Human surgeons operating on dogs: When good intentions aren't enough

September 20, 2019
Maureen McKinney, Associate Editorial Director

dvm360, dvm360 October 2019, Volume 50, Issue 10

His heart may have been in the right place, but an Atlanta orthopedic surgeon has voluntarily shut down his nonprofit organization after backlash from area veterinarians.

A nonprofit organization providing free orthopedic surgeries for injured stray animals-performed by doctors with “MD” rather than “DVM” after their name-has shut down abruptly amid vehement objections from the veterinary community.

Officially founded in 2016 by Atlanta surgeon John Keating, MD, Surgeons for Strays was a group of all-volunteer, all-MD surgeons who performed orthopedic procedures on injured stray and shelter animals that otherwise faced almost certain euthanasia.

According to a June 2019 article in AAOS Now, a publication of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Surgeons for Strays comprised “residents; local animal shelters; and orthopaedic surgeons and veterinarians who donate their time, operating space and expertise to help animals who would otherwise be euthanized. After surgery, the animals are returned to a shelter or organization for adoption.”

The group performed nearly 90 small animal surgeries over the years. On Friday, Atlanta's WBS-TV reported that the Georgia Board of Veterinary Medicine is “investigating complaints” about the organization. On the same day, Dr. Keating shut down the nonprofit's website, promised to cease operations immediately and dissolved the organization.

Already noticing the fact that a medical doctor would not have an accurate understanding of the anatomic nuances of small animals, veterinarians who viewed clinical photos on the now-defunct Surgeons for Strays website believed that the procedures themselves were being done incorrectly and in a nonsterile environment.

“People who were not appropriately trained in veterinary medicine were caring for the animals, and we were concerned for their well-being,” Alan Cross, DVM, a Sandy Springs, Georgia, veterinarian who filed a complaint against Dr. Keating, told WBS-TV. “Our concern was that these patients weren't being handled in the best way because of lack of training.”

From the state's perspective, it is not illegal for a medical doctor to perform surgery on an animal as long as a veterinarian is present to oversee the procedure. That veterinarian was Michael Good, DVM, a practice owner in Marietta, Georgia. Dr. Good, who is not an orthopedic surgeon, told WBS-TV that he had been supervising the surgeon and residents during procedures for the past 13 years-despite the fact that no publicity photos on the group's website showed Dr. Good in the operating room.

“I may not be in there when someone is shooting a camera,” he said, “but I'm in and out of there.”

The best of intentions

For his part, Dr. Keating told AAOS Now that the only animals his group ever operated on were those that were at high risk for euthanasia. “These are dogs that are doomed. … They can't get adopted,” Dr. Keating said, adding that “we're not pretending to be veterinarians.”

In addition to Dr. Good's supervision of the procedures, Dr. Keating told AAOS Now, his team also commonly consulted with James Cook, DVM, PhD, DACVS, DACVSMR, OTSC, who holds multiple positions at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, in advance of a veterinary procedure.

Veterinarians in Georgia are now looking to lawmakers to clarify state laws to define exactly who can perform surgery on animals.

Also on Friday, the Georgia Veterinary Medical Association released this statement: “The GVMA (not to be confused with the Georgia State Board of Veterinary Medicine, which has legal authority over Georgia veterinarians) has received numerous inquiries from our membership regarding human physicians performing orthopedic surgeries on shelter animals. The organization in question has agreed to suspend their program as of today. We will continue to discuss ways to ensure that the animals in need receive appropriate medical care-if you are a licensed veterinarian & willing to aid in this endeavor, please contact the GVMA at gvma@gvma.net.”

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