Veterinary Board to groomers: Drop the dental scaler

At a meeting on Monday — at the San Diego Zoo, no less — the California Veterinary Medical Board voted unanimously to officially place the practice of scraping a pet’s teeth under their scope of practice.

This means that, barring some reprieve, hundreds of groomers are going to have to stop offering the service — though any pet owner who wants can still walk into a pet supply store and plop down $5 or so for a scaler, a six-inch dental pick designed for dogs or cats, and use it themselves. Each says the fight is about money — specifically the profits the other side is trying to protect.

Now both sides are vowing to bring their fight to the Legislature next year. If previous pet-related fights are any indication, this one could keep Capitol phones, fax machines and email accounts humming, as the spay-neuter battle did a few years back.  

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 Veterinary Board includes five veterinarians, though one of these positions is vacant, and three public members, all of whom supported the regulation.

The California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) has long sought to get scalers added to the list of gear that only a licensed veterinarian can use for pay. The 7-0 vote on Monday just clarifies the matter, said CVMA president Jay Kerr. He said the paid use of a scaler by someone working outside of a vet’s office was “already illegal,” but the vote was part of a wider strategy to actually ban the practice.

They’re also pushing SB 697 by Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, which was introduced in April but has been turned into a two-year bill. The bill would clarify some scope-of-practice issues around veterinary medicine. It would also make it a misdemeanor to ignore citations from the board. The bill mentions possible fines, and Kerr said his group was hoping to make sure these are high enough to have a deterrent effect.

“It was clear that animals were being harmed by this unlicensed practice,” Kerr said. “Pet owners, consumers, we left with no recourse … They’re just not being prosecuted because there’s no teeth [to the regulations].”

But the woman whose business is at the center of the controversy challenged the vets to show the harm.

Cindy 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.

Matt Gray, a lobbyist representing Canine Care, said he’s already got one legislator interested in a bill that would turn back the regulations and allow her company and others to keep operating.

The main case used by vets to justify the need for the regulations involved a small dog named Rowdy who visited a Canine Care outlet in 2004. The case has come up in multiple letters and other materials from the CVMA, along with the allegation that Rowdy’s jaw was broken in three places by a careless groomer wielding a scaler.

Collins said that case was thrown out of court for lack of evidence. She said Rowdy’s owner testified that the dog seemed fine when it left the store. Collins said his injuries were far beyond what even a careless groomer could do with a scaler, and was more consistent with blunt trauma like being hit by a car or a heavy door.

“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 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 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.

Kerr, a vet himself, declined to estimate what a typical vet would charge, saying rates vary by area and how much work the animal needs. He said he only recommends this type of cleaning as needed, and never anywhere close to twice a year. He also recommends teeth-cleaning dog biscuits and to periodically brush and floss a dog’s teeth, something he said can be done safely and legally at home or with a grooming service.

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 constitute a “dental operation” under state law – as long as they did not use 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 at that time.

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