A few months ago, the Executive Board of the American Veterinary Medical Association approved a change in the oath administered to new veterinarians in an effort to "clearly identify animal welfare as a priority" for the profession. The revised portion, with changes in bold type, now reads:
"Being admitted to the practice of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge."
The changes might appear cosmetic, but they are significant. The revised oath serves an admirable purpose by imposing a clear obligation on veterinarians to be proactive, to prevent animal suffering from occurring or continuing rather than waiting to treat an abused or neglected animal after the fact. A problem is that the veterinarian’s oath does not carry the weight of law, and in some states a veterinarian may face a conflict between his or her sworn responsibility and the requirements of statute.
Kentucky remains a case in point.
An obvious way for a veterinarian to fulfill the tenets of the oath is reporting suspected animal abuse or neglect to the proper authorities. Veterinarians often can be, and always should be, the first line of defense against abuse and neglect. But a Kentucky veterinarian who takes the oath seriously and reports suspected abuse or neglect violates Kentucky Revised Statute 321.185, a well-intentioned law that goes too far in protecting the confidentiality of veterinary records.
Under current state law, veterinary records can be released to third parties, including animal welfare authorities, only if the animal’s owner authorizes the release of information or when there is a court order or subpoena. Cooperation from an owner who abuses or neglects animals is unlikely and court action may be too late to help the animal. Unauthorized release of confidential veterinary information is a misdemeanor and also may expose the veterinarian to a civil lawsuit.
There is an easy fix for the problem, if legislators get around to it. An amendment to KRS 321.185 has been proposed that would exclude a veterinarian’s good-faith reporting of suspected abuse or neglect from the statute’s definition of confidentiality. The amendment received a favorable report in the Agriculture and Small Business Committee and was scheduled for a vote in the House, but on February 15 it was returned to committee limbo. A similar bill failed last year.
The problem may be that supporters of the imminently sensible amendment lack the financial wherewithal of some other special interest groups. Legislation allowing optometrists to perform some types of eye surgeries previously limited to ophthalmologists with MD degrees zipped through the state legislature and another bill that would have capped predatory interest rates charged by payday loan businesses died a quick death in committee. Optometry and payday loan associations reportedly are significant financial donors to state legislators. I’m sure that is just a coincidence.
Lawmakers are the ultimate low-hanging fruit, and picking on them is so easy it makes a person feel guilty. Every now and then, though, legislators need to do what is right, not simply what is politically expedient. A veterinarian never should have to weigh a professional oath against state law.