Thursday, December 6, 2018

Monty's Story


Little gets a veterinarian's attention faster than a person running in the door screaming, "Please help me! My dog collapsed in the parking lot! I think he's dead!!"

One of my colleagues and two of our nurses jumped up and ran out to help. A minute later they came back in carrying a medium sized mixed breed dog on a stretcher. He was not dead. His name was Monty Jacobs and while he was not dead he was clearly in trouble. His breathing was laboured and his gums were pale. Mrs Jacobs was freaking out. My colleague is a very calm person and she was able to reassure her that we would do our best to stabilize Monty and get to the bottom of whatever was going on as quickly as possible. 

Sure enough, 15 minutes later we had a chest xray. The heart looked enormous. 
"Oh no, it's another right atrial hemangio," I said when I was asked to look at it. I was referring to a common cancer that can cause bleeding on the outer surface of the heart. The blood becomes trapped under the pericardium - the membrane that wraps around the heart - which causes the entire heart shadow to appear enlarged on xray.

"Do you have time to do an ultrasound to confirm?" my colleague asked.

"Yeah, I can squeeze it in. Sadly for the dog it's going to be quick as these are really easy to see."

But I was wrong. It was not quick and Monty did not have a bleeding cancer. Monty had dilated cardiomyopathy. Dilated cardi... what? I'll break it down for you. Dilated means what you think it means - stretched out. Cardio means heart, myo means muscle and pathy means disease. Put it all together and you have a disease of the heart muscle causing it to become so weak that it becomes baggy and stretched out.

This made no sense. We only see DCM (the easier to remember abbreviation) in a small handful of specific breeds because it is a genetically determined disease. Monty was maybe terrier, mixed with maybe husky, mixed with maybe German shepherd, mixed with maybe... who knows? A classic "Heinz 57". I was stalling for time by describing some of the less important things on the screen before getting to the inevitable 'why' question when suddenly a little (metaphorical) bell rang inside my head. Bing.

I turned to the owner and asked, "What do you feed Monty?" She named a brand of food I hadn't heard of before and said that it was grain-free. Now I knew.

Earlier this year reports began to bubble up of dogs developing something that looked like DCM but who did not fit the usual breed profile. Individual private practitioners did not detect a pattern because they would only see one or two cases, but cardiologists did see a pattern. All of these dogs had been on "BEG" diets - "boutique", "exotic ingredient" or "grain-free" diets. 

To expand on this a little, by "boutique" we mean relatively small batch foods produced by companies that do not have a certified animal nutritionist on staff and who are not able to do proper scientific feeding trials. "Exotic ingredient" refers to lentils, chick-peas, fava beans, tapioca, alligator, kangaroo, ostrich, pomegranates etc etc. Please know that this is a tiny sample from the list of exotic items that are popping up in pet foods. Unfortunately until this gets figured out everything that was not traditionally fed to dogs needs to be considered "exotic" and viewed with suspicion. "Grain-free" is self explanatory, but read on. 

I know that grain-free diets are enormously popular at the moment, but I have no hesitation in saying that this is a fad built on two fallacies. The first fallacy is that allergies to grains are common. In fact, allergies to grains are quite rare in dogs. Moreover, when there is a grain allergy it is usually to a single type of grain, such as wheat for example, not to all grains. The second fallacy is that dogs are essentially wolves and therefore should not eat grains. Your dog is no more a wolf than you are a Neanderthal (mind you, I'm making an assumption about you). We now know that evolution works much faster than we used to think it did. A lot has changed in their and our biology since those good old wolf and Neanderthal days.

I apologize for the digression. Back to BEG.

Many theories have been put forward as to why some BEG diets are damaging the heart, but as of now (December 2018), nobody knows yet. Is it the absence of a key nutrient that is in the traditional foods? Is it the presence of too much of something new that was put in to replace the traditional ingredients? Is there more than one cause?

