Is ABC’s 20/20 Being Honest with Pet Owners?

Recently ABC News “20/20” ran a November sweeps episode titled “True Confessions.” The segment featured a convicted car thief informing car owners how easy it is to steal a car, shady moving companies and the tricks they play, tales of bartenders watering down drinks, the very unhygienic lifestyle of long-haul truckers, and a former veterinarian who claims some vets “push procedures your dog may not need, including yearly vaccinations and teeth cleaning.” I watched the segment, “Is Your Veterinarian Being Honest With You?” and concluded it was “20/20” that wasn’t being honest with pet owners.

As a licensed veterinarian for over 21 years and as a dedicated animal advocate since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I understand why networks run programs such as this one. These sensationalist segments prey on the most fundamental fear of pet parents: Am I inadvertently harming my pet loved one? Pet owners rely on the expertise and honesty of their veterinarians to guide them through complex, highly emotional, and sometimes expensive decisions regarding the health and well-being of their animal companions. Any doubt or mistrust jeopardizes this collaboration and may result in potential harm to the dog or cat. “20/20” wants viewers to fear their bartenders, car, truckers, and veterinarians. I fully support healthy skepticism, but I want to address what I believe are outright fallacies presented in this piece of what I consider shoddy journalism.

20/20’s Top Performing Veterinary Insider has Troubled Past

It makes me sad to think there are unscrupulous and quack veterinarians in my profession. I know they exist in every job yet it still upsets me because all the veterinarians I know are amazing, compassionate and selfless individuals. Unfortunately a few bad apples can spoil the bunch.

I knew there was going to be trouble with this show as soon as I saw the former Canadian veterinarian Andrew Jones. Many of us in North America have been familiar with Jones and his anti-veterinary crusade for many years. Why is Jones so upset with my beloved profession? Maybe it’s because of his numerous violations of unethical professional behavior.

Before you think this is some sort of anti-Andrew Jones diatribe, it isn’t. Jones has a troubled past with his Canadian Veterinary Board not for being anti-vet but for advertising “secrets,” “cures,” and online enrollment in what he calls his “Inner Circle Membership Site.” Similar to Jones, I’m also a believer in many “alternative” therapies but I believe in abiding by the principles and ethics of my profession.

My question for “20/20” is this: Is that the best you’ve got? A discredited and disgruntled veterinarian who has had serious veterinary board violations? So serious that rather than fight the allegations, Jones voluntarily gave up his license to practice veterinary medicine in Canada? I think if the journalists had taken the time, they could’ve found better sources to more accurately discuss what medical procedures pets do or do not need.

Despite what 20/20 says, Do Not Ignore “Lumps and Bumps” on Your Pet

In Jones’ opening salvo against veterinarians, he describes a scene early in his career when he advised a pet parent to “just to monitor a lump on their dog.” The practice owner advised Jones to have the dog re-checked and the lump evaluated in case it was cancerous. Jones claims this is an example of “up-selling” pet owners on unnecessary services. He’s wrong, maybe even dead wrong. I think his practice owner was providing the best care for his patients by giving Jones that advice.

One of the biggest mistakes a pet parent can make is “wait and see.” I would much rather know for certain that a “lump” was truly benign as opposed to just “hoping it is.” The problem with cancer is that it can spread, often quickly and silently. ABC News’ own Amy Robach, a correspondent I’ve personally worked with, knows this first hand as she has widely publicized her current battle with breast cancer and its metastasis. I guarantee you anyone with a loved one affected by cancer would’ve loved nothing more than to have initial biopsy results come back “negative.” I also guarantee you no one would consider that biopsy an “up-sell.”

I will never agree that advocating for diagnosing a suspicious growth is an “up-sell” or unnecessary. I’ve seen too many cases in my career where pet owners have waited on a lump only to discover too late it was malignant. You can’t feel or observe if a growth is benign or malignant. For that you need to peer under a microscope to carefully examine the tumor cells. My duty is to recommend every growth be evaluated for cancer. Jones claims using the C-word with clients is manipulative. I say it’s lifesaving in many cases.

Your Vet Won’t Get Fired for not Recommending Teeth Cleaning

Jones claims there was “no question” he’d be fired if didn’t order “services that were not needed.” As a practice owner for twenty years, this thought never occurred to me. Maybe Andrew Jones’ introduction into the practice of veterinary medicine was so bad it led him down a path that resulted in the loss of his veterinary license. I don’t know. I do know I’ve never fired a vet for not recommending services. I also know thousands of veterinary clinic owners just like me who are hesitant to ever be perceived as interfering with their employed veterinarians’ decisions unless specifically asked to help.

