There’s been a lot of questions lately that have come in regarding which licensed professionals are able to perform surgeries on dogs and cats. The short answer is… no they may not under current Georgia law.
There are a few exceptions below, but none of those apply to recently reported cases such as the recent controversy in Atlanta. In spite of the clear restriction by Georgia State Code, it has remained a hot topic in the press (such as the Atlanta Journal Constitution), tv news shorts, and reddit.
I’ll go over the boring (or exciting depending upon your viewpoint) legal analysis which is unsurprisingly straightforward. As you know I was a part of the legislative activity of the latest practice act, and along with Betsy Choder, recommended some of the language that eventually made its way into the bill and law. Chapter 50 of Title 43 of the Official Georgia code is called the “Georgia Veterinary Practice Act.” It states that the practice of veterinary medicine includes “surgery” in Section 3.25. Unsurprisingly, only licensed veterinarians are permitted to perform veterinary medicine, as it states in Section 30…” No person may practice veterinary medicine in this state who is not a licensed veterinarian or the holder of a valid temporary license.” And adding emphasis, Section 45 states that “ It shall be unlawful for any person to practice veterinary medicine without a valid license.”
Simple logic here indicates that since a human medical doctor does not defacto have a valid veterinary license, they are engaged in an unlawful act if they perform surgery on an animal, which is veterinary medicine. Not so fast…
There are a few exceptions in Section 40 of the act, some of which permit surgery by a non-veterinarian on an animal in a set of very limited circumstances:
- Federal, State, or local Government employees or contractors, for the sole purpose of “control of stray animals.”
- Employees of a college or university performing their duties on animals owned by such institution.
- Vet students as part of supervised eduction, and similarly veterinary school faculty, and some foreign or out of state licensed veterinarians subject to licensed veterinary supervision.
- Livestock and food animal exceptions (while important, these exceptions do not apply to dogs and cats)
- Scientific research, subject to complying with federal, state, and local laws
- Accredited Zoo Animal care, Aquaculture, Farriers, and some others, none of which relate to dogs and cats.
In addiont, there are a couple of unusual exceptions, cited by media or people performing veterinary medicine without a license, that require more detail –
First, there is a good samartian exception for care rendered at the scene without fee or gratuity, as outlined in Article 4 of the Act.
Animal Shelters –
Section 8 A of the Act states that some acts may be done with licensed kennels, animal rescues, pet-sitting, and boarding… however this exception expressly rejects surgery (bold below).
Any person acting under the direct or indirect supervision of a licensed veterinarian to provide care to animals that are the property of an animal shelter when at least the following three conditions are met:
(i) The person is an employee of an animal shelter or a local government who has control over the governance of the animal shelter;
(ii) The person is performing these tasks in compliance with a written protocol developed in consultation with a licensed veterinarian; and
(iii) The person has received proper training; provided, however, that such persons shall not diagnose, prescribe, dispense, or perform surgery.
Non Veterinary licensed parties-
Section 13 states that:
Any other licensed or registered health care provider utilizing his or her special skills, or any person whose expertise, in the opinion of the veterinarian licensed in this state, would benefit the animal, so long as the treatment of the animal is under the direction of a licensed veterinarian with a valid veterinary-client-animal patient relationship.
Now here we have some vagueness… in that someone may argue that surgery is a “special skill” or “expertise”… however the act later states anyone who is delegated a task is considered a Veterinary Assistant. “‘Veterinary assistant’ means a person who engages has been delegated by a licensed veterinarian to engage in certain aspects of the practice of veterinary technology but is not registered licensed by the board for such purpose”
And Section 27 of the definitions states that Veterinary Assistants MAY NOT PERFORM SURGERY…
“‘Practice veterinary technology’ or ‘veterinary technology’ means: (A) To perform animal patient care or other services that require a technical understanding of veterinary medicine by a licensed veterinary technician on the basis of written or oral instruction of a licensed veterinarian, excluding diagnosing, prognosing, performing surgery, prescribing, or dispensing…” and again in Section 61 – “No veterinary assistant shall make a diagnosis or prognosis, prescribe treatment, perform surgery… “
So there’s no express permission or exception within the Act that permits a licensed human medical practicioner to perform surgeries on dogs and cats, unless they are goverment employees or contractors for animal control, are related in very specific ways to colleges and universities, are licensed veterinarians outside of the state of Georgia (under licensed veterinary supervision), or are performing a regulated scientific research study.
So now that we have clear regulations that prohibit this behavior, what is the consequence? First, the Board of Veterinary Medicine has the duty to enforce the act. It appears that to date they have not engaged in actions to prohibit or enforce the act against some of these non-licensed veterinarians. I should point out that not all actions of the board of public, they have the ability to take some non-public actions, and that investigations may be ongoing. However, I have seen a letter in the coverage linked above where it appears the Board of Veterinary Medicine was in error in their legal analysis of the act and what it permits.
Nevertheless, there are other consequences which may still apply to medical practicioners performing veterinary medicine upon domestic dogs and cats.
First, licensed veterinarians, performing veterinary medicine above the minimum standard of care with a valid VCPR (“the authorized practice of veterinary medicine”)are immune from charges and claims of animal cruelty (Title 16, Chapter 12, Section 4). There is no similar shield for other professionals. They are open to civil and criminal charges in their conduct. It is one of the items I’ve spent a fair amount of time describing, in that one of the important reasons to provide the highest level of care and pay attention to the practice act and a valid VCPR is to protect oneself and staff from third party claims of animal cruelty. And it’s unclear if a human medical insurance policy or shelter policy would cover civil and criminal procedings and penalties for the unlicensed practice of veterinary medicine.
My general legal advice is to let licensed veterinarians, who have invested years of training, continuing education, tools, and experience, practice their profession on animals, and let human medical practicioners keep their practices to humans. If not, it may take only a single clever litigator or prosecutor to ruin the lives of even the most good hearted non-veterinarian.