Will the real assistance dog please stand up?

October 12, 2019
Marc Rosenberg, VMD

Dr. Marc Rosenberg is the director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey.Growing up in a veterinary family, he was inspired to join the profession because his father was a small animal practitioner. Dr. Rosenberg has two dogs and three cats.In Dr. Rosenbergs private time, he enjoys playing basketball and swing dancing with his wifethey have danced all over the world, including New York City, Paris and Tokyo. Dr. Rosenberg has been a member of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors for more than 30 years. He has hosted two radio shows, a national TV show and appeared in over 30 national TV commercials, all with pet care themes.

dvm360, dvm360 December 2019, Volume 50, Issue 12

When a veterinary client asks a doctor to sign off on a therapy dog certificate, should he push back if he thinks its fraud?

Dr. Louis Kay's veterinary practice is located in what some would describe as a “posh” community, and his clients make many trendy requests. For instance, a microchip is not enough-they need a GPS collar trackable with a smartphone. The number of newly popular breeds among his clients-labradoodles, morkiepoos, French bulldogs-has risen tenfold in the past four years.

Dr. Kay, having practiced for more than 20 years, has no issues with any of the trends he sees come and go over the years-as long as they don't harm the health and welfare of his patients. If pet owners and pet patients are happy, so is he. This is all true until a new trend challenges his ethical and professional boundaries.

In the past few years, Dr. Kay has seen a marked increase in the number of emotional support animals, therapy dogs and more. He firmly believes the support dogs give to people in need is nothing short of miraculous. For decades we've marveled at the help service animals offer to the blind and deaf. In the last decade, therapeutic assistance has expanded to help those with physical disabilities, anxiety issues and many types of life-compromising phobias. As might be expected, along with the increased numbers of helping dogs and the privileges they're accorded has come abuse of those designations by pet owners.(Editor's note: Want to get a little clearer on the differences between all these animals? Check out therapist and former veterinary team member Julie Mullins' take.)

Now Dr. Kay faces a professional and ethical question. His longtime client Mrs. Toss comes in to have her dog examined to be classified as an assistance animal. In Dr. Kay's state, a medical doctor has to sign off on the patient's need for an assistance dog. In addition, a veterinarian has to attest to the health and disposition of the dog. Both of these approvals are required before an animal can be registered as a assistance animal and therefore be entitled to the privileges that go along with this certification.

It's clear to Dr. Kay that Mrs. Toss, who frequently travels to her Florida home by plane, wants her beagle, Lucky, to travel in the cabin with her and accompany her to restaurants in his capacity as an assistance animal. To Dr. Kay, it also seems clear that his client does not have a disability but has gone to these lengths to accommodate her personal preferences. As diplomatically as possible, Dr. Kay asks the woman why she needs an assistance dog. She seems a bit taken aback by his question and says it was recommended by her doctor. She goes on to say that revealing anymore information would violate her medical privacy.

Dr. Kay struggles with what to do. By signing the veterinary certificate, is he complicit in what he feels may be a fraud? Is it possible that his client has a medical disability that he isn't privy to? When presented with a physician's certificate approving a need for animal assistance, should he just sign off and be done with it? The fact that people abuse their rights to handicapped parking plates and assistance dog certifications does not sit well with Dr. Kay-but he signs off anyway.

What would you have done if you were Dr. Kay? Email us and let us know at dvm360news@mmhgroup.com.

Dr. Rosenberg's response

As veterinarians, sometimes we need to pick our battles. The battles that I personally always pursue are to see that my patients are not frightened and not in pain. Dr Kay's instincts were probably right about his client's effort to have her dog declared an assistance dog for selfish reasons. But if veterinarians had to actively respond to all the irresponsible actions of their clients, there would be no time to care for pet patients.

I agree with Dr. Kay's decision. Nevertheless, it shouldn't stop the profession from advocating that animals not be exploited as assitance and support animals in cases where deception is the only disability in play.

Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. Although many of the scenarios Dr. Rosenberg describes in his column are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.

download issueDownload Issue : dvm360 December 2019