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Whose dog is it, anyway?

A family brings their dog to the vet and finds out she needs emergency surgery, and that it costs more than they can afford. They opt to have the dog put down.

Three weeks later, they find out the dog had her surgery, is alive and well, and living in somebody else’s home.

That’s pretty much what happened in Orange County, Florida, in a case that raises some interesting questions — both legally and morally.

Tammy Bruce says Princess — a Dachsund, chow, Lab Mix — swallowed a fish hook. They rushed her to an emergency center, where, facing an $800 operation, they chose to have the dog put to sleep rather than pay for the surgery.

This week, her husband got an anonymous call saying that the animal was okay and with a new owner, an employee from the pet emergency room, according to WFTV in Florida.

Veterinarian Holly Brown-Tabbenor says somehow the euthanasia form for Princess was misplaced, and they couldn’t euthanize her without it. Because she was suffering, they performed the operation. The paper was found the next morning, but the vet didn’t notify the family about what had happened, saying they had gone through enough emotional pain already. The vet said the dog’s owners were not financially capable of taking care of her since they couldn’t pay for the $800 surgery.

Bruce says she should have been given the option to pay in installments. “Here, this whole time, we had been mourning our dog and she’s not even dead,” she said. Now, she says, her family wants the dog back.

I’ve got mixed feelings on this one. What do you think? Who should get Princess?


Comment from Anne’n’Spencer
Time June 29, 2009 at 8:53 am

Huh. There was a case here in Baltimore years ago of a vet who was supposedly euthanizing terminally ill dogs–but who was instead collecting them and selling them to labs. He lost his license.

I’m glad the dog was spared and sorry that she was lost to the family who love her. I would observe that vets need to begin paying some attention to their reputations. They’re starting to look, in some cases, like money sharks. We should all be thankful for the many compassionate veterinarians who volunteer or offer some of their services at reduced rates or work out payment plans. More of them should be finding ways to do that.

Folks, if this ever happens to you, try to seek out a school of veterinary medicine. You may find the help that you need.

Comment from kate
Time June 29, 2009 at 9:52 am

I also have mixed feelings, because I don’t think there’s black and white in any situation. However, the owners opted to kill the dog rather than face $800 in surgery, and didn’t seek out other options. I’m not sure I would want the dog returned; especially if they’re not able to afford $800 for surgery. What about other routine costs? Another emergency?

So, assess the owners as they are, and if the “new” owner (or some more neutral party) thinks they are good owners and can handle the burden of the dog, offer them a payment plan that includes the boarding of the dog in the “new” home and all of the vet-related care. When it’s paid, they get the dog back. Shows dedication and an ability to follow through. If not, the dog stays.

That’s the best I can come up with.

Comment from Miss Jan
Time June 29, 2009 at 11:53 am

I think veterinarians are completely uncaring regarding the current economy. They want huge amounts of money right now up front in cash. Many won’t even take credit cards. When a dog or any animal needs emergency surgery the vets should be willing to work with the owners. The change from “we’ll work with you” to “gimme all your money NOW!!!” has come within the last half dozen years. Insurance for pets DOES NOT help because you still have to pay the emergency vet UP FRONT IN CASH and then wait while the insurance company takes it’s own sweet time and makes a capricious decision regarding the claim – same as in human health, auto or property insurance claims. I don’t know of many people in this economy who could lay their hands on $800 cash at a moment’s notice – do YOU? Vets have simply become extremely overpriced and seem to have adopted what I call “The Barbaro Effect”: if you are going to have any animal you’d better be ready willing and able to spend obscene amounts of money at the drop of a hat to pay the vet – just like Barbaro’s owners. My own vet verifies this, and tells me that at the vet conventions there is less time spent on continuing education than there is on strategies on how to separate people from their money as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Shameful and disgraceful. They should get their dog back and the greedy vet publicly shamed. Pet owners need to group together and give the vets a wake-up call about extreme money issues like this.

Comment from Mary Haight
Time June 29, 2009 at 12:32 pm

That seems like a good answer, Kate. My concern with this situation is why was a payment plan not offered? Certainly many families with dogs do not have that kind of emergency money laying about anymore. And that leads to the inevitable question of how much money do people need to make to have the privilege of owning a dog. Phew–that’s a very sticky issue. And who judges what is enough money to be able to experience the love of a dog?

