Thirty-nine Canberra veterinarians have had complaints levelled against them in the past five years.
Two vets have been the subject of more than three complaints each.
In one case, a dead dog was found to have surgical swabs still inside its body from two years prior when it was desexed.
In another, a kitten was desexed without proper anaesthetic.
Most of the complaints took many months to finalise.
Documents relating to complaints over the past five years were released to The Sunday Canberra Times under Freedom of Information laws. While some of the complaints were found not to breach any standards, there were others that were concerning.
The documents were produced by the Veterinary Surgeons Board, which regulates veterinary practice in the ACT, and included summaries of finalised complaints since 2014. Personal information was redacted.
The information release comes as the ACT prepares to introduce new legislation to improve the efficiency and management of the complaints resolution system, including allowing the vet board to suspend licenses.
By the government's own admissions, the current complaints scheme is "overly complicated and at times caused significant delays in reaching resolutions".
The Bill will remove provisions which require the vet board to refer complaints to a professional standards panel to impose conditions or disciplinary measures.
"The current complaint provisions in the ACT create duplicative and costly processes that delay complaint resolution and underutilise the technical skills of the current Veterinary Surgeons Board by requiring another panel be established to determine complaint responses," the government document reads.
Under the proposed legislation, the vet board will be able to impose fines of up to $5000, impose conditions, require payment of specified costs relating to any hearings, and suspend a licence if justified against three criteria.
The ACT government believes that the proposed provisions, which are in line with the NSW legislation, will allow the vet board to more efficiently address malpractice in the sector.
Appeals on vet board decisions will be heard by ACAT, which will also maintain processes to suspend or cancel a licence.
The current system makes it hard for the vet board to discipline veterinarians for making serious mistakes. Only one vet has had their licence suspended in the ACT in the past seven years.
In 2017, there were 43 registered vet premises operating in the ACT and 381 practising veterinarians in both the public and private sectors.
'Making errors is part of being human, that's quite different to malpractise'
Fyshwick vet Jacob Michelsen said the bulk of practitioners in Canberra have never had a complaint made against them.
As a specialist small animal surgeon at the Animal Referral Hospital, Dr Michelsen said in the past he's been involved in cases where complaints have been raised, dealing with the animal after mistakes have been made.
He said he's never been the subject of a complaint.
"Making errors is part of being human, we all do it at times, but that is quite different to malpractice," Dr Michelsen said.
"Like in the human profession, the bulk of complaints tend to be about the same people."
Dr Michelsen was a member of the NSW Veterinary Practitioners Board for three years and said the NSW legislation was "more up to date and relevant".
He said the main issue in the ACT was that the complaints process was "clumsy and slow".
Dr Michelsen said he believed a lot of the complaints came from misunderstandings or lack of communication.
"Communication is probably the problem nine times out of 10," Dr Michelsen said.
"The vet doing something nefariously wrong is really, really rare. It's almost always the case that it hasn't been communicated well enough either because the client isn't receptive to that or because the vet hasn't done it as well as they could have."
Dr Michelsen said the ACT had some of the best veterinary practises in Australia, so pet owners should not be afraid to shop around.
"If you're concerned about a diagnosis or you feel your registered vet hasn't explained something to your satisfaction at the time, just ask them. Most vets are helpful, and if you're not satisfied, talk to another vet," he said.
Complaints against vets
Swabs 'inadvertently' left in dog
The owners of a dog that died two years after a veterinary surgeon spayed the animal and left surgical swabs in the abdominal cavity were told the responsibility was on them to seek further treatment if the animal displayed “ongoing clinical signs”.
Despite the finding, the ACT veterinary surgeons board deemed no action should be taken against the vet, aside from recommending they use only 10 swabs per procedure, and that they bring their anaesthetic and clinic record procedures into line with ACT standards.
The dog was six months old when it was admitted to the unnamed veterinary surgery in Canberra to be desexed.
According to documents released under FOI, that was in January 2014. Two years later in January 2016, it died.
