What does the "practice of veterinary medicine" really mean? It all depends on where you’re standing when you ask the question.

Every state has a Veterinary Practice Act that attempts to explain what practicing veterinary medicine is and what it is not. That’s an important distinction because only licensed veterinarians can practice veterinary medicine—legally, at least. Non-veterinarians, on the other hand, can do everything else without incurring the wrath of state veterinary boards.

Practice Acts vary from state to state, but a common definition of the "practice of veterinary medicine" includes diagnosing, treating, correcting, or preventing animal diseases, illnesses, injuries, deformities, and other conditions. If you think about it, that’s a very broad definition that covers everything from dabbing antiseptic cream on a scrape to major surgery. Common exceptions include veterinary treatment of an animal by the animal’s owner or the owner’s employees, accepted livestock management practices (including dehorning and castration), scientific research, and veterinary advice without expectation of payment.

Some procedures—surgery and prescribing medication come immediately to mind—fit into most everyone’s definition of veterinary medicine. No argument there. But many other procedures traditionally performed by non-veterinarians (let’s call them "gray areas") also are considered veterinary medicine in many states, at least if the statutes are given a strict reading. Very few farriers, "tooth floaters," or complementary medicine practitioners are licensed veterinarians and in some states they are plying their trades in direct violation of the relevant veterinary practice acts. Complaints to veterinary boards, when they occur, generally come either from disgruntled clients or from veterinarians who feel that interlopers are invading their turf.

How inclusive should a veterinary practice act be?

Balancing the need to protect the public from quacks and charlatans while recognizing that trained non-veterinarians can provide valuable services to their clients in a wide variety of disciplines is a difficult task.

One side of the argument, sometimes made by veterinarians and state licensing boards, is that non-veterinarians lack the formal, academic training necessary to effectively provide what amount to veterinary services. Restricting these "gray area" activities to licensed veterinarians (or in some states to lay individuals working under the direct supervision of a veterinarian) is necessary to protect the public and the public’s animals.

On the other side are claims that "gray area" licensing is a money grab by greedy veterinarians, that many experienced non-veterinarians can provide services that are both competent and safe, and that restrictive licensing denies lay practitioners the right to earn a living and animal owners the right to choose who provides care for their animals. The Institute for Justice, a Virginia public interest law firm, is a frequent (and often successful) advocate for the latter position.

Lay tooth floaters and the Institute for Justice recently won a victory in Texas when a judge in Austin invalidated an attempt by the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners to limit equine dental work to licensed veterinarians. The judge ruled that the state board had not followed procedural requirements of the state Administrative Procedure Act when the licensing requirements were amended in favor of veterinarians. The lay practitioners won on a technicality, but the decision did not reach the fundamental question of whether licensed veterinarians are the only individuals qualified to work on horses’ teeth. That remains an issue for another day in court.

What do you think? Should farriers, equine dentists, massage therapists, and practitioners of other complementary therapies be licensed veterinarians?

The American Veterinary Medical Association has a Model Veterinary Practice Act that provides valuable guidance for state veterinary licensing boards and legislatures. The AVMA is in the process of revising and updating the Model Act and the organization is soliciting public comments during a 30-day period that will start in January 2011. The AVMA requests that comments be specific and include suggested language. The current Model Act has an exception for farriers but specifically includes complementary therapies in the practice of veterinary medicine.

If you think your state’s Veterinary Practice Act is too strict, or too lenient, commenting on the AVMA Model Act is one way to have your opinion heard. Comments on the current Model Act can be made at www.avma.org.