Lawmakers kill legislation allowing lay dentistry

Organized veterinary medicine celebrates; other side fixed on continuing battle

Published: April 19, 2012
By Jennifer Fiala

California lawmakers axed a bill this week that, if passed, would have permitted unlicensed animal care workers to use hand scalers to clean the teeth of household pets without the supervision of a veterinarian.  

While the decision won applause from much of the state's veterinary profession, those lobbying to allow non-veterinarians to use such instruments are not retreating from a scope-of-practice battle that spans three decades.   

After hearing testimony on Tuesday, the Assembly Business and Professions Committee voted 6-0 to reject Assembly Bill 2304. Three of the committee’s nine members abstained from voting or were absent. 

Introduced Feb. 24 by Assembly Member Martin Garrick, AB 2304 amended the term “dental operation” in the state’s Business and Professions Code to permit the use of “nonmotorized instruments to remove calculus, soft deposits, plaque or stains from an exposed area of a household pet’s tooth above the gum line, provided that service is performed exclusively for cosmetic purposes and the person performing the service first obtains written permission from the person requesting the service.” 

The bill's passage could have made California the only state in the country to take using a scaler to clean animals’ teeth out of the hands of veterinarians. Right now, non-veterinarians only are permitted to use scalers under veterinary supervision. 

Leading up to the committee hearing — an initial step in the legislative process — the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and the California Veterinary Medical Board (CVMB) launched a “massive” campaign to oppose AB 2304. In a statement after the vote, CVMA officials thanked the 7,500-plus association members and non-members who lobbied against the bill via phone calls and letters to lawmakers.

“We also thank state legislators who recognized that this bill would have resulted in consumers being misled and serious harm to household pets,” the CVMA statement said. 

Those who advocated for the passage of AB 2304 take issue with the notion that anesthesia-free teeth cleanings harm animals, despite the fact that the CVMB, the agency that licenses and disciplines veterinarians, reports receiving numerous letters from pet owners stating otherwise. 

What's more, sedating animals to clean teeth, as commonly done in veterinary practices, has the potential to cause fatal adverse reactions, proponents of AB 2304 say.

That point was made several times during Tuesday’s hearing by supporters of Canine Care, an anesthesia-free dental cleaning service that operates in more than 600 locations in California, and the company’s owner, Cindy Collins.

For years, Canine Care and other services like it have reaped millions of dollars operating under the radar of the CVMB, hiring unlicensed animal care workers to hold pets still while scraping their teeth with hand scalers — curved steel picks with sharp points that can be purchased at some pet supply stores. 

That changed in 2010, when regulators started cracking down on unlicensed practice, sending out cease and desist notices and fining those who use dental scalers on animals without a veterinarian’s oversight.

During Tuesday’s hearing before the Assembly Business and Professions Committee, advocates for AB 2304 that included Canine Care supporters and at least one veterinarian, insisted that the veterinary profession’s opposition to the bill was not about protecting the well-being of animals. 

It’s about money, said Dr. Rob Lydon in a speech before lawmakers. The practitioner from Shingleton, Calif., was the only veterinarian who spoke in favor of AB 2304, calling for its passage. 

“When the economy is not particularly robust, we struggle. … That’s really what this is about,” Lydon said, noting that various seminars he’s attended for veterinarians have pointed to dentistry as a revenue booster. 

Lydon, who refers clients to Canine Care, spoke of the merits of anesthesia-free teeth cleaning. But more than a dozen practitioners rebuffed his claims of safety, citing health concerns tied to anesthesia-free teeth cleaning services when scalers are used without DVM supervision. 

Some said that due to Canine Care marketing, owners mistakenly believe that anesthesia-free cleanings are comparable to the dental care provided in veterinary practices, causing pets to develop severe dental disease that could have been prevented. 

Testimony offered by Karen Basting, chief of staff for the Board of Supervisors in Contra Costa County, arguably was the most powerful of the hearing. 

Emotional and with her voice shaking, Basting recounted how she brought her five-pound dog, Liz, to Canine Care for a teeth cleaning. Basting alleged that a Canine Care employee working out of a pet store bruised her dog’s chest while physically restraining her, and the work performed led to infected abscesses in the dog’s mouth, which ultimately required the extraction of 10 teeth. 

Ten trips to the veterinarian and $3,784 later, the dog recovered from the ordeal, she said.  

“It’s inhumane; it’s all about money,” said Basting of Canine Care’s business practices. “Our government requires that the people who paint our nails, style our hair or even just touch us, giving us massages, have proper training and licenses so that we as consumers know they should be capable of doing what they do without harming us.”

According to the CVMA, Basting’s case is being investigated by the District Attorney’s Office in Contra Costa County. 

However, Gray, the lobbyist for Canine Care, suggested there might be legal action of another kind brewing. In an interview with the VIN News Service, he suggested that Basting and others misrepresented themselves and their stories before the committee. 

“We’re very confused,” Gray said. “Our records show that Canine Care didn’t even use a scaler on (Basting’s) dog. We’d like to get that clarified because lying like that constitutes criminal misrepresentation.”

He added that while opponents of anesthesia-free teeth cleaning believe that it’s “invasive,” the truth is that it’s purely cosmetic “because it does not include any activity below the gum line.” He likened the procedure to clipping hair or trimming toenails. 

“Special interest groups bully to kill good bills and get bad ones passed,” Gray said. “This is why people get frustrated with our government.”

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