Vet’s Response to ABC’s 20/20 Clip – Is Your Veterinarian Being Honest With You?

It’s no surprise that the veterinary community throughout the country is in an uproar after 20/20 unveiled a video that was intended to instill fear and doubt into the minds of pet owners throughout the world. Conflict and drama tend to attract viewers and since the purpose of the media is to gain viewers, there would be no use in airing a clip that showed how honest, compassionate and perfect veterinarians are. And really, we are all individuals and there is variance between each of us, so making a blanket statement about the profession as a whole, whether positive or negative, based upon a few individuals is not truly fair.

The clip starts off with an interview with a former Canadian veterinarian (he forfeited his license after a heated battle with the British Columbia Veterinary Medical Association, more on that HERE) who is bitter and jaded with the experience he had, working for a private practice under a veterinarian who taught him to handle things in a manner that was truly unethical. You would think that if the vet felt so poorly about what he was being asked to do, he would have moved on to a different job. However, he chose to open his own practice and practice in the same unethical manner that his former employer did. That’s sad and unfortunate, but not the norm. He shared some of the practices that he used to up-sell pet owners.


The first up-sell that he mentioned was “The Dreaded “C” Word” — telling owners that there is a possibility that their pet has cancer to scare them into paying more for their care.

Cancer is not something that we want to diagnose in veterinary medicine, but it is a fact of life. Now that pets are living longer and longer, they are, more and more often, getting cancer as they age. Ultimately it is our responsibility to put that on the table for owners so that they can make the best decisions regarding their pet’s care, but we must remember, that diagnosing a pet with cancer is not necessarily good business.

While sometimes owners want to do everything they can to find out for sure what is going on and treat it as best they can, some owners will balk and choose to euthanize if we mention the “C” word. Not only is there very little money involved in euthanasia but we are losing a patient; that doesn’t make good business sense if we are just out to make money.

In this situation, however, the vet that was interviewed said that he recommended that owners simply watch a mass that had shown up on their pet recently. His boss didn’t agree and “scared” the owners by mentioning that it could be cancer.

Every veterinarian will agree that without any diagnostics, any mass could be cancer. The easiest thing to do is poke it with a needle (a fine-needle aspirate) and examine the contents of the mass under a microscope to determine what the mass is. Just about any veterinarian with a microscope could do this in their clinic and diagnose a “benign fatty tumor,” otherwise known as a lipoma, that the vet indicated the mass ended up being.

Aside from lipomas and mast cell tumors, tumors may require a specialist’s eyes & training to diagnose, which may be more expensive, but I personally would *never* tell a client to simply watch a mass without finding out what is inside it.

I take that back. The only time I would tell a client to watch the mass or do nothing is if the pet was terminally ill and there was no point in putting the pet through more diagnostics if the owner just wanted to spend their pet’s last few minutes, hours or days with them.


The second up-sell mentioned was the “Teeth-Cleaning Come On” which was touted to be recommending a dental cleaning to animals with a minimal amount of tartar.

To test this idea, the ABC team took a dog that was perfectly healthy with the exception of mild dental tartar to various veterinarians undercover after being checked out thoroughly on camera by a highly reputed veterinarian to verify that the dog was healthy. What they discovered by going to many other veterinarians to see what they found wrong with the dog was that most veterinarians found the dog to be completely healthy. Yet they focused on a single vet who indicated that the dog was healthy but had some “mild tartar” on its teeth and proposed a way to treat it if the owner wanted to do so.

What is wrong about this situation?

First of all, the reporters brushed over the fact that *most* of the veterinarians they encountered found exactly what the first “trusted” veterinarian found — the dog was healthy. In fact, even the veterinarian who they made out to be evil and money-grubbing, indicated that the dog was healthy and the *only* thing she found was mild tartar. That’s fantastic!

And given what she found, she chose to propose a course of treatment to remove the tartar and further evaluate the teeth, which is done under general anesthesia for the safety and comfort of the pet as well as the staff. (There are many legal issues that have been in the news regarding the use of anesthesia-free dentals and how they are not only unethical but also fail to address & treat the underlying dental disease that may exist below the gum line. (Please see The American Veterinary Dental College’s page for more info!)

