Liz, a 5-pound Pomeranian, is at the center of a Capitol dispute in which a lobbyist criticized some of the testimony of the dog's owner at a hearing on a bill that would have allowed canine grooming businesses to offer teeth cleaning services with metal scalers. The owner said her dog nearly died after receiving teeth cleaning services.(Photo courtesy of Karen Basting)
SACRAMENTO -- An influential interest group, a powerful state lawmaker, a lobbyist and a 5-pound Pomeranian are at the center of a dispute over who in California can clean your dog's teeth.
But the tale of the teeth cleaning that Karen Basting says almost killed her beloved pooch Liz is only part of a saga that began at an Alamo pet store and really got ugly in the corridors of the Capitol.
For lobbyist Matt Gray, California's fight over canine teeth presents a classic case of how Democrats bite back when Republicans try to squeeze through just about any kind of legislation.
Gray is accusing the state's powerful veterinarians group and controversial East Bay Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi of using unsavory tactics to kill AB2304, a Republican bill to provide stronger legal protections to companies that clean dogs' teeth.
But veterinarians say their opposition is simply a matter of safety and keeping dogs healthy. Hayashi did not comment for this story.
For decades, dog-grooming companies in California have offered teeth cleanings. Considered purely cosmetic, it involves scraping dogs' teeth with a curved steel pick known as a metal hand scaler, and brushing them -- all without touching the gums or putting the dog under with anesthesia.
Cosmetic cleaning typically costs $100 plus $20 for a once-a-month tooth-brushing service. Veterinarians offer a similar service at $800, more costly because they put dogs under withanesthesia.
The California Veterinarians Medical Board late last year approved a regulation, which would take effect in the next couple of months, to restrict the use of scalers to veterinarians.
Assembly Bill 2304 would have allowed others to use the scalers, too.
"What this is really about," Gray said, "is interfering with commerce for personal financial gain without legitimate public policy reasoning."
The veterinarians group has claimed for years that dog owners risk the health of their pets by having their teeth cleaned by professionals who aren't veterinarians, but Gray said it had not shown a single case of harm that came to a dog.
And then Liz came along.
At a hearing in April before the Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee, led by Hayashi, Basting gave emotional testimony about her ill-fated visit in January to Alamo Pet Store, one of 600 California locations for Canine Care, a chain that specializes in "anesthesia free pet teeth cleaning."
Basting, the chief of staff for Contra Costa Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho, called it a frightening example of why an unregulated part of the animal-care industry should be shut down. The cleaning was so destructive, Basting testified, that Liz ultimately had to have several of her teeth removed after her veterinarian found three abscesses -- at a cost of nearly $4,000.
"By 7 p.m. that night, she was showing signs of distress and pain -- shivering, panting and restlessness," Basting said. "I almost lost her because the infection took over so quickly."
What Basting didn't tell the committee was that she had been warned in a Canine Care "report card" two months before the teeth cleaning that her dog had heavy tartar accumulation and loose teeth that would likely be lost. And while Gray said Liz only had her teeth brushed, Basting insists the company scaled her dog's teeth too.
Gray, who heads Capital Alliance, which represents 14 firms including Canine Care, disputed Basting's testimony and called her a "plant" of the California Veterinary Medical Association, which has long sought to shut down cosmetic canine teeth-cleaning businesses. A spokesman for the veterinarians' group declined to comment.
In an interview with this newspaper, Basting defended her testimony, saying that any warnings the company provided her of her dog's pre-existing condition took a back seat to its desire to have her business.
"My dog had a serious condition and they should've said you need to see a vet, but (the hygienist) booked a follow-up appointment," said Basting, who later filed a complaint with the state Department of Consumer Affairs. "You go to what you think are experts and believe what they tell you."
Under a section titled "important information, please read carefully," the report card does advise customers to "consult your veterinarian about these and other dental problems."
Even so, Basting's testimony about Liz appears to have done the job.
Assembly Bill 2304 failed on a 6-0 vote in the Business and Professions Committee, with all six Democrats opposed and none of the committee's three Republicans voting. That could be a reflection of the veterinarian association's influence. It regularly donates to both Democrats and Republicans on the committee.
Gray says that Hayashi, a Hayward Democrat, led the effort to kill the bill and then blocked his efforts to have a complaint about Basting's testimony heard. The Business and Professions Committee helps set the state's licensing laws.
Gray's accusations provide a glimpse of Capitol power politics usually hidden from public view: how Democrats in charge regularly muscle past the GOP's agenda.
"These are regular occurrences up here," said Assemblyman Martin Garrick, R-Carlsbad, the author of the teeth-cleaning bill.
Hayashi did not comment for this story, but her chief consultant, Ross Warren, said he has never seen an investigation launched "because a lobbyist alleges something -- where some unknown lobbyist whose author has given up on the bill wants to build some case against a witness."
After Democrats declined to take up his complaint, Gray has filed one with the Federal Trade Commission, seeking sanctions against the veterinarians' group for "eliminating competition and creating a monopoly."
As for Basting's dog, she's at home doing well.
"Liz is much better, thank you very much," Basting said. "Her tongue hangs out of the side of her mouth because of her missing teeth, but other than that, she's fine."