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Why One Veterinarian Quit, Disgusted With a Profession He Once Revered

By Helen Sung

After eight years on the job, British veterinarian Matthew Watkinson became disenchanted enough with the profession he once worked so hard to join that he quit, wrote a scathing book about the veterinary industry and penned a shocking Daily Mail article -- "Why I'm Ashamed to be a Vet" -- exposing the money-grubbing ways of unscrupulous veterinarians.

"A whole industry has arisen out of squeezing the most money out of treating family pets," Watkinson writes in the article published by the Daily Mail. Watkinson accuses financially-motivated veterinarians of ordering unnecessary procedures, prolonging a sick pet's life with expensive treatments merely to generate higher fees and even researching a pet owner's home address to determine wealth and how much the client could be charged.

"I'm not saying everybody does it, and it's probably not the majority," Watkinson, 32, tells Paw Nation. "But there are people in this profession who do things like that. There are veterinary practices where a vet is given minimum financial targets and has to make a certain amount of money per consult." Pet insurance can be helpful to pet owners in emergencies, says Watkinson, but "it's an easy excuse for some veterinarians to take advantage of the system." And what about a client who owns a purebred dog with a lot of inherited problems? "It's a potential goldmine," says Watkinson.

Unsurprisingly, Watkinson's statements haven't endeared him to his peers. "My [veterinarian] friends are deserting me now because I've criticized the profession," the ex-veterinarian says. The
Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons denounced the Daily Mail article and implied that Watkinson was doing it to publicize his new book, "On the Destiny of Species: by Means of Natural Selection, or the Elimination of Unfavoured Races in the Struggle for Life." In it, he blasts the veterinary profession for supporting a dog breeding industry that produces purebreds with inherited diseases and physical deformities considered "cute," and catering to sentimental -- a dirty word in Watkinson's book -- pet owners, rather than acting in the best interest of animals.

"I've been accused of doing all this to sell books, be sensational and to make money," says Watkinson, who quit the profession a year ago. "But I'm broke. This was done out of a deep respect for the way that nature works and a compassion for animals."

"In veterinary school, there was lots of 'we can do this' [procedure], but not a lot of 'should we do this?'" says Watkinson. "We were taught almost as technicians," he says. "My ethical training was limited to one afternoon in five years. We're not really taught to think; we're taught to do all these procedures. And they get more complicated each year so we have more options to keep all these animals alive. We fight the powers of nature, really, and what we've ended up with is a lot of diseased dog breeds that couldn't survive without us."

A particular incident from veterinary school still haunts him. He was caring for an elderly dog after the canine (whose story is told in an excerpt from "On the Destiny of Species," below) had one of its legs amputated due to cancer. "It was a really old dog and the prognosis was six months more to live," Watkinson recalls. "I sat up all night with that dog, and it screamed all night. I thought, 'We've only done this to massage the emotions of the owner.' It's an old dog. It hasn't got long to live whether you take the leg off or not and it's just going to cause misery by amputating its leg. If we just put that animal to sleep, it wouldn't have screamed there all night."

Is Watkinson saying that dogs with cancer shouldn't receive life-extending treatments? "If there's no suffering, I have no problem with it," says Watkinson. "But I've been to seminars where veterinary oncologists have said, 'You should do everything you can to save these animals. Euthanasia should be the last resort. There is always something we can do.' And that's the mentality I'm trying to address. 'There's always something we can do to save it,' is another way of saying, 'There's a lot more money we can make out of it.'"

Dr. Tony Johnson, a clinical assistant professor at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine and consultant for
PetConnection.com has practiced in a clinical setting for 13 years. He thinks Watkinson is taking the case of a few bad apples and wrongly extrapolating it to the entire profession. "I have heard of vets who are financially motivated, but that is a tiny, tiny fraction of the profession," Dr. Johnson says. "The vast majority are ethical and are motivated by a love of medicine, pets and helping people."

What about veterinarians looking into a client's financial status? "I have never heard of that happening," says Dr. Johnson. Contrary to Watkinson's claims that veterinarians purposely try to increase the amount of the bill, Dr. Johnson says veterinarians often have to communicate with distraught pet owners and talk them out of doing procedures that the vets don't feel are right. "It's our job to get the pet owner's feet back on the ground and talk to them about what's in the best interest of the animal," Dr. Johnson says. "[Watkinson] is damning a whole profession based on his own bitter experience, and it's not right. The whole profession is not broken."

By the time Watkinson graduated from veterinary school, he had already decided not to work at a veterinary clinic. "I knew I would be forced to look after the emotions of the owner more than I would the interest of the animals," says Watkinson. He ended up in a farm-animal practice because he thought "it would be slightly more focused and pragmatic."

Watkinson looked after cows on dairy farms, but that too, posed moral dilemmas. After eight years, he had had enough.

He didn't really "decide" to write a book, he says. "After I quit my job, I just started researching and writing, trying to find out, 'What are we actually achieving?'" says Watkinson. "The book isn't entirely about domestic animals. It goes beyond that and much more into natural history." Heavily influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, there are chapters that are critical of the veterinary profession. "I don't believe that all veterinarians are cutthroat, heartless monsters," Watkinson says. "I think many are very compassionate, but unintentionally end up supporting the problems they swore to get rid of."

Excerpt from "On the Destiny of Species: by Means of Natural Selection, or the Elimination of Unfavoured Races in the Struggle for Life" by Matthew Watkinson:

I have forgotten the name of the dog of course, and indeed a lot of other ancillary details, but I do know that its front leg had been amputated to remove an aggressive bone tumor, and I do know that I will never forget its screams. It wasn't even a young dog. It was an old dog with cancer and yet, despite being within touching distance of the end, it was lying in a soulless hospital kennel screaming in agony and recoiling in horror when anybody approached. It was horrible and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't justify its suffering. I must admit, I couldn't justify my own anger properly either.

I was quite sure the dog's suffering was entirely based on the emotional needs of its owners, and that it couldn't have suffered if it had been euthanized, but the full implications were beyond me. What if the dog had been younger for instance, would that have made the suffering acceptable? And if it had, what does 'younger' actually mean? Is it less than 8 years old? Or 9? Or 8½? And if it had been young enough to make the procedure acceptable, does a dog know whether the pain will stop, even if I do? Indeed, can I actually guarantee that the pain will stop (and that long term gain will definitely follow short term suffering), or is there a significant probability that the treatment will fail and render the whole attempt worse than just killing the animal in the first place? In fact, what is the problem with killing animals in the first place anyway, regardless of age?

I had no idea at the time, and when I was inevitably summoned by the clinical elite for a 'chat' I was unable to justify my anger properly. I wouldn't have the same problem anymore. In fact, I would relish the opportunity for a 'chat' these days because it's now quite clear to me that emotion severely corrupts perspective. It twists judgment and warps rational thought and the journey I've been on to understand this case, and a whole host of others, has taken me further and further from compassionate sentimentality and right back to the system that has worked for more than three and a half thousand million years.