August 28, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
A dog is struck by a car, suffers a badly broken leg and other injuries. Its owners take it to an emergency animal hospital where it is examined by the on-duty vet. He outlines necessary treatment, instructs a tech to administer morphine, then leaves the room.
Within minutes, another tech informs the owners the doctor will not be treating their dog, and orders them to leave the hospital. “The doctor wanted me to tell you the problem isn’t your dog, it’s you,” the husband is told.
They immediately took their dog to another animal hospital where excellent care was provided and today the pooch is making a good recovery.
But why were they told to leave the first hospital? Did this amount to a violation of law or veterinary ethics? Does a vet have the right to refuse care in general?
Those were my reader’s questions; we’ll call him “Jim.” He lives in California’s southern San Joaquin Valley with his family and their 4-year-old German Shepherd, who we’ll call, “Beemer” – both German and fast, just like a BMW.
But on that warm, early summer evening 2010, Beemer wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid a car headed straight for him on one of the many east-west rural highways in this part of the state. “I yelled for Beemer to come to me, but it was too late,” Jim wrote.”
He described the dog’s injuries as “grotesque,” adding, “… and even though, while in law enforcement, I’ve seen worse, still, I was unprepared for the emotional impact in seeing our dog hurt that way.”
Had he stumbled into an emergency animal hospital staffed by uncaring personnel, or was there indeed an explanation for what happened, something about his behavior which led to being ordered out of the hospital? The detailed e-mail and attached 10-page “complaint,” which he intended to file with the veterinary board, provided part of the answer. Only part.
“It was suggested that I contact you for a referral to a lawyer who can sue the hospital and veterinarian. I am filing a complaint with the California Veterinary Board. I am on a mission to do what I can to get his license revoked. He should not be permitted to treat anyone else like that,” my reader told me during a lengthy telephone conversation.
But would that really happen? How does the California Veterinary Medical Board view such incidents? Can a veterinarian legally refuse to treat an animal in this type of a situation? To find out, I phoned the board and spoke with its executive director, Susan Geranen.
Injured pet = high stress and anxiety for owners
“For many people, their dog or cat is considered as a family member. If they see their pet struck by a car, the bond with the pet can be so strong that there is a very emotional reaction comparable to a family member being injured,” she explained.
“In addition to treating the injured animal – especially in an emergency setting – the staff must deal with owners who can be so fearful, so afraid of losing their pet, they just aren’t themselves, can become disruptive, and literally, out of control. This can create a conflict between the doctor and owner making it impossible to provide care.”
“In these types of conflict situations, it may be best for the animal to be seen by a different doctor, and depending upon how bad it is, there may be little choice but to ask the owner to leave,” she advised.
“His comments were meant to be offensive and arrogant.”
Thinking that we can crawl inside someone’s head and “know” what they intend or mean by certain comments or body language is usually speculation – guessing – at best. In court, if a witness is asked, “And what did he mean by that?? Or, if the witness states, “… and he meant …” a lawyer or the judge will likely object, stating, “Objection! Calls for speculation! Assumes facts not in evidence!” With that in mind, here’s what Jim wrote:
“When the doctor came into the exam room, I told him Beemer had a compound fracture to the right leg. He examined the dog and replied, ‘We’ll give him morphine, take S-rays and he’ll spend the night.’
“I was hoping for more information but said nothing. Then, while sarcastically throwing up his hands, he said, ‘Unless you have a different order; I’ll do anything you want, but you need to calm down.’
“His comment to me was meant to be offensive and arrogant!”
Next week: Just who was offensive and arrogant? And what was found in the exam room after Jim left?
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.