We expect that only a small number of BEG diets are involved, however that list is growing so we cannot be sure yet that any specific BEG diet is safe. So although there may be many fine diets under the BEG umbrella, at this time we have to recommend that you feed a traditional diet from a well-established company that has a solid footing in nutritional science. Ask your veterinarian for a list of these companies. And please don't panic if you are feeding a BEG diet, this problem is not that common, but you really should talk to your veterinarian about switching. And please don't feel guilty either, many of the BEG diets are particularly good at marketing in a way that appeals to our desire to do the right thing. 

There are good drugs for DCM and most patients can be stabilized if it is caught early enough, but the terrible thing is that there can be no warning signs. Monty had just been a little weaker for a few days prior to the collapse and had been breathing a little harder. This is typical. We expect that by changing his diet we can stop further heart damage from occurring and we hope that maybe even some of the damage can be reversed. 

I have seen two more cases since Monty. One tragically didn't survive, but Monty is doing ok. And he likes the new food.





Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Envelope Please

As in, "Oh God, please please please let this be the envelope." Yes, that envelope.

It's May of 1986 and I'm standing in Dr Bruce Murphy's laboratory on the second floor of the biology building at the University of Saskatchewan and I'm pipetting mink serum into tiny vials when the phone on the far wall rings.

"Philipp, it's your mom!"
My mom never phones me at work. Never. Either dad died or the envelope arrived.

"Yes mom?" (Cautiously, in German.)

"There's a letter for you from the veterinary college!" (Excited, in German.)
It's the envelope! Or, more accurately, it's an envelope.

"Is it thick or thin?" I ask.

"Thin. Is that good or bad?"
Bad bad bad I think. Shit, it's thin.

"Um, neither I guess. Go ahead, open it"

Ripping sounds at her end of the line. Panicky breathing sounds at my end. Long pause and then...

"You got in!"

I got it! It was the envelope!! It's hard to describe how this feels. Like winning the lottery (although I have never done that). Like getting an Oscar (never done that either). Like having your marriage proposal accepted (did that one!). Elation. Validation. Magic. In one instant your previously murky future suddenly comes into crystalline focus. And this coming from someone who only decided to become a veterinarian a few years prior (see: http://vetography.blogspot.com/2017/11/the-accidental-veterinarian.html). Imagine how this feels for all the people who have wanted to become a veterinarian from before they even knew the word.

This coming spring fifteen Manitobans will have that feeling. In 2020 possibly only ten will. The Manitoba government is considering a plan to drastically reduce the number of students permitted to study veterinary medicine. And this is an extraordinarily bad idea.

Let me explain.

First of all I should clarify what I mean by "permitted to study veterinary medicine". Manitoba is far too small to have it's own veterinary college. Prior to 1965 all Canadians who wanted to study veterinary medicine went to Guelph, Ontario, but the profession was expanding so rapidly that this was no longer tenable, so a regional system was set up. The four western provinces banded together to select a reasonably central site for a joint Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Lloydminster not having a university, Edmonton and Saskatoon were considered, with the latter ultimately getting the nod. After 1965 Guelph would only take students from Ontario east and all western students would go to WCVM at the University of Saskatchewan. Each participating province funded a set number of seats. Manitoba currently has 15.

There are a handful of veterinary colleges in North America and the Caribbean that permit non-residents to study there, but at full price, which is five to ten times what one pays at WCVM. As a nation we decided that post-secondary education is essential to our future, so we subsidize it. We recognize that it is better to keep the system open to talent than just open to deep pockets. So if Manitoba cuts the seats it funds, the five prospective students who could have gone to WCVM - to our college that we built - will have to move much further away and go even far more absurdly into debt to follow their dream. Very very few will be able to do this.

This is a problem. A big problem. The demand for veterinarians continues to grow. Animal welfare, biosecurity and food safety are all hot topics that are not going away any time soon. In Manitoba especially we have a hard enough time attracting people from out of province (due to weird and unfounded biases, but that's another subject...), so we count on Manitobans coming back. Yes, some students who go to vet school don't come back to Manitoba, and by the same token many med and law and dental and engineering students who study here leave Manitoba - that's life and it is after all a free country - but if we send less, even less will come back. It's a downward spiral.