Comment from Miss Jan
Time June 29, 2009 at 2:33 pm

I would like to add that a couple of hours of vet office assistant time would reap rich rewards of information regarding emergency financial assistance for owners facing steep vet bills. There ARE a lot of resources out there even now. Veterinarians are SERIOUSLY remiss in not offering some kind of information or a workable payment plan when there is an emergency situation. Why is this important for vets? because not everyone has the knowledge of how to find such resources – not even knowing where to begin esp. in an emergency situation where fear and anguish on the part of the pet guardian might get in the way of rational searching for help. If vets really want to fulfill their oath to help animals they need to step up and go the extra mile to assist pet guardians with ways and means. AND there should be more veterinarians GIVING BACK by practicing pro bono medicine to the fullest extent they can (yeah – more than zero, which is what I see mostly) for shelter animals. In this dire economy everyone needs to participate in a way that helps the animals!

Comment from Lisa
Time June 29, 2009 at 3:37 pm

I agree that vets seem to be pretty recalcitrant sometimes about taking payment plans or offering alternatives to upfront payment. Especially emergency vets.

And I understand that $800 really could be out of reach for many families (and that those families should not be considered unworthy of a dog).

But why did they just leave their dog alone at the vet to be put to sleep? I can’t imagine leaving my dog to die among strangers like that.

Comment from Anne’n’Spencer
Time June 29, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Miss Jan, you’ve said it all! The dog doesn’t care if you live in a mansion or under an overpass. Dogs have been friends and companions to kings and presidents and to the poorest of the poor. Once they’ve bestowed their love on a human being, that’s all that matters to them.

We’re in terrible danger of setting things up so that dogs become the playthings of a wealthy few. I see this as a genuine threat to an ancient bond.

Comment from KEVIN
Time June 29, 2009 at 6:27 pm

I have a friend who works at an emergency vet hospital, and from what she tells me, this kind of thing happens fairly frequently. People bring in their dog or cat, find out that the bill will be more than they can afford, opt not to participate in a payment plan (almost all vet hospitals offer some sort of third-party financing) and decide to euthanize the animal. Oftentimes, an employee (many of whom moonlight for rescue shelters or organizations) will find a home for the animal with someone who is willing to pay for the procedure.

I think that the minute the family signs the papers to euthanize they lose their rights to the animal. I understand that it can be a difficult and traumatic decision, and often it is the right one, but in a situation like this where the poor little guy can live and thrive, I think it is absolutely correct that someone else get the dog.

Comment from Miss Jan
Time June 30, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Kevin, if people don’t have the money AT THAT MOMENT they are pressured very hard by cold and uncaring vet clinic staff who play the emotion card on the owners. I have been there and seen that TWICE. I make a good living but when an emergency vet wants you to fork over the cash RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW and do NOT offer alternatives, it takes a very strong person to stand up for the pet. I am that strong person and was able to deal with it but on both occasions literally my dog was going to die right there in the reception area while a snotty twenty-something was making the decision whether they would accept $50 less in cash to save my dog after opening my wallet and showing them the contents of what I had at that moment. I wasn’t even going to be allowed to check the dog in and go to the ATM. So – this seems like “armed robbery” because it is clear that if you fail to obey the immediate demand your dog will die. That is as good as holding a gun to your head because the end result is death.

Like a previous writer said, we are very rapidly becoming a society where only the wealthy are allowed to have pets. It has already happened in human medicine – ONLY the WEALTHY get health care – even in cancer clinics where the patient has insurance the clinics are demanding payment before cancer treatment of as much as $100,000 in cash (these incidents were reported by AARP which does not have an “agenda”).

What all medical providers are assuming is what one vet told me, very coldly and calculatingly with a shrug and a sniff: if you care enough you’ll find a way.

Well, you can care all you want whether you are an insured human with cancer who is being extorted for six figures in cash or an average pet owner being extorted by greedy care providers. There has to be some quid pro quo – already vets are complaining that their business has fallen off. Maybe if they hadn’t priced themselves out of the market and gouged people unfairly they wouldn’t be having these travails now.

Comment from Marie
Time June 30, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Vets are in business to earn a living remember. People walk away from their “payment plans” all the time. Blame those past indescretions for vets being unwilling to do payment plans now. They have paid staff they need to consider to. If they can’t pay their bills because of bills owed to them, well you can see where that can be a problem.

If you can’t afford vet care for your pet many times there are humane societies that can help.

I have never heard of a vet not taking credit cards UNLESS it is a brand they don’t accept (amex) or care credit because they are not set up for that system.

Generally pets of good regular customers have no problems getting a payment plan. Of course emergency clinics operate differently and may require payment up front because of the nature of their business. Consider that they haven’t established a relationship of trust with the pet owner previously.

It is always a good idea to have an emergency fund set aside for your pets. I have a dedicated credit card. Or you can pay ahead with most vets and have funds already on account.

I work for a vet and rarely are stories like these black and white. The vets tend not to comment publicly so the people in the story can put whatever spin they want on it.