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Veterinarians Making Extra Money on Unnecessary Procedures?

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- For most pet owners, man's best friend is another member of the family and deserves the best care, but a former veterinarian says that some vets, out to make an extra buck, will pad the bill with unnecessary shots, tests and procedures.

Andrew Jones worked as a veterinarian for 17 years. He left the industry after a dispute with his medical board over marketing issues, and wrote a book called, Veterinary Secrets: Revealed.

"I'm clearly not making friends within the veterinarian industry, but I feel I'm saying things that need to be said, that aren't being said," Jones said.

As a young veterinarian working at a clinic in British Columbia, Jones said he got an early lesson about upselling after telling a pet owner whose dog had a lump to just monitor it. At the time, Jones said he was fairly certain the dog's lump was a benign fatty tumor, but said the clinic owner quickly clued him in on the effectiveness of using the dreaded "c" word: cancer.

"The practice owner... said, 'no, that's not how you do it... what you need to do is get that dog back in... It's going to be much more profitable for the practice,'" Jones said. "He said that it might be cancer. And it's-- usually the 'c' word, pet owners get really concerned and they say, 'do whatever you need to make sure it's not serious.'"

Throughout his career, Jones said he discovered a dark reality about some veterinarians in the United States and Canada, including himself.

"They feel that pressure of, 'I've got these overhead costs to make,' and that's where your judgment gets caught," he said.

Jones said that, under pressure from bosses, he ordered services that were not needed. He said "no question" he would have been fired if he hadn't done as his bosses asked.

"If I didn't meet this certain target, then yeah, my employment was at threat."

But Jones said even after he owned his own clinic, at times, he continued upselling.

"There are things... that I did as a practice owner, where in hindsight, probably didn't need to be done," he said. "For instance, seeing a dog that has a little bit of tartar... then I might say, 'I think your dog should have a dental cleaning'... It's obviously more profitable for the practice."

To see if other veterinarians pushed unneeded services, as Jones claimed, ABC News conducted an undercover investigation at vet clinics in New York and New Jersey, using two different dogs, Maeby, a 5-year-old mutt, and Honey, a 5-year-old pitbull.

To make sure Maeby and Honey were healthy canines, their owners brought them to Dr. Rebecca Campbell, a well-respected Manhattan veterinarian, for thorough exams. After Campbell gave the dogs a clean bill of health, they were taken to other vet clinics for a routine check-up to see if further tests or treatments were recommended.

Most places found Maeby to be healthy. One New York vet said that except for a "tiny bit of tartar" on her teeth, everything else checked out. But a veterinarian at one New Jersey clinic also noticed that bit of tartar and recommended the pet owner have Maeby come in for an annual teeth cleaning -- for dogs that means it is performed under general anesthesia.

"She could have a lot of worse stuff going on and I'd never see it unless she was under anesthesia," the vet told Maeby's owner.

Then on Maeby's exam report, the vet had indicated she had "dental disease." The cost of that recommended teeth cleaning under general anesthesia was $250.

Jones said animal dental treatments are "the big upsell."

"Very much on the McDonalds' equation of, 'would you like fries with that,'" he said.

The New Jersey vet later told ABC News that she stood by her recommendation, saying that some larger dogs over the age of four can benefit from an annual cleaning and risks posed by anesthesia are minimal.

But, in offering another perspective, Dr. Marty Becker, one of the country's leading experts in veterinary care, said he wouldn't recommend a cleaning "unless [the dog] needed it" and that putting the dog under anesthesia can be dangerous.

"If it does not have periodontal disease, there's no use putting it through the risk of anesthesia," Becker said.

Another big ticket item on vets' bills, Jones said, are vaccination costs, and he said some vets can be quick to push the shots.

Every year, pet owners are reminded that their animals are due for their annual vaccinations, but what many vets apparently fail to disclose is that, according to the latest guidelines from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), some of the vaccines only need to be given once every three years.

According to the AAHA, an annual revaccination "booster," which includes multiple vaccines, is commonly recommended and most state and local laws mandate an annual rabies vaccine. But for other viral diseases, such as canine distemper virus (CDV) and canine parvovirus (CDV-2), the AAHA guidelines say that after dogs receive their 1-year-old booster vaccinations, then vaccines for those viral diseases can be administered every three or more years.

"A lot of people are still into giving them every year," Becker said. "But that is not the recommended protocol by the American Veterinary Medical Association."

It's important to note that vaccine guidelines differ for puppies, dogs with diagnosed immune or vitamin deficiencies and animals who have been in shelters or boarding facilities.

To find out what some vets recommend for vaccines, ABC News went undercover with Honey, the pitbull, who was up-to-date on her shots.

But at a New York clinic, the vet ordered Honey, who had the distemper vaccine two years ago, a new round of shots without asking about Honey's vaccination status, and then told Honey's owner that distemper was "typically an annual vaccine."

The New York clinic later told ABC News that a vet's individual judgment is just as important as the AAHA guidelines.

At another clinic, Honey was also told she had "dental disease" and was recommended for a $300 teeth cleaning under general anesthesia. That clinic didn't respond to ABC News' request for comment.

In the end, both undercover dog owners could have incurred hundreds of dollars for potentially unnecessary treatments.

When asked about upselling allegations in the industry, the American Veterinary Medical Association said in a statement to ABC News that its up to pet owners to decide whether to follow a vet's recommendations.

Jones said the majority of vets are ethical and try to do the right thing. Still, he cautioned pet owners to walk into their vet clinics with eyes wide open.

"One thing they should keep in mind is knowing that they're not going to be a veterinarian clinic, they're going to be a business... which is there to make a profit," he said. "You have, obviously, ultimate control over your dog or cat... take charge of your own pet's health."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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