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State can order halt to pet-teeth-cleaning service

State regulators may order the non-veterinarian operators of a teeth cleaning service for pets to cease and desist the unlicensed practice of veterinary medicine, An Illinois appellate court ruled September 18 (Lee v. Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation). The court rejected an argument that the operators of the teeth cleaning service were permissibly acting as "agents" of the pets' owners.

Kristina Lee and Larry Chow operated an in-home teeth cleaning service for pets called Paws n’ Claws, which billed itself as an anesthesia-free alternative to traditional veterinary teeth cleanings. Neither are trained veterinarians, though both described themselves as having trained in animal care and teeth cleaning.

In January of 2011, the Department issued cease-and-desist orders to the pair, ordering them to cease both the teeth cleaning operation and any advertising representations that they were qualified to perform veterinary dentistry.

In response, Lee and Chow filed for review with a state court, arguing that their teeth-cleaning practices fell under an exemption to the state’s Veterinary Medicine Act which allows for treatment by an “agent” of an animal’s owner, that the Department was required, and failed, to consult with the state veterinary board before issuing its orders, and that they had been denied due process because the Department did not provide them with a hearing.

After an unfavorable ruling by a state circuit court, Lee and Chow appealed, and the case went up to the Appellate Court of Illinois, 1st District, in Chicago.

Justice William Taylor, writing for the court, noted that although Lee and Chow correctly asserted that the Veterinary Act directs the Department to consult with the state veterinary board, that requirement “was not intended to protect the right of unlicensed individuals to engage in practices which may be construed as veterinary medicine.”

Accordingly, he said, the requirement that the Department consult with the board before enforcing the provisions of the Act is directory only, not mandatory, and a failure by the Department to engage in consultation does not require the reversal of its actions.

The court also rejected Lee and Chow’s “agent” argument, noting that the exemption is not available to those who hold themselves out as “associated with the practice of veterinary medicine.” Lee and Chow, because they advertised themselves as trained in veterinary practices and because the forms they used in their procedures contained diagnoses of dental diseases, had so “associated” themselves.

As for their due process claims, Justice Taylor noted that cease-and-desist orders do not require a hearing, and that Lee and Chow had been afforded an opportunity to present their side of the case to the department.