Indianapolis newspaper series criticizes veterinarians, researchers, drugmakers


Responses defend veterinarians', industry's motivations and sense of ethical propriety.

UPDATE: Veterinarians continue to publish their thoughts on The Indianapolis Star series.

Veterinarians and veterinary organizations are responding to The Indianapolis Star for its recent report “Pets At Risk,” a series that criticizes veterinarians' relationship with drug manufacturers and implies that financial motivations often influence practitioners' decisions more than pets' and pet owners' best interests.





The series revolves around a central question: What is the value of a pet? It cites data suggesting that owners who consider their pets as more than just property spend more money on their healthcare. And it describes companies' efforts to idealize the owner-pet bond, with the reality of animals' legal standing presented as a stark contrast. An excerpt states:

The industry that makes billions of extra dollars from people who consider their animals members of the family places a much lower dollar value on “the bond” when something goes wrong: $0.00.

The report states that the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and other animal groups have resisted the concept of emotion-based damages when cases have come up in court:

“They trumpet the quantifiable economic value of the human-animal bond to vets at the cash register,” said Chris Green, The Animal Legal Defense Fund's director of legislative affairs. “Then they pretend they have absolutely no value in the courtroom.”

And it emphasizes the financial consequences of assigning pets an emotional value:

“If tens of thousands of dollars are at stake every time a pet is injured or killed, pet litigation will become a cottage industry,” wrote attorneys representing the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Animal Health Institute and other powerful associations in 2012.

The story's visual presentation and narrative also foster sympathy for pet owners. Owners are featured in somber photos as they stare into the camera clutching pictures of their dead pets. Two owners pose by their deceased dog's grave.

Some of the dogs' deaths are recounted in heart-wrenching stories:

The family spent nearly a month keeping Peaches alive at home. On July 30, the Gallos rushed Peaches to an animal emergency clinic. The dog was panting and had abnormal lung sounds. Shortly afterward, Peaches deteriorated rapidly and was euthanized.

“Her heart gave out,” Gallo said. “Her liver. Other organs-just ruined.”

Blurred lines

The newspaper explores veterinarians' ties to the veterinary pharmaceutical industry at some length-ties the writer maintains are explicitly prohibited in human medicine. The reporter describes a scene from the 2013 AVMA annual convention, held in Chicago:

The vets, the nation's last line of defense against unsafe drugs getting to animals, were receiving a blizzard of meals, books, electronic gadgets and speaking fees from drugmakers.

After describing the iPads, speakers and chargers that were offered to attendees as gifts, the reporter scrutinized the motivations of parasitologist Michael Dryden, DVM, PhD, who presented information on Activyl, Merck's flea control product (The reporter did not disclose that Dryden also speaks for Merck's competitors):

What Dryden didn't say was that Merck had paid him $56,705 to conduct research on the effectiveness of Activyl. Or that his research at Kansas State has received more than $5 million in industry funding in recent years. Dryden did not respond to several phone messages and emails seeking comment about whether he feels beholden to industry and what he does to avoid conflicts of interest.

Overall, the picture painted of the veterinary drug industry was less than favorable:

The Star examined public records, studies and drug reaction data, and conducted interviews with company officials, pet owners, scientists, lawyers, epidemiologists, regulators and veterinarians. They told the story of an industry that is looking for ways to shore up declining revenues from human drugs, repurposing molecules that had an array of original uses for people and crops, and pushing government officials to speed up the approval process.

The response

AVMA President Ted Cohn, DVM, wrote a letter to the newspaper's editor to criticize the coverage:

While you tried to paint a picture of veterinarians being beholden to pharmaceutical companies for monetary gain, you failed to cite even one specific case of impropriety or lack of professionalism. The same can be said for your suggestions that the AVMA annual convention “revealed just one of the many ways corporate money influences pet health care …  threatening the objectivity of those prescribing drugs to your dog or cat.

Post by American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

Jennifer Keenan, MVB, of West Lafayette, Indiana, wrote a letter to the Lafayette Journal & Carrier to share her experience at the AVMA conference:

I did attend the American Veterinary Medical Association conference mentioned in the article. I feel safe in suggesting that most veterinarians attending were there to get the most up-to-date education and training to help improve the lives of our pets. Most of the educational lectures were not sponsored by a drug company and the “free stuff” amounted to some pens and notebooks.

Bash Halow, co-owner of a veterinary consulting business based in Indianapolis and New York City, wrote to dvm360's Veterinary Economics to contest the series' suggestion that veterinarians are driven solely by profit:

If the reporter really had reviewed “thousands of pages” of documents before writing the article, then he must be aware that veterinarians in the United States donate a tremendous amount of time and expertise for the care of unwanted stray animals. He must have also read that on average veterinarians give away 1 to 3 percent of a practice's annual revenue in services and products throughout the year simply in an effort to be kind to clients or to ensure that pets receive the treatment they need-not just what their owners can afford.

However, not all veterinarians were critical. David Ramey, DVM, of Encino, California, supported the newspaper's scrutiny in a letter to the editor.

The Star should be commended for starting to examine the uncomfortably close relationship between industry and veterinary medicine. In human medicine, interactions between physicians and the medical/pharmaceutical industry have come under close scrutiny, and studies have concluded that physician-industry interactions seem to affect both prescribing and professional behavior.

What do you think about veterinarians' relationship with drug makers? Share your thoughts in the comment below. Register for free to post.

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