Horse owners tend to view their equine veterinarians as life-savers, miracle workers and even demi-gods. Most of the time these medical professionals live up to that high standard ‒ but what recourse do you have when you suspect your vet is guilty of misconduct, malpractice, cruelty or abuse?
In Canada, provincial veterinary associations (or a separate licensing body empowered by provincial legislation) are responsible for licensing veterinarians. It is the duty of these licensing bodies to protect the public interest through regulation of their members and while the general requirements to practice veterinary medicine are similar, they may differ slightly from province to province. The licensing bodies in each of the 10 provinces and territories are listed here.
For the purposes of this article we will look at Ontario rules and procedures. There are currently over 5,000 licensed veterinarians in Ontario; only those licensed by the College of Veterinarians of Ontario (CVO) are permitted to practice in the province.
“Professional practice standards cover everything from methods of animal handling and restraint to accurate record keeping to ensuring that euthanasia is carried out in a humane method with minimal pain and distress.”
Professional Practice Standards
Professional Practice Standards are documents that outline the behaviour expected from veterinarians depending on their area of expertise. They contain criteria essential to competent, ethical practice that reflect the values of the profession. As they are ‘living documents’ they are updated as necessary from time to time.
Standards apply to all members of the profession and cover the categories of knowledge and skill; qualification; practice; and professional ethics ‒ a type of yardstick against which professional behaviours can be measured. These standards cover everything from methods of animal handling and restraint to accurate record keeping to ensuring that euthanasia is carried out in a humane method with minimal pain and distress.
Filing a Complaint
If you feel that your veterinarian has not acted in a professional manner, or has not met a basic standard of care, in Ontario you can submit a complaint to the CVO which should include the following information:
- Name(s) of the veterinarian(s) & veterinary facility(ies)
- Details of the complaint, including date, name and species of the animal, supporting documentation (ie. photographs, audio or video recordings)
- Names and contact information for anyone who could provide further information
- Complete contact information for the person filing the complaint
The veterinarian will be supplied with a copy of the complaint and is asked to respond with a written explanation and any relevant medical records, x-rays, etc. The complainant will receive a copy of this response and is invited to respond to the vet’s explanation. Attempts may be made to resolve the situation through mediation (see below), but if that is not possible or successful, the Complaints Committee will step in to review the matter.
Misconduct issues are taken very seriously and are overseen by either the Executive or Complaint committees, depending on the issue and level of necessary investigation. Each case is carefully examined by a panel of veterinarians and a public representative appointed by the provincial government; decisions may include:
- no concerns with the member’s conduct and no further action will be taken.
- closed as frivolous and vexatious, made in bad faith or otherwise an abuse of process.
- have some concerns with the member’s conduct and the member is provided with advice and/or education
- agreement to a process of remediation, or
- have very serious concerns and refer the case for a hearing with the Discipline Committee.
If allegations of professional misconduct or serious neglect are suspected, the Discipline Committee will hold a hearing where a panel of 3-5 members (including one member of the public) are appointed. These discipline hearings are usually open to the public, but in the case of sensitive confidential matters the Discipline Panel can ask that all or part be held in private. Disciplinary actions can include reprimands, fines, continuing assessments, counselling, retraining, and suspension or revoking of a license. (A list of disciplinary hearings and decisions in Ontario over the past 10 years can be accessed here.)
Mediated Resolutions Programs
A voluntary, confidential process to resolve disputes or complaints through negotiation is known as the Mediated Resolutions Program (MRP), intended to protect public interest while giving “all parties the opportunity to participate in seeking a positive and constructive resolution.” Rather than meting out punishment, this approach focuses on education and can be useful to resolve complaints involving miscommunication, inappropriate remarks, or minor standards breaches.
Outcomes of an MRP may include:
- a letter acknowledging the incident with an understanding of the distress it caused the patient/family;
- the facility establishes policy changes or initiatives that will serve to improve veterinary care;
- an agreement the veterinarian will undertake further education on the issues surrounding the complaint; or
- an apology by the veterinarian to the complainant.
MRPs are not appropriate in cases involving misuse of controlled drugs, fraud, animal abuse, misrepresentation, sexual impropriety or falsification of records, which will be sent to the Complaints Committee for a decision.
Prepare to Wait
The wheels turn slowly once a complaint is lodged with the CVO, and an uptick in the volume of complaints over the past few years has not helped the situation. Shilo Tooze, Associate Registrar, Licensure at the College of Veterinarians of Ontario, provided these comments about the College’s complaints process and time frame.
“The process is defined in the College’s governing legislation, the Veterinarians Act. The time to process complaints is dependent on the volume of complaints the College receives. Since 2019, we have seen a significant increase in the number of complaints. Unfortunately, at this time, a complaint may take two years to be resolved.
“The College is committed to helping the public understand the complaints process and equally committed to modernizing the antiquated Veterinarians Act, so the process is better able to meet the needs of the public, and the veterinary profession.”
A thorough explanation of the College’s complaints process appears in the Winter 2021 issue of College Connection and notes that there are currently over 500 open complaints being investigated. Unfortunately, the CVO only has the capacity to process about 216 complaints per year, which has led to the backup. The short answer would be to train more Complaints Committee members, but the Veterinarians Act limits their number to 10. Another problem which bogs down the system is frivolous no-risk or low-risk complaints which also must be dealt with and are just as time-consuming.
Beyond filing a complaint with their provincial veterinary governing body, if a pet or horse owner wants to seek damages against the vet in question (because of pain and suffering, loss of an animal, loss of intended use, etc.) they will need to seek legal counsel.
“It is still rare for a case of veterinary malpractice to see the inside of a courtroom.”
According to the paper Veterinary Malpractice Law In Canada published by Dolden Wallace Folick LLP, “The principles of a veterinary standard of care have not received as much attention [in Canada] when compared to the standard applied to other medical professionals. Because of this, the courts have generally applied the same standard of care to veterinarians that is applied to other medical professionals.”
It can be very difficult to prove negligence, however: “To succeed in negligence, the plaintiff must also prove that the loss was a foreseeable consequence of the breach. It has been well-established that when considering causation, the court must consider only the knowledge that was available to the veterinarian at the time the treatment took place. Veterinarians, like medical professionals in general, are not expected to be all-knowing. The courts have recognized that hindsight is 20/20, and to review the treatment given to a patient using the benefit of hindsight would establish an unreasonable standard.”
And finally: “Based on the availability of case law, it is clear that it is still rare for a case of veterinary malpractice to see the inside of a courtroom. Even rarer still is a finding of negligence that results in an award of damages to the plaintiff.”
Hopefully, you will never need the services of your provincial veterinary associations’ complaint committee or have to lawyer up, but if you do, it’s good to have a grasp of the procedure and what to expect.