I get it, the government wants to balance the books. Let's assume for a moment that you don't give a rat's hindquarters about young people's dreams or pet doctoring or prudent antibiotic use on farms or exotic diseases jumping to humans. Let's assume that. Let's assume that you just care about the economy in the most narrow sense of the word. Well, guess what? Veterinarians are also small business people. This government is supposed to love small business people. In very rough figures we contribute 180 million dollars to the economy every year and that's growing at about 5% a year. We employ large numbers of skilled people and pay taxes, lots and lots of taxes.

And then there's the question of fairness. If you really feel you need to balance the books by cutting postsecondary education funding, then cut evenly across all programs. Is the law faculty funding being cut by 1/3? Dentistry? I doubt it very much. The cost of those five vet school spots represents a rounding error in the government's budget, but for our small profession it has a huge impact.

In survey after survey children list veterinarian as one of their top ten dream jobs. And not just children feel that way. So many people want to become veterinarians at the supply end and so many jobs are open for veterinarians at the demand end, but there is a very tight bottleneck jammed between that supply and that demand. This bottleneck is your government. And this is a democracy, so your government is you. Do something about this.

(Specifically, if you want to take action, direct your letters, calls and emails to Kelvin Goertzen, Minister of Education and Training and Ralph Eichler, Minister of Agriculture. Word is that some elements in the government itself are also opposed to this plan, so there is hope to turn this around.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Life and Times of George Ramirez


George Ramirez lived a long full life punctuated by adventure and surrounded by love. Given the relative nature of time and how subjectively its speed of passage is felt, I'm sure that in his admittedly minuscule mind he lived the equivalent of a hundred human years. We don't know where or exactly when he was born and we don't know who his parents were, but every aspect of his subsequent life was lavishly documented by his companion and guardian, a ten year old girl. It is astonishing that something weighing only 45 grams could live such a rich life. And it is perhaps astonishing to some that something weighing only 45 grams could be loved so deeply and loved so truly.

George Ramirez was a teddy bear hamster.

His full name was actually George Ramirez Penner, as he was owned by the precocious Chloe Penner. I say precocious because the first time she brought George Ramirez in she was in the exam room by herself. Her parents had decided that as he was her hamster she should be fully in charge of his medical care, so they sat out in the waiting room. (I think they still paid the bills though.) To be frank, sometimes this type of arrangement is irritating to the veterinarian as it can effectively double some of our work when we have to repeat everything to the parents later. But not in Chloe's case. She was attentive and sharp and clearly capable of following my advice. Such as it was. Really, she was fully on top of things, so on that first visit when George Ramirez was brought in for a check-up my role was primarily to confirm for her that she was doing everything correctly. She showed me pictures of his cage, from which sprouted an elaborate network of clear plastic pipes leading to various chambers, including, if memory serves, one made to look like a little space capsule. George Ramirez was going to have a good life.

At this point I should offer up a confession. I love all types of patients. I do not favour dogs over cats (or vice versa), or rabbits over guinea pigs, or budgies over canaries, nor do I shy away from snakes or rats or hedgehogs or ferrets, to name just a few that sometimes elicit bias. But I was long a secret hamster skeptic. It's funny because my wife had hamsters when she was young whereas I had a gerbil, so we would sometimes engage in hamster versus gerbil debates. I felt I had solid facts on my side. And I had been bitten by more hamsters than all other rodent species put together, so that might have biased me a little as well. But then George Ramirez came along. He did not bite. He was clean. And he was cool. This was a hamster I actually looked forward to seeing.

