But Doc, the Dog's Already Dead!
How to say no to your vet.
He cites the case of an elderly man who came to him for a second opinion about the lump that had been below the anus of his elderly terrier for a year. The previous vet had pressured the man into paying for $700 worth of tests to see if the lump was a sign of metastatic kidney cancer. It wasn't, which didn't stop the vet from recommending more tests. Busby concluded the lump was just one of those lumpy things that wasn't bothering the dog. But his larger issue is that before a vet goes off on a $700 search for metastatic kidney cancer in a 15-year-old dog, the vet should inform the owner that treating this disease would be a "quagmire"—an ordeal of pain and expense almost certain to end with a dead pet.
Busby also rails against the useless procedures foisted on healthy animals. Take yearly vaccinations. He writes, "[A]lmost all veterinarians insist on repeating these vaccinations over and over again throughout the life of the pet. Never forget how often they need to be given to you or your kids. ONCE!!!" Busby says that after the essential shots and boosters for puppies and kittens are completed, pets enjoy the same lifelong immunity humans do. (Legal requirements force more frequent rabies shots.) He points out unnecessary treatments are not necessarily benign because the treatments themselves can cause side effects. I know. My wonderful cat Shlomo died at age 16 because I followed the yearly vaccination recommendations. A component of the feline leukemia vaccine caused an injection-site cancer. (For a thorough discussion of the problem with pet overvaccination, see www.critteradvocacy.org.)
At a continuing-education seminar Busby attended, he listened to a lecture by a vet on testing dogs for Lyme disease. He says routine use of the blood test is a waste of money because many healthy dogs, not in need of treatment, will be positive for Lyme exposure. Busby told me that at the lecture, the veterinarian started by saying there had been no confirmed cases of Lyme disease affecting a dog's kidneys. But when she got a positive Lyme test back, she went on to run a kidney-function test. "She was using a worthless test and then using it to treat for something that's never been diagnosed," he told me. "This is an Academy Award-winning way to gyp a client out of money!" He said one young vet told him she worked for a doctor who brought in $150,000 a year running Lyme tests. "That's one vet," he said. "It's a total rip-off!" (The effect of Lyme disease on dogs and their kidneys is an unsettled area of veterinary medicine, according to this report.)
He also thinks "wellness exams" are all about improving the financial wellness of the provider. Busby says the best guideline for when to take your pet to the vet is when you can tell there's something wrong. But, with the same fervor displayed by the salesperson at the electronics store who encouraged me to buy the extended warranty on the clock radio, my local pet hospital has pushed me to sign up for its $440-a-year wellness plan, which will provide a full panoply of unnecessary vaccines, as well as dental cleaning, and twice yearly neurological, cardiac, pulmonary, blood, and fecal exams. Even in France, they don't do this for people.
At this point I should add that, in general, I hold the veterinary profession in high regard. Vets spend years and fortunes on their medical training, work like dogs, and end up getting groused at by clients and bitten by patients. I am grateful to the vets who saved the life of my beagle, Sasha, when she was hit by a car, and I quietly handed over my credit card when the bill for $2,000 came due (although I did manage to decline the offer of the special "orthopedic quality" fix of her injured ligament for an additional $1,500).
It's just that if we're coming to the point that we think of our pet's health in the same way we do our own, I wish the vets I see would treat my pets more the way our doctors treat us. For example, over the years the pediatrician has heard a mild heart murmur when she has examined my daughter. But since my daughter is obviously in excellent health, the pediatrician has reassured me it's nothing to worry about. But when the veterinarian detected a mild heart murmur in one of my cats, she immediately recommended I make an appointment with the veterinary cardiologist. What would happen to the cat if I didn't do that? I asked. She had to acknowledge: probably nothing, but the echocardiogram only cost $300, and since my cat was a member of my family, surely I would want to do everything.