Snowbirds unite! Senior barter system creates a conundrum for one clinician

Snowbirds unite! Senior barter system creates a conundrum for one clinician

One retired kennel owner offers to provide veterinary services for his neighbors—but he’s not a veterinarian. What’s the local practice owner to do?
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Jul 03, 2018

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Dr. Lee Stall owned a two-veterinarian practice in a suburban community in the South. The beautiful weather brought many seniors to the area to escape the harsh winters, and many of his clients were on a fixed income. They lived pleasant, rewarding retirement years but adhered to a strict budget, as is the case with many twenty-first-century retirees.

In one particular retirement community, Harvest Falls, the neighbors took an innovative approach to cost-cutting. The residents banded together and pooled their various talents—there were retired tradesmen, computer professionals, barbers and many others with varied skills. The neighbors used a communal barter system that served everyone. For those willing to participate, there were free haircuts, computer repairs, plumbing assistance—and the list goes on.

Before his retirement, Jim Johnson had bred springer spaniels, owned a boarding kennel and trained dogs. He shared with his community the same assistance he gave his own pets, helping his neighbors any way he could. Mr. Johnson ordered his pets’ vaccines from a mail-order house and administered them as prescribed. He cleaned his dogs’ ears, expressed their anal glands and massaged their legs and back when they were stiff. When the dogs displayed clear signs of illness, Mr. Johnson did take them to the veterinarian for help.

Mrs. Coggins, a resident of the Harvest Falls community, brought her dog to Dr. Stall for a checkup. Dr. Stall recommended vaccine updates, an ear swab to see if the dog’s ears were yeast-free, and a radiograph of the pelvis due to some posterior discomfort. When Mrs. Coggins declined, Dr. Stall asked why—after all, she’d always agreed to his recommendations in the past. Mrs. Coggins told the veterinarian that her neighbor, a retired kennel owner and dog trainer, had vaccinated her dog, cleaned his ears and massaged his aging hips. Mr. Johnson didn’t charge her a fee, and her financial restrictions made his offer very attractive.

This was the third Harvest Falls client who had declined professional services as a result of the community’s communal services understanding. Dr. Stall explained to Mrs. Coggins that Mr. Johnson was not a veterinarian and he could create more problems than he was preventing. Her response was, “That’s why I came to you for a checkup.”

Dr. Stall continued, saying Mr. Johnson was practicing veterinary medicine without a license. Mrs. Coggins replied that he took no money and was only trying to help. The veterinarian and the client essentially agreed to disagree on the merits of their discussion.

After Mrs. Coggins left, Dr. Stall thought through his options. The definition of practicing veterinary medicine without a license requires the diagnosis and treatment of an animal—regardless of a fee being charged—when the individual is not the owner of the animal. Should he report this man to the state veterinary board? Should he call Mr. Johnson directly and advise him that he was breaking the law? Should he acknowledge Mr. Johnson’s good intentions, advise him of the law and volunteer to oversee his efforts, which would help the senior community and bring everyone into compliance?

Dr. Stall felt that this last option—offering to assist Mr. Johnson—would ultimately be in the best interests of the Harvest Falls senior community.

Should Dr. Stall simply have reported the man to the board and asked it to issue a cease-and-desist order, or were his actions better for all concerned in the long run? Let us know what you think at [email protected].

Dr. Rosenberg’s response

This is a perfect example of knowing when to pick your battles. This senior community member wasn't aware he was in violation of the law, nor was there a profit motive. This should not be interpreted as condoning the practice of veterinary medicine without a license. Illegal practice happens far too often and many animals fall victim to those with greed and deception as a motive. But in this scenario Dr. Stall is displaying equal amounts of skill, compassion and discretion. I believe he took the correct path.

Marc Rosenberg, VMD, is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. In his private time, he enjoys playing basketball and swing dancing with his wife. Although many of the scenarios Dr. Rosenberg describes are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.