The subsequent investigation into the death of the young animal by the ACT Veterinary Surgeons Board found the vet “inadvertently” left the swabs inside the animal.
“The board notes in your response to admission of your error and sincere regret over the incident”, the notice of decision letter reads.
It outlines that an exploratory laparotomy in January 2016 found the absence of a right kidney in the dog, and the presence of a fluid filled cyst.
“The board has determined you have no case to answer as no conclusions can be drawn as to whether the fluid filled cyst and absent right kidney were linked to the desexing procedure”, the letter reads.
“The board agrees if [redacted] did have ongoing clinical signs it is the responsibility of the owner to seek further veterinary treatment.”
The board was made aware of the complaint soon after the dog died in January 2016, but did not respond to the complainant with the finding until December.
The owner of a dog that attacked and resulted in the death of another dog complained to the vet surgeons board about the cost of treating the injured animal before it passed away.
While the Vet Board does not consider matters of costs, the owner asked the board to consider whether there was “sufficient probability of success to warrant the alleged suffering” of the dog that had been attacked.
The outcome of the complaint, submitted in 2016, found that the treatment of the dog had been satisfactory.
“The critical nature of [redacted] injuries was communicated to the owner throughout the treatment process. Based on the prognosis, the owner made an informed decision to allow [redacted] to continue treating [redacted].”
“It was not evident at any stage during [redacted] treatment that euthanasia was necessary,” the decision letter read.
“The decision to either euthanase or pursue treatment for [redacted] was the choice of her owner.”
While a post-mortem was not conducted, medical notes supported the diagnosis of a “disseminated intra vascular coagulation that led to a thromboembolism of either the heart or lungs”, known as a blood clot. The dog was euthanased.
The board recommended that in future, the attending veterinarian “ensure that euthanasia is offered to clients for animals with a poor to grave prognosis, or to owners with animals that may have a protracted recovery time, or if the bill could potentially escalate”.
“The board acknowledges your generous undertaking to pay for [redacted] treatment and recognises, as you were not the owner, that you were placed in a difficult position throughout the process, as you had no control over the decision making in regard to the treatment options”.
Anaesthetic protocol 'not up to date'
A kitten that died after a routine desexing procedure was administered anaesthetic via gas and not intravenously, with the vet claiming the fur might change colour if the area was clipped to allow entry.
The vet that undertook the desexing procedure in December 2014 was reprimanded by the vet board for a variety of reasons and conditioners were placed on the vet’s registration after the complaint by the kitten’s owner.
The Vet Board found the treating veterinarian failed to meet adequate standards of treatment practices, particularly in relation to anaesthetic procedure and records, clinical records and appropriate drug dosages.
The vet board found the vet’s use of the gas halothane was “not considered the most up-to-date” method of anaesthesia.
“Good anaesthetic protocol involves the placement of an intravenous catheter to allow for immediate venous access if emergency drugs are required,” the findings read.
“This did not occur. The risk of the fur changing colour post clipping is not considered to be an acceptable reason for not using a catheter.”
The clinical records also demonstrated that required information was not documented, including the weight of the animal, the quantity of pre-medication administered and the clinical parameters as part of the pre-anaesthetic check.
The dosage of an anti-inflammatory drug administered post-surgery was almost twice the normal dose.
The conditions imposed on the vet’s licence included the need to attend formal, structured training to update knowledge in small animal veterinary anaesthesia and to develop and implement a detailed plan on how to meet the board’s continuing professional development requirements. The board also recommended the vet review clinical record keeping and anaesthetic protocols.
Vet 'did not meet required standards to practice'
A dog that was seen in a vet practice in Canberra was prescribed the drug Forketor after being diagnosed with chronic renal failure. On the dog’s return to its home state of WA, the owner took the dog to a vet who found no evidence of chronic renal failure. The complainant also claimed the prescribed medication had no label or instructions.
On October 30, 2015 the vet board found the veterinarian did not meet the required standards to practise in the ACT.
“It is not in the interests of public safety for her to retain her registration to practise,” the notification letter reads.