THE ROYAL College of Veterinary Surgeons has been accused of running a cosy, secretive "closed shop" which tolerates serial malpractice by "Harold Shipmans of the vet world".
Amid harrowing claims of animal suffering, a pressure group that claims to have 4,000 supporters is demanding that the college, veterinary medicine's ruling body, strengthen its disciplinary procedures.
Campaigners want it made easier for pet owners to complain and for bad vets to be struck off. It is feared that hundreds of pets a year die from unauthorised surgery and cruelty by vets.One man saw his greyhound, which had a broken back, being dragged into a courtyard by a vet who insisted the animal was faking its injury. "I wanted to punch the vet," said David Baines, the owner. "My wife was so overcome by the dog's suffering that she just fainted on the spot. The vet merely laughed, just as he laughed when my complaint against him was thrown out by the college."
A wire-haired dachshund was "carved open like a slab of meat at the butcher's", even though its owner had expressly not given consent for such surgery. A Middlesex woman's border collie was operated on with little or no anaesthetic.
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.
Pet lovers who bring complaints to the college have found it disdainful of laymen and "institutionally favourable" to accused vets.
A national action group has been formed to force the college to alter its ways. It is seeking an independent ombudsman for pet complaints and an inquiry into past cases of neglect.
"Vets themselves are judge and jury when complaints are made," said Mr Baines. "Guilty is a word seldom used in the college's vocabulary."
Mr Baines claims to know of "Harold Shipman-scale neglect" by one particular vet who has been cleared to continue practising. In many of the complaints, animals are "euthanased" (the profession's preferred word) without the owner's knowledge.
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, will meet anti-college protesters in May. David Lidington, shadow environment secretary, indicated that the Conservatives will 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."
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."
The college was established in 1844 by Royal Charter. Its president is Stephen Ware and Martyn Jones, Labour MP for Clwyd South, is a member of its disciplinary committee.
The college said it was "confident all complaints have been investigated fully and fairly" and argued that a quarter of its disciplinary committee were non-vets.
"It is often the case that one of the parties is left feeling unsatisfied after a complaint. This is inevitable. All surgery to animals involves an element of risk and an unexpected outcome, including death, which does not necessarily mean the vet was at fault."
Last year the college received 717 complaints. There are 11,549 general practice vets in Britain. In the past five years, only one has been struck off for malpractice involving pets.