One of the Jones’ horses had not been well for a few days and seemed to be experiencing some pain. To save a veterinary charge, a friend suggested they should call another person; a person named Estella. Though Estella was not a veterinarian, she supposedly knew how to treat animals and purportedly had a lot of experience.
The next afternoon Estella arrived at the Jones’ farm. She examined the horse and said it had Wolf teeth trouble and they needed to be removed. Estella told the Jones she could do that right away and, at the same time rasp some other teeth for no extra charge; her total fee would be $75.00. Mr. Jones asked Estella if she would accept a check. Estella said she would, but she would prefer cash. While Mr. Jones went into town to get the cash, Mrs. Jones remained as Estella started treating the horse.
Estella initially tried to inject the sedative drug into blood vessels in the horse’s neck but was unsuccessful. She then injected the sedative into the horse’s rump. Shortly thereafter the horse started staggering, fell down and went into convulsions. By the time Mr. Jones returned from town with the cash, the horse was dead. Sounds like fiction? No, it is based on a case that happened just a few years ago.
Unlawful practitioners of veterinary medicine have been around since the first veterinary licensing laws started being enacted more than 170 years ago. Alas, they will still be around well after publication of this article. However, even “battle-hardened” veterinarians who have seen it all when it comes to harm and death caused by non-licensed individuals, are now increasingly encountering more cases where horses and other animals have suffered shredded gums, broken teeth and lacerated tongues caused by non-licensed individuals.
There is no doubt that in Missouri the activities of non-licensed individuals comes within the legal definition of the “practice of veterinary medicine.” In other words, they are unlawfully practicing veterinary medicine.
There are now numerous court decisions ruling that the non-licensed individuals treating animals are engaged in the unlawful practice of veterinary medicine unless they are specifically exempted from having a veterinary license (e.g., generally, a bona fide owner of animal; government employee while doing government work). Examples include, but are not limited to, State ex rel. Dept. of Health v. Jeffrey, where the court firmly rejected an argument by a non-licensed individual that his conduct supposedly was not unlawful when he had removed a tooth from a horse resulting in profuse bleeding that continued for two days until examined by a veterinarian who found the cause to be lacerations and a quarter-size hole in the horse’s tongue and the horse had to be transported to a university veterinary college. See also, In Matter of the Unlicensed Practice of Veterinary Medicine by Tasker; Tennessee Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners v. Collins; State of Kansas ex rel. State Board of Veterinary Examiners v. Coddington.
American courts have been dealing with illegal practitioners for more than 90 years. E.g., Commonwealth v. Peace.
Like with human medicine, the payment of a fee or any other compensation, deal or arrangement is not required to be shown for the unlawful practice of veterinary medicine. In Missouri it is a crime for a non-licensed individual unlawfully to practice veterinary medicine. Each incident of treating an animal is a separate offense.
There are many good reasons why Missouri and many states have both enacted a broad legal definition of the “practice of veterinary medicine” and provided only a few clear exceptions to the requirement of having a veterinary license. Foremost is public and animal health. Also, is the fact that non-licensed individuals have not had the years of qualified medical training, examination and required continuing education that allows a veterinarian to recognize symptoms of greater problems, and prevent that problem from becoming aggravated, spreading to other animals (yours and your neighbors’), and even affecting humans. What might be a Wolf teeth problem to a lay person might, particularly in these days-and-times, be a critical first clinical symptom that needs not only to be properly treated but promptly reported to appropriate public and animal health officials by the veterinarian.
Another factor to consider in whether to hire a non-licensed individual to treat your animals is whether that individual has liability insurance should something go wrong. Most American veterinarians do. Even if the non-licensed individual says he or she has an insurance policy, frequently those policies: (1) do not cover claims for injury to or death of animals (while a veterinarian’s does); (2) exclude coverage for illegal activities (which is the unlawful practice of veterinary medicine); (3) are issued by an insurance company that might not be authorized to do insurance business in your state; or (4) have such minimal levels of coverage as to be nearly pointless for negligence claim.
Yet another factor is that veterinarians are subject to disciplinary action and can be sanctioned in numerous ways. Besides monetary fines, their licenses can be suspended, restricted or even revoked. While there are licensing authorities you can complain to about a veterinarian, there is no licensing authority you can turn to about a non-licensed individual who has treated one of your animals as that person does not have a “license” which can be disciplined.
Additionally, only veterinarians have the proper registration and training lawfully to dispense and administer prescription drugs and controlled substances.
If you do not know a person is, in fact, a veterinarian, don’t just take that person’s word of: “Oh, yeah, I’m a vet.” Ask him or her to show you a copy of his or her current veterinary license to practice in your state. See www.ozarksfn.com for Missouri veterinary licenses, and the sources of the cases and laws listed here.
Gregory M. Dennis is Legal Counsel for the Missouri and Kansas veterinary medical associations. He practices law at Kent T. Perry & Co., L.C., Overland Park, Kansas.