Normally hamsters do not go to the vet. There are no vaccines for them and we do not need to (or even want to) spay or neuter them. Moreover, they are really pretty rugged, so not all that much tends to go wrong in their short lives. But perhaps the most common reason that they don't go to the vet is that unfortunately many people view spending money on their medical care as silly, putting them more in the goldfish category of pet than in the dog and cat category. I wonder why this is? Is it because hamsters are cheap to acquire? But then so are many dogs and cats (and heck, human children come into the world free). Is it because they are so small? If so, then does that mean that Great Danes deserve more care than Chihuahuas? Is it because they are loved less? I suppose that must be it. But that was happily not the case for George Ramirez.

I think I saw George Ramirez five times in his three years. Once for the initial visit, twice for annual check-ups and twice for medical reasons. The first time was for what is referred to as "wet tail". "Wet tail" is a euphemism. The tail is not wet with water, it is wet with liquid poo. Much like diarrhea in every other species "wet tail" is not a single specific disease but rather a symptom that has a range of causes. These little creatures can dehydrate quickly, so it can be serious, but fortunately George Ramirez revived right away when we sorted out why it was happening.

The second time I saw him sick was when Chloe brought him in with what she thought was a tumour on his face. She was clearly really upset, but trying hard to be brave. George Ramirez had an enormous irregularly shaped lump in his right cheek and he had stopped eating. Hamsters are prone to cancer, but this was not a cancer. When I palpated the lump and pried his tiny mouth open to peer inside I was as surprised by what I found as Chloe was. He had somehow filled his right cheek pouch so full of food that it had become impacted and bulged out to roughly equal the size of the rest of his head. And because he had jammed unshelled sunflower seeds in there it felt very odd and lumpy on the outside. We both knew that hamsters had large cheek pouches, but had no idea that they were this large or that food could get so badly stuck in there. The solution was gratifyingly simple. I simply turned the pouch inside out like the pocket in your jeans. He was weak enough that he let me do this awake.

I know you're expecting a sad ending, but the cheek pouch incident isn't it. George Ramirez bounced back yet again. Just like with wet tail. Just like when he did an EVA* from his capsule and was found three days later in the heating ducts. Just like when the Penners got a cat and the cat knocked over his cage. Eventually Father Time caught up with him and he died peacefully in his bed at the ripe old age of three and one third years. I found this out when Chloe came in with Edna von Trapp, a new young female hamster. Edna von Trapp had an evil glint in her eye and proceeded to bite me savagely at every opportunity, thus proving, in case proof was needed, that hamsters are not interchangeable. There are a lot of stories of parents sneaking out to the pet store without telling their children to get a look-alike replacement when a hamster dies. I suspect that the child almost always knows, even if they don't let on. Sort of like a Santa or Easter Bunny scenario. And Chloe definitely would have known.

*Extra-Vehicular Activity. It's an outer space thing.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Three And A Spare


"See that bright white line? That's normal bone." I was showing Jake's x-ray to the Folsoms. "Then see here?" I pointed to an area of the humerus that was both wider and fuzzier looking, as if someone had smudged the picture there with a cheap eraser. "This is abnormal bone. I'm really sorry, but I'm afraid this looks like bone cancer."

Mr and Mrs Folsom said nothing for a moment while Jake, a slender 7 year old yellow Lab cross, wagged his tail and looked up at them.
Then Mr Folsom said in a flat, very controlled voice, "So he's done then. You're sure?"

"We should do a biopsy to be sure because the way this looks it could be something else, but I doubt it. I'm sorry, I know that this must be a terrible shock for you. However, if the biopsy confirms cancer that doesn't mean he's done. In that case I will recommend amputation and..."

Mr Folsom cut me off, "No way. We're not doing that. We can't let him suffer."

Mrs Folsom put her hand on his arm to shush him and turned to me, "We'll talk about it doctor. Let's get the biopsy first and then we'll see."

So this is what we did. Within a week we had the diagnosis confirmed - osteosarcoma, malignant bone cancer. We also did a series of tests to check for visible metastases, or spread of the cancer to other parts of the body. Finally some good news - these tests were negative. They wanted to come down to discuss the options in person with their teenage kids present.

