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You Wouldn't Go to the Vet When You're Sick, So Why Let Your Doctor Treat Your Dog?

Some doctors insist on treating their own dogs -- or getting in the way of a vet who does. It can be annoying. It can also be catastrophic.

 |  May 11th 2012  |   3 Contributions


If you want to have some fun, I recommend that you buy your vet a few drinks and then ask the following question: Which group of pet owners, in general, is the worst type of client? Nobody likes a spoiler, but I'll tell you what the answer will be. (Please do not let that discourage you from buying the drinks.)

Every veterinarian I have ever met agrees that the worst clients, without a doubt, are human physicians.

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Mad doctor by Shutterstock.com.

It is said that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. It is my opinion that a great deal of knowledge about a very narrow subject matter, combined with institutional arrogance (or, if you prefer, a "God complex"), is an extremely dangerous thing. The practice of veterinary medicine involves a great deal of "comparative ologies." Comparative physiology explores the interspecies differences and similarities. Ditto for comparative pathology, comparative anatomy, embryology, and so forth. Vets treat multiple species. There are many similarities, but the devils are in the differences, and it is a vet's business to understand them.

Physicians, on the other hand, treat one species. It's all humans, all the time. And, adding insult to injury, I am told that medical schools actually have classes to teach students to be confident. I think medical students' time might be better spent learning about a few interspecies differences, rather than nurturing God complexes.

The result is that, although most doctors know a lot, they are not aware of the crucial differences between their patients and their pets. And a dangerous number of them think they know more than they actually do. The consequences are annoying at times, and catastrophic at others.

Let's start with the annoying. 

I have removed many dog spleens during my career. Spleens require removal when masses -- benign or malignant -- grow on them. After a spleen is removed, it needs to be analyzed by a veterinary pathologist.

Not once, but three times in my career I have removed spleens of dogs belonging to MDs who insisted that the spleens be sent to their human pathologist friends for analysis despite my protestations. All three of the human pathologists said the same thing: The tissue was unidentifiable. They couldn't even recognize that they were looking at spleens from any species.

Let me tell you: Identifying splenic tissue under a microscope is easy. Anyone who has benefited from even the slightest study of comparative anatomy could do it, but the human pathologists had tunnel vision. Do you think they could tell a benign canine mass from a malignant one? (In fact, these cases were more than annoying. They were very dangerous for the patients, because critical further treatment decisions couldn't be based upon vital pathology results.)

An incident in January illustrates the nuisance-level veterinarian-physician interaction quite well. I wrote an article, "If Your Pet Goes Blind, Don't Make a Date with the Euthanasia Needle," which discussed the most common causes of blindness in cats and dogs. A commenter, "Eye MD," took issue with what I said. 

She quotes my original article: “Full blindness occurs in dogs most frequently as a result of glaucoma that irreversibly damages the retina. It can be painful, and many dogs require removal of both eyes to relieve the pain. Full blindness in cats most often occurs due to high blood pressure that causes the retinas to detach from the surface of the eye. This can be reversed if it is caught and treated early; if not, it may lead to permanent blindness.”

She then comments: Glaucoma is a disease of the OPTIC NERVE, responsible for transmitting the images to the brain. It only affects the nerve fiber layer of the retina, not the whole thing. And you can treat it with ophthalmic anti-glaucoma drops in its early stages. I don’t know about high BPs being common among cats, but they only cause an exudative retinal detachment which is REVERSIBLE once the BP is controlled. I am willing to bet that the most common cause of ‘blindness’ among pets is the same as humans: CATARACT. Which is very REVERSIBLE.

I suggest that an ophthalmologist be sought first before you sentence your pets to being handicapped for the rest of their lives. Ophthalmologists are fully capable of managing ocular complaints among pets and even doing surgeries. We just need a good anesthesiologist. Why let your pet go blind when you can prevent it from happening in the first place?

Eye MD must never have seen a patient whose eyes were swollen to three times their normal size because of glaucoma. In such cases, it is not merely a disease of the optic nerve, but of the entire eye. And how much would Eye MD like to bet that the primary cause of blindness in cats and dogs is the same as in humans? Was comparative ophthalmology offered in medical school?

That said, I agree with the sentiment in the second paragraph. However, I emphatically recommend that any pet with an eye problem be taken to a VETERINARY (to copy Eye MD's style) ophthalmologist, not a human one. I also should point out that in California (and in most states) it is illegal in almost every case for a human ophthalmologist to treat a dog or a cat.

It is fun to tease human ophthalmologists. However, some human physicians go beyond blustering on the Internet and attempt to diagnose and treat their own pets' conditions. Misdiagnosis is rampant in such situations. Worse still is inappropriate prescribing of medications. Vicodin, that stalwart of human pain control, has a relatively low safety margin in dogs. Acetaminophen, one of Vicodin's components, has no safety margin in cats. I wish I could say that I have never seen a cat needlessly die as a result of treatment by its owner for a soft tissue injury.

Veterinarians are trained to treat all species except one, while physicians are trained to treat only that one. I humbly suggest that each group restrict its practice to its respective area of training.

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