THE GOVERNMENT is set to tighten the law to tackle growing concern over the number of vets who have been accused of causing unnecessary suffering during treatment.
Campaigners claim that hundreds of pets are dying every year for want of adequate treatment. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the profession's ruling body, has been accused of tolerating the situation. Ministers want to tighten disciplinary procedures and root out such vets.
The changes will include appointing more lay people to the RCVSs 12-member disciplinary body and give pet owners a right to appear at appeal hearings, according to a senior official at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The unnamed official said: "We feel that there is a case for updating the procedures. The Veterinary Surgeons Act dates from 1966 and is in need of reform."
A Government consultation will begin later this month and the legislation will be introduced "any time from the end of next year", the official added.
The Royal College, founded in 1844, received 750 complaints from animal owners last year. More than half of them alleged inadequate care.
The 20,700-member colleges Disciplinary Committee "directed" that five vets be struck off, but one of them was reinstated on appeal and two other appeals are pending. The college said that all complaints had been investigated "fully and fairly".
Recent cases include a West Midlands vet given two years' probation for discharging a Springer Spaniel unable to walk after surgery, and a vet who failed to complete a sterilisation operation on a cat yet still sought payment. The vet was given a two-year probation period. Critics say the college's failure to act firmly in these and similar cases represents a medical failure on the scale of the recent scandals in human health care.
Owners who bring complaints to the college have found it disdainful of laymen and "institutionally favourable" to accused vets.
Angry owners have formed a 4,000-strong group to lobby for change and are calling for an
independent ombudsman to deal with complaints. They have sent a 4,157-signature petition to the Queen, a well-known animal lover, asking for support.
"Vets rely on the dumb good nature of their patients," said Janet Mahoney, a founder of the action group. "The animals can't speak, of course. So some vets get away with terrible neglect." She says the action group has 4,000 supporters. "We have had to stop taking personal testimonies because the stories were too horrific."
Next year the Government is expected to bring a veterinary surgeons Bill to Parliament, reforming the 1966 Act that currently legislates for animal care.
Elliot Morley, a minister at the Department of Environment, Food and Regional Affairs, met the anti-RCVS protesters in May. Meanwhile, David Lidington, shadow environment secretary, indicated that the Conservatives would press for greater rights for pet owners.
"For this number of people to be protesting suggests that there are real grievances that need to be addressed," he said.
Avril Critchley, a pet owner from Sheffield, said: "Most vets work tirelessly for the animals placed in their care. They should not have their reputations tarnished by bad vets who are shielded by a weak system. The college has shown that it is incapable of disciplining its members. Its powers should be removed."
Mrs Critchley, 68, a retired head teacher from Sheffield, has raised the issue personally with David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, who has a guide dog. "He must understand the sorrow of losing an animal from ill health or old age. When the loss occurs through the negligence or incompetence of a vet, it is unbearable. Vet cruelty causes terrible distress not just for animals but also for bereaved owners."