After introductions, plus cookies for Jake, I began, "If Jake were my dog I would amputate. He is still young enough and healthy enough that he is a good candidate. Without amputation he is at a high risk of breaking that leg because the cancer has weakened the bone so much. If we do nothing his life expectancy at this point is about 6 to 8 weeks on average."

"Is that it? Just 6 to 8 weeks?" their daughter asked.

"Yes, that's the average, some shorter, some longer, but none very much longer. This is why I want you to think about amputation. That immediately gets rid of the pain and obviously eliminates the risk of a fracture. With surgery plus chemotherapy the average jumps to almost a year, with 20% of dogs living longer than two years. And a year is a really long time in a dog's life. Also, chemo is usually much gentler in dogs and has far fewer side effects than in people."

"But how's he going to manage on three legs?" Mr Folsom asked, his arms crossed, his expression clearly skeptical.

"That's the beauty of being a dog or cat. They do so well on three legs! You'd be amazed. In 28 years I honestly have never had anyone come back later and say that they regretted doing it. Obviously we have to make sure that his three remaining legs are in good shape, but otherwise it's just not a barrier."

"It's like he has three and a spare!" the daughter said. Mr Folsom was staring straight ahead.

Exactly. I couldn't have put it better myself. Three and a spare. It can be such a hard procedure to convince people to do, but it's one of the ones that brings the most obvious and immediate benefit to the patient. It's not just helpful for scenarios like Jake's, but also for some complicated fractures. I liken it to pulling a bad tooth. At that point the tooth is just a liability. It no longer provides benefit, only pain and risk.

Clearly this is not for every dog or cat with bone cancer. I don't want any of you who may have been through something like this and chose not to amputate to feel bad about your decision. The age of the pet can be a significant factor. For every year beyond middle age the decision becomes more complicated. And the bigger the dog, the faster they age. Also, as I mentioned, the other legs need to be healthy, and if it is cancer, it can't have spread. And finally, to be honest, I wish it didn't have to be about the money, but sometimes it does have to be. Surgery plus chemo runs into the thousands.

Incidentally, this general principle of being able to remove prominent parts of the body to benefit the patient goes for the eyes too. In some cases of glaucoma, which is high fluid pressure in the eyeball, the medications stop working and the eyeball painfully swells. At that point it is a liability, like a rotten tooth, or like a cancerous leg. People are sometimes aghast when we recommend removing the eye (a procedure called enucleation), but just like with amputation, once the owners get over the psychological hurdle, nobody ever regrets having the eye removed. Nobody.

This is one of the beautiful things about animals. They have very little in the way of body image hang-ups. They just do not seem to care how many teeth or eyes or legs they have. Terry Fox would be proud.

As I'm sure you guessed, three of the Folsoms ultimately out-voted the fourth and they opted for surgery, and Jake, being an above average dog in a lot of other ways, lived an above average length of time. He had 16 good months before we had to let him go.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Love


"I've been spending the nights with him on the living room floor, by his favourite spot. I keep worrying he's going to stop breathing, so I'm not sleeping much. I know his time is coming soon. I didn't want to bring him today because I'm so worried you're going to say I have to put him down." Mrs. Gagnon's eyes were red rimmed and her voice trembled as she said this.

I looked down at Edwin, an elderly black cocker spaniel. He was wheezing a bit, but at first glance he did not appear to be on his last legs. I crouched on the floor and offered him a liver treat, which he happily took, wagging his little stub tail. As I dug around in the treat jar to get another one I thought about Mr. Wilson who had taken the day off work to sit with his cat Parsnip while he was being treated for complications from diabetes. Parsnip would be in all day and Mr. Wilson would be there the whole day too, reading a little, patting Parsnip and generally just being there with him. I thought about Mr. Wilson because Mrs. Gagnon reminded me of him. She reminded me of him because they were both here for the same reason: love.

