Recent Court Decision Adds Clarity to Practice of Anesthesia-Free Canine Teeth Cleaning

Recent Court Decision Adds Clarity to Practice of Anesthesia-Free Canine Teeth Cleaning

T

he practice of anesthesia-free canine teeth cleaning performed by non-veterinarians has become a regulatory concern in recent years.

At the heart of the issue is the proliferation of businesses who seek to provide “natural” care for canine teeth. The main feature of such services is that teeth cleaning is provided to dogs by way of hand tools and without anesthesia or bloodwork. The service provider cleans the animal’s teeth while it is awake. This is in contrast to traditional veterinary dentistry, which requires the animal to be under anesthesia for services such as teeth cleaning to be rendered.

Proponents of the non-anesthesia approach to canine teeth cleaning site a number of advantages, such as reduced stress to the animal and reduced cost. On the other hand, concerns have arisen about the non-veterinarian status of such service providers, including whether they are engaging in the practice of veterinary medicine as defined in the Veterinarians Act.

A recent Ontario court decision has provided some much-needed clarity on this issue. In College of Veterinarians v. Johnston, 2017 ONSC 5312 (CanLII), the College of Veterinarians of Ontario sought an injunction against Brigit Johnston and her business Cutting Edge K9 Oral Hygiene. Ms. Johnston provided canine teeth cleaning using hand-held tools and without anesthesia. The business was investigated by the College. As part of its investigation, the College arranged for Ms. Johnston to perform teeth cleaning on a canine with loose teeth and obvious dental disease. While Ms. Johnston was attempting to remove tarter, two loose teeth came out, leaving the roots exposed.

At the heart of the case was whether the cleaning services performed by Ms. Johnston amounted to the “practice of veterinary medicine” as defined by the Act. In order to answer his question, the Court had to determine if the services provided by Ms. Johnston amounted to animal “dentistry”, which, under section 1(1) of the Act, were part of providing “veterinary medicine.”

The Court held that Ms. Johnston did not engage in “dentistry”, and was therefore not engaged in the “practice of veterinary medicine.” The main reasons for this were that (1) the services were intended to be cosmetic and not therapeutic in nature; (2) Ms. Johnston did not purport to treat dental disease; and (3) Ms. Johnston provided a service which was clearly not provided by veterinarians, as it is the standard of care for a veterinarian to perform teeth cleaning under anesthesia.

Based on the above decision, canine teeth cleaning without anesthesia including polishing and the removal of plaque and tartar above the gum line with the use of hand instruments is a service which may be provided by non-veterinarians. However, such service providers cannot imply that such services confer health benefits or present them as an alternative to veterinary care, as this may amount to holding oneself out as a veterinarian. The College has recently taken the position that terms like “anesthesia-free”, “dentistry”, “treatment”, and “health care” cannot be used by non-veterinarians in this context, however, the Courts have yet to pronounce on this issue.

In summary, the Johnston decision creates a number of requirements which must be met in order for non-veterinarians to provide canine teeth cleaning services without anesthesia. In order to minimize risk, any business contemplating providing such services ought to seek legal advice as to whether the treatment can be properly performed by a non-veterinarian, and whether marketing and promotional materials meet the standards set out in Johnston.