Huddleston theorizes that competition, higher client expectations and urbanization have altered the profession's climate at
a fundamental level. The once-symbiotic relationship between client and veterinarian is cooling. Public attitudes toward practitioners
have changed, he says.
"I don't know if there's actually more gross negligence or more gross malpractice or if people are just more apt to make claims.
What I do know is we've definitely had more actions against veterinarians," he says. "It seems like we're practicing in a
different time. I'm concerned about what's happening."
So is Gina Bayless, enforcement program manager for the California Veterinary Medical Board whose office investigates complaints
and coordinates random, routine inspections of the state's 7,000-plus licensed resident veterinarians.
The complaints come in daily, with 453 of the 651 grievances filed already in 2007 against veterinarians alleging negligence,
Bayless says. The state used to receive around 400 reports annually. Now anything less than 600 is considered a light year.
Total citations and fines also are up, with 135 issued as of June for minor practice act violations. Anything that requires
formal discipline goes to the attorney general's office. While Bayless can't put her finger on what's driving complaint numbers,
the ebb and flow appears to follow publicity surrounding high-profile cases.
"It raises the level of awareness that there are regulatory boards, someone to complain to," she says. Nearly all grievances
involve a gap in communication, she adds.
"Consumers are expecting more from the veterinary profession. They want a higher level of care because of the increased importance
Complaint numbers also reflect eroding collegiality and morals in the profession, Huddleston says.
"I think it really comes down to treating others well, with respect and good medicine. The basic rule of veterinary ethics
is the same as the Golden Rule. If we ever get to that point, we'll have a decrease in claims," he says.