I am in a very privileged profession. What other professionals are you primarily motivated to visit because of love? Family doctor? No. Lawyer? Ha. Accountant? Double ha. Dentist? Triple ha. The list goes on. In fact, the only other similar profession I can think of is pediatrics. I have often joked with my kid's pediatrician that I practice furry four-legged pediatrics, or he practices hairless two-legged veterinary medicine. For sure many veterinary clients (and parents of children?) are also motivated by a sense of duty, a desire to do the right thing or even feelings of guilt, but the basic driver is usually love.

This is where the conversation can become awkward around people who don't have pets. Love? Really? Isn't that a bit overblown? Too sentimental? A sign that they are lacking human love? No, no and no. Forgive me if I am, as the saying goes, preaching to the choir, but the following is for the benefit of the occasional non pet owner (can I call them muggles?) who stumbles on this blog and thinks, "wtf?"

Part of the problem is language. English is a wonderful, rich and expressive language, but it has some gaps. We have an exhaustive list of words to chose from when it comes to describing and naming objects, but rather less when it comes to relationships and emotions. Think for example about the word "uncle". In English this can describe your parent's brother, or it can describe the random dude your parent's sister was briefly married to. It can even sometimes describe an older male family friend. There are many languages that have distinct titles for each of these, but may not have separate words for all the different kinds of car shapes or shoes styles or couch configurations. I'll let you draw your own conclusions regarding what this says about our culture.

In any case, so it is with the word love. There should be more words to describe all the kinds of love. Does your love for your parents feel the same as the love you feel for your spouse? Or your children? Or your siblings or best friends? They are all closely related emotions, but they are not the exact same. So it is with the love many people feel for their pets. If we're stuck with this one word, "love", then it has to be big and it has to be inclusive. Comparisons between the different flavours of love are not useful. Sure, in a "Sophie's Choice" nightmare scenario all of you would chose to save your child at the price of losing your dog or cat (or almost all of you... most of the time...), but that is never a real life choice.

With respect to it being sentimental, yeah, I suppose it can be. So what? Isn't the appreciation of much of what makes life worth living often somewhat sentimental? Good music, movies, art and literature all make use of emotional response to draw you in and involve you. Loving and appreciating the company of a pet is broadly similar. Can you imagine a world where sentiment was banished and everything had to be cold and practical?

And as to the love people feel for their animals indicating the need to fill a void, this has been amply proven false for the majority of cases. There certainly are many lonely people who find solace in the company of their pets, but pet owners represent the widest cross-section of society, including many of the most gregarious and outgoing "people people". In fact, my experience has been that the more capacity a person has to love an animal, the more capacity they often have to love people too.

Both Edwin and Parsnip did ok. I won't say that it was the power of love that made them better, but it certainly didn't hurt either.

"We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals."
-Emmanuel Kant


Thursday, September 27, 2018

Dr. Goliath Inc.


It may be a cliche to say so, but change is inevitable. In few aspects of life is this as true as it is in the world of work. Every job and every profession is changing, and the pace of that change is accelerating. In veterinary medicine we have seen great technological change and we have seen an enormous change in our understanding of many diseases. We have also seen the profession change from being male dominated to female dominated in a single generation. These changes are evident to most pet owners, but today I want to talk about an equally important change that is occurring behind the scenes. I want to talk to you about the creeping corporate takeover of veterinary medicine.

Practice groups consisting of locally owned hospitals with a few satellite clinics have been around for a long time, and the larger ones may blur the lines with corporate practice, but I'm not talking about them today. What I'm talking about started in 1986 when Veterinary Centers of America (now Veterinary Clinics of America, or VCA) was founded in California and began buying private practices and practice groups across North America one by one. VCA now owns over 800 animal hospitals directly in 43 states and 5 provinces, and it operates another approximately 1000 (!) under it's Banfield brand name, which it acquired in a 2017 merger. VCA is a publicly traded company listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange (under the cloyingly cute stock symbol "woof"). Other corporations include National Veterinary Associates with over 400 clinics and Vet Strategy with close to 100 clinics.

