It might seem, at first blush, like veterinarians would love this sort of thing: A busted little stray critter comes to you, and your best medical instincts kick in. You want go all out to save the animal, reuniting him with his loving family as a choir of heavenly angels sing and the afternoon light fades to a brilliant golden amber over the pond. (Incidentally, in my own version of Heaven, dancing imps who look vaguely like Bea Arthur bring me never-ending bottles of YooHoo. But no matter.)
Bigstock sick dog in clinic cage
The reality is usually quite different, and in my 20 years as an ER vet, stray cases became some of the most divisive and hard fought ones I can remember.
Let’s think this through with both reality and our hearts on the table.
I have been in many stray situations, and have had it end up many different ways. I have had the miraculous saves and the tearful homecomings, but I have also had the screaming “I never authorized that!!” and the angry “how could you do that!?” On occasion, I would also get the rather quizzical “Why aren’t you wearing pants?” but that’s a topic for a different day.
Here’s the hypothetical setup:
It’s Thursday night, 8 p.m. Meet our Good Samaritan Paula: she likes bananas and long walks on the beach. She is wearing chartreuse shoes. She is a Libra.
She is returning from a nice dinner with her BFF and she notices an injured stray dog lying by the side of the road in a ditch. The dog has a collar but no tags, and appears to be in otherwise good health. The black lab mix seems friendly given the circumstances. Paula knows that the local veterinary ER is open at this hour. She has a good opinion of the Blood and Guts Veterinary ER Hospital as her vet recommends it and she took her dog there last year when she had a mild bout of colitis. She is a pet-lover, and is fairly well-off (she’s not eating generic mac-n-cheese; she goes for name brand!)
Luckily for Paula, and the dog, she has an empty cardboard box in the back of her car and some pantyhose in the glove box. After gently muzzling him with the pantyhose, she scoops the dog up in the box. Paula feels a crunch as she moves the dog, like the feeling you get when squeezing a bag of crushed ice. She heads for the ER, and talks comfortingly to the dog, who she has automatically dubbed Big Bopper because of the awesome size of his head.