This veterinarian wanted to take care of the pet’s teeth for a whopping $250, which is far cheaper than any place that I’ve taken my pets for dental treatments! (And mind you, even when my pets had only mild tartar, they had severely compromised tooth roots that required extraction.) I’d be jumping for joy for that price, especially if it included x-rays! But the reporters made this out to be an “up-sell” as if a pet’s teeth didn’t matter, which is far from the truth.

Let’s also ask ourselves how much our human dentists pocket for each of our dental cleanings every 6-months? And we theoretically brush our teeth every day, twice per day. How many of you brush your pet’s teeth as often or more often than your own teeth? (More on caring for your pet’s teeth here…)


The third up-sell that was mentioned was “Pushing The Shots.”

The show portrays an adult dog that is up-to-date on her vaccinations (last given two years ago) going undercover into veterinary clinics for an exam. While most of the clinics were happy to hear that she had up-to-date vaccinations, the show focused on one clinic where there was a clear miscommunication and the vet believed the dog was presenting for annual vaccines. Upon being corrected he asked when the dog was last vaccinated.

The vet recommended giving distemper annually but nothing more was shown regarding the interaction or education that was involved there. What ultimately happened? Did the dog get a shot or did the veterinarian simply provide his preference and the owner decided for herself whether she wanted her pet to receive that vaccine. (Of course, given that this was an undercover animal, we can safely assume that no vaccine was given.)

Overall, vaccinations are a not-so-simple issue to tackle. Some veterinarians are moving toward giving shots every 3 years, while others are sticking with the annual vaccination schedule. One reason that some vets may choose to stick with the annual vaccination is that it provides a good continuity of care in that the vet is seeing the pet on an annual basis. That can be a good time to touch base and see what’s been going on and make sure the pet still gets a clean bill of health. It would be nice if people did this annually regardless of getting shots.

It is important to note that some vaccines are labeled as 1-year vaccines while others are labeled for 3 years. This may help dictate what your vet chooses to do. Everyone should be aware that puppies and kittens get vaccinated more frequently when they are younger until adulthood as they build their immune systems regardless of the number of years a vaccine is labeled for.

Here is an excerpt from the AVMA’s website regarding feline vaccines, “Does my cat need to be vaccinated every year? The answer depends upon the vaccine. Certain feline rabies vaccines provide protection for longer than one year, so vaccination with a triennially-approved rabies vaccine every three years (after the initial series is completed, and when consistent with local rabies vaccine requirements) is sufficient. Recent research has provided compelling evidence to suggest that panleukopenia/rhinotracheitis/calicivirus vaccines provide adequate protection for several years, so in response, many veterinarians are now recommending that this vaccine be “boosted” at three year intervals as well. Unfortunately, far less is known about the duration of protection provided by other vaccines. Until that information is known, annual vaccination with those products is a reasonable course of action.”

Believe it or not, it might not just be your vet dictating how often to vaccinate your pet. It might be your state/city government that has rules in place requiring pets to be vaccinated annually. So before you get angry with your vet for “pushing shots,” make it a conversation and ask your veterinarian for more information. We are here to educate and help you take care of your pets, not be someone to contend with. Please use us as a resource!


Despite the entire report, the vet that was unveiling the up-sells in the veterinary industry ultimately said, “The vast majority of veterinarians are ethical and try to do the right thing.” This is the truth but that is not the message that people take away from the report.

It is most important for people to approach their own medical care and the medical care of their pets with the mentality that they should be using their doctors and veterinarians as resources. Vets and doctors should be able to explain their thought process and recommendations.

If you have any doubts, you can always seek a second opinion.


If you haven’t yet seen the 20/20 clip, feel free to watch it here: Video: Is Your Veterinarian Being Honest With You? Act 2: 20/20 sends a healthy dog undercover to vet clinics to see what they say of her condition.