Winnipeg is always the last place for any trend to hit. We were the last to get Starbucks, the last for the microbrewery revolution and we are the last major market to be targeted by corporate veterinary medicine. Up until very recently all the practices in Winnipeg were locally and privately owned. Then two years ago a large corporation began to buy clinics, owning four now and with a rumoured fifth deal in the works.

Change can be good, change can be bad and change can just be change. On the good side corporations bring deep pockets to the profession that make it easier to upgrade to the newest technology and to present sparkling, professionally decorated practices, but with ample respect and affection for my colleagues who now work for corporate, I am going to argue that this particular change is on balance bad for the profession.

The fundamental problem is that large corporations solely exist to make money. Of course small private practices also have to make money, but the difference is that if my clinic has a bad year financially we tell ourselves that it was bad luck, or the weather, or the economy and we'll hope for a better year next year. We only answer to ourselves, not to shareholders or investors. In contrast, if revenue drops in a corporate practice, management from Los Angeles or Toronto or wherever will put pressure on the veterinarians they employ to meet quotas, or else. Some corporations track remarkably specific metrics.  For example, in the US one looks at the number of xrays a veterinarian should take relative to the amount of respiratory disease they see. The corporations do not dictate the management of specific cases - that would actually be illegal - but they will set general benchmarks for numbers of specific tests and procedures and they certainly make specific financial goals clear to their employees. On one hand more tests can be "good medicine" and, as in the above example, it can be hard to argue against precautionary "just in case" xrays for a cough, but on the other hand this does diminish your pet's doctor's freedom to use their professional judgment and make sensible decisions without having to worry about what management is going to say about their numbers at the end of the quarter.

Another problem is vertical integration. Mars Corporation has recently bought a controlling interest in VCA. Mars is massive. It had $33 billion in sales in 2015, and only a fraction of that was chocolate bars. It is now the world's largest provider of pet health products and services. In addition to VCA it owns  Royal Canin food, with their prescription diet line, and a whole series of non-prescription pet food brands, such as Pedigree, Whiskas, Eukanuba, IAMS, Nutro and more. It also owns the largest chain of veterinary specialty and emergency centers, the second largest veterinary laboratory company, one of the largest veterinary ultrasound companies, and the number one canine DNA analysis company. Oh, and a chain of 130 boarding and doggie daycare facilities. All that's missing from their portfolio is a pharmaceutical company. The fear here is that veterinarians will be increasingly required to use only the products and services under the same corporate umbrella rather than picking and choosing from all the options based on their professional judgment of their patient's needs. I mostly love Royal Canin foods, but only mostly. I would not tolerate being told that that is the only prescription diet I can offer my patients.

At the end of the day the important relationship is the one between you and your pet and your veterinarian. Who your veterinarian works for is hopefully not all that relevant most of the time. It's just sad for us within the profession to see the freedom and independence we enjoyed gradually be eroded. And it's sad to think about the coming generations of veterinarians who will have less opportunity to enjoy the sense of pride that comes with owning your own practice and making all your own decisions.

Postscript:
Since posting this I have been asked how these corporations have been able to buy clinics. There must be willing sellers. Of course there are. I should explain this and introduce some balance to this story. The large veterinary corporations can offer older veterinarians a relatively straight-forward way to ease into retirement. Moreover, they are able to make these offers very generous. I am fortunate in that I have younger veterinarians working for me who are keen and financially able to buy into the practice, so when my time comes I will be able to sell to them without any trouble. This is not the case in every practice. Sometimes willing buyers are just not that easy to find. Sometimes junior veterinarians prefer to not to take on the responsibilities of ownership and management. Corporate practice therefore fills a previously unmet need and some of my colleagues are grateful for that. And as much as I might personally wish it to be otherwise, veterinary medicine is ultimately not immune to the laws of economics.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Sneak Peak


The advance review copy arrived today! I'm told that the official public release will be April 23.