Most Dogs Need their Teeth Cleaned Every Year or Two

Perhaps the weakest portion of the “20/20” piece was their attempt to catch vets recommending unneeded dental cleaning procedures as Jones claimed was widespread. My friend Dr. Marty Becker nailed it when he countered the ABC reporter’s accusations of the “big up-sell” of dentistry, “I wouldn’t recommend the cleaning unless it needed it.” My thoughts exactly, Dr. Becker.

Without reviewing the numerous scientific studies on periodontal disease in pets, I encourage concerned pet parents to visit the American Veterinary Dental College website to learn what Board-certified veterinary dentists have to say. Most of the pain and damage periodontal disease causes occurs out of sight, beneath the gum line. Many times a pet’s teeth look okay on the surface only to discover later there was disease-causing, irreversible damage to the teeth hidden beneath the gums. Whenever I see a pet with tartar and plaque, swollen and reddened gums, I feel it’s my professional responsibility to advise a dental cleaning. If enhancing health, decreasing pain, and promoting longevity are “up-sells,” consider me guilty.

Honey Needs Help

2020 Honey Dog Dental Mass (2)

Maybe I’ve been a vet too long, but I couldn’t help but notice the second dog that “didn’t need” any dental work actually had a potentially serious issue in her mouth. When the vet is examining the Pitbull mix Honey’s gums, she plainly has a growth above her upper right upper fourth premolar. It’s probably a benign mass, but it’s hard to diagnose from a television screen. Honey, if your owner is reading this, I encourage you to get it checked out, regardless of what “20/20” says.

Most Vaccines are Given Every 3 Years

Since 1999, I’ve promoted vaccinating dogs and cats against the common viral diseases every three years. This position didn’t win me any support from most of the vaccine manufacturers at the time, and many still hold grudges against me for my vocal opposition to “vaccinating every pet with everything every year.” Not all of my veterinary colleagues agree with me on extended-duration vaccine schedules, even after the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) released guidelines supporting those recommendations back in 2006. I understand individual doctors are free to recommend medical care based on their understanding of the medical literature.  Vaccines and tests should be based on a pet’s individual lifestyle risks such as visits to groomers and dog parks, how old they are, and any concurrent medical conditions. Not everyone will agree with me nor will I agree with everyone on what each pet needs, when, and why. One of the key responsibilities a pet owner has is selecting a veterinarian that best matches their beliefs and needs. And that is perhaps “20/20’s” biggest mistake. They removed pet parents from the decision-making.

You Decide What Your Pet Receives – No Purple Skull Implants

Suppose your veterinarian tells you if you want to prevent your dog from developing brain cancer, it needs a surgically implanted, “secret insider’s cure” purple halo drilled into its skull. The way “20/20” positioned the veterinarian-client relationship in this segment, pet owners have little, if any, say in what medical procedures their pet receives. They seem to think if a vet suggests something, pet owners automatically comply. “Of course, doctor, put in the purple skull implant.”  That’s ridiculous. A pet owner can simply say, “No” at any time during a vet visit. If you feel uncomfortable, uneasy, feel something is too expensive, or simply need time to mull it over, walk away. Last time I checked you had complete freedom in the care you choose for your pet. Does “20/20” think US pet owners are that stupid?

I’ve got another “veterinary secret” for you: the vast majority of unscrupulous, incompetent, and downright shady vets don’t make it. Whenever good pet parents have a bad veterinary experience, they share it with others and before you know it, that vet is out of business or loses their license. The system largely corrects itself when it comes to bad vets.

The Honest Truth is Vets Are Pretty Darn Honest

I’m honored to call myself a veterinarian. I know our profession has people practicing in ways I don’t approve. I also know we’re a long way from the used car salesmen “20/20” and ex-vet Andrew Jones make us out to be.  If you have a good vet, thank them. If you know an outstanding veterinary technician, assistant, or receptionist, thank them. Chances are they’re overworked, poorly paid, and underappreciated. Chances are they’re also some of the most caring, compassionate, and honest people you’ll ever meet. “20/20” did every pet lover and veterinary healthcare provider a tremendous disservice and potentially placed at risk tens of millions of pets with their irresponsible reporting. I guess good news and honest journalism doesn’t make for good Sweeps Month programming. My hope is that “20/20” didn’t fully appreciate the art of veterinary practice and the importance our advocacy for those who cannot speak for themselves – our pet loved ones.