Ronald Fink of Southeast Washington took his dog to a veterinarian one day last December to have a small tumor on its leg removed. When the dog was released two days later, it had two teeth missing and bloodshot eyes, which another vet diagnosed as the result of blows to its head.
"Dog is in battered condition and I do not believe for one moment that these injuries were self-inflicted," Fink complained in a letter to the D.C. Board of Examiners for Veterinary Medicine, which examines and licenses veterinarians to practice in the District.
Charleen Booker's dog was struck by a car in February and taken to a veterinarian who performed routine fecal and heartworm tests but took no X-rays. Booker saw extensive swelling on the dog's side and took it to another veterinarinan who found a dislocated rib and fluid in its lungs.
The files of the Washington Humane Society are filled with cases of this kind, but pet owners have no recourse. The District's 1907 Veterinary Practice Act provides no disciplinary measures for negligent or abusive practices.
For 25 years, area consumers and veterinarians have tried unsuccessfully to revise and update the antiquated law. A bill is now pending before the City Council that would toughen standards and provide for suspension and revocation of veterinary licenses by the examining board.
The Board of Examiners of Veterinary Medicine is an appointed body that reviews consumer complaints of negligence and malpractice. But if the board finds a doctor negligent or inept, it cannot stop the veterinarian from practicing or warn consumers.
The board can suspend the licence of a veterinarian if he or she lies about credentials, is a chronic alcoholic or is convicted of a crime, but not for improper treatment of animals.
In one case brought to the board several years ago, a pet owner had taken a severely ill dog into a District veterinarian's office and was told to leave it there by a receptionist who failed to tell the owner the doctor was not in. By the time the doctor arrived, the dog was dead.
Dr. Harold Melman, a member of the board when that case was presented, angrily recalled the board's helplessness. "If that had happened in the state of Maryland the doctor would have been suspended for 30 days," he said.
Jean Goldenberg, executive director of the Washington Humane Society, said her organization has sought a stronger law for 10 years. "Citizens currently have little redress," Goldenberg said. "What do we tell them? That if they lived in Maryland or Virginia they could do something? . . . There is a compelling need for this legislation in light of complaints that allege serious misconduct and unethical animal treatment."
"Animals can't tell you the kind of care that they get," said Phyllis Wright, director of animal control for the Humane Society of the United States, who strongly supports the legislation. In the absence of stronger sanctions, she said, "you get inhumane and inadequate care of your animal and you have no recourse."
The revised legislation, proposed by Mayor Marion Barry's office in April 1981, was applauded by veterinarians and consumers as a protection against unqualified veterinarians and unprofessional conduct.
Despite the general support for the measure, there is sharp debate over changes it proposes in the makeup of the board. The bill, as it was approved by the council's Committee on Public Service and Consumer affairs in June, would replace two of the five doctors on the board with two consumers.
"Professional and lay people should not be in an equal position to judge professionals," Goldenberg said.
Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), who chairs the committee, said "there is a trend to place more consumers on practice boards" whose performance record " hasn't been too good. . . . Consumers help keep professionals straight."
The bill, which is scheduled for council consideration in late September, would make the veterinary board the only such professional panel locally or nationally with a 40 percent consumer composition. The D.C. Commission on the Licensure to Practice Healing Arts, which licenses and regulates physicians, has three consumers among its 11 members. The five-member Board of Dental Examiners has one consumer.
Some veterinarians say that because the consumer members on the board could neither write nor administer annual licensing tests, and because they lack the medical knowledge to determine malpractice, the professional members would be overworked.
One board member, who asked not to be identified, said he was "very alarmed" that a group of consumers might have the power to set professional standards, and called the act "a political football."
"It seems like the council is messing with little people's dogs and apple pie," another veterinarian said. " The committee started talking consumer, consumer, consumer, and the bill got out of the hands of the practitioners."
Some officials of Washington area humane societies support the proposal for two consumer members. "I think it is vital that there be lay people on the board of any professional organization," said Ingrid Newkirk, chief of animal disease control for the D.C. Department of Human Services. "The consumer needs to have a say-so because . . . sometimes it is very hard for a professional society to police itself."
Maryland's Veterinary Practice Act was changed in 1974 to include lay members by enlarging the board to seven members instead of replacing doctors with consumers. Board president Arthur H. Peck said the addition of the lay members has been "a definite asset."
The Virginia board is made up of five veterinarians. Acting director Sheila Tate said there has been no movement to include consumers on the board, because its duties require medical expertise, "and a lay member could not do this."
"It is basically putting far too much of a load on three people. If nothing else the work load is going to be overwhelming," said Dr. Gordon R. Currey, president of the D.C. Board of Examiners. "It is not a healthy thing to concentrate power in the people who . . . license the vets," he added.
Former board member Melman, now cochairman of the the D.C. Veterinary Medical Association, said most veterinarians favor a board composed of five professionals and two consumers, "to ensure fair peer review."
"Why not have five and two?" asked Goldenberg. "The vets want it, the humane societies want it, the community that the bill will affect wants it."