesthesia did not constitution a “dental operation” under state law—as long as they did not sure anesthesia or clean beyond visible areas of teeth.

The Joint Sunset Review Committee looked at the issue of “unlicensed” animal care in both 1999 and 2003. While the resulting reports considered esoteric topics like “massage therapy” for animals and “Chiropractic care for horses,” a practice that did actually result in three injuries, the Committee did not find enough of a problem with teeth cleaning or other practices to recommend cracking down.

Ed’s Note: Corrects by deleting reference to case before the board, 6th graf.  

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