Guess what? Rules sometimes on a need-to-know basis


Ican't speak for every one of us, but I would have to say that for the most part, veterinarians tend to be people who have lived their lives following the rules.

Ican't speak for every one of us, but I would have to say that for the most part, veterinarians tend to be people who have lived their lives following the rules.

It is no secret that unless you are a Doogie Howzer or Jimmy Neutron, we all had to exercise discipline and a certain amount of compliance with the system in order to make our way through college and graduate school. Presumably, this path led us to the point where we could obtain a professional license.

Perhaps that is why the government sort of "trusts" us. Maybe it is because we have shown through the years that we can walk the line and follow the rules, therefore authorities have granted veterinarians and other health professionals certain rights and privileges not enjoyed by other professions in our society. The feds let us buy and possess controlled substances, and the states give us the right to prescribe products most folks can't legally get their paws on.

So, if we are so darn good at following the rules, why is it that once we go into practice and have true responsibility, the government suddenly becomes reluctant to let us know what the rules actually are?

Case in point

As my regular readers know, my rhetorical questions are always followed by an illuminating anecdote. So here it is:

During a routine feline health examination recently performed at my office, one of my assistants received a minor scratch from one of the cat's back claws. Being the compliant rule-follower that I am, I filled out a workers' compensation report and marched my helper off to a walk-in clinic for an exam and the usual week of antibiotics.

A few days later, my office manager received a phone call from our health department insisting the cat that scratched my employee be quarantined immediately. They also wanted to know where the cat was and why I had not notified them. I was thankful the MD at the walk-in clinic was more on top of the rabies regulations than my office was.

The next morning, an officer from the health department arrived at my practice with more questions.

To his surprise, I had one of my own: "Where in the regulations does it say that a scratch from a vaccinated animal is a reportable human contact?"

He didn't know. He had just been told that it was. He'd get back to me.

The n ext day, the officer called me and insisted that any time a cat scratches a person with a saliva-soaked foot, it must be reported. I explained that nobody involved with this cat saw a drop of saliva anywhere near any of the cat's paws. Had the health department heard otherwise?

Reply: "No. So I guess you don't need to do anything."

Please wait, Mr. Health Department Man. I proceeded to politely ask him about the rabies exposure rules, and where he gets his enforcement guidelines. I was told that his supervisor made up a booklet for the enforcement officers to follow.

"Could I get a copy of those rules so that I know when to report exposure and exactly what the current regulations are?" I asked. The man said that he didn't think he was allowed to reveal the contents of that booklet, but he would contact me soon about how to become informed about the rules.

After a few months, I am still waiting.

I can only speculate about what motivates our government authorities to be so close to the vest with guidelines. Part of it, I speculate, is that nobody knows who has the authority to make final rules. We are a democracy based on the principles of home rule and delegated powers. In fact, it makes sense that the folks closest to a local problem should have the greatest input into how local enforcement and regulatory behavior respond to that problem. Nonetheless, as long as local authorities are responsible for enforcing state health and welfare law, those authorities should be entitled to receive and disseminate full and accurate information about what the law requires.

This information can only be supplied if someone at the top designates a specific party who has final responsibility for deciding what exactly rule compliance entails. The problematic word may be "responsibility."

I began veterinary practice in 1988. At that time, I made multiple requests to various state entities regarding the products and services that would classify as exempt from sales tax in my state. Imagine how gratified I was when I got the October 2006 issue of the New York State Veterinary Society newsletter stating that our legislative representative had just received word that published guidelines for veterinarians covering what is and what is not taxable in New York would be coming out this fall. I pant with anticipation.

Dr. Allen is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services exclusively to veterinarians. He may be contacted at (607) 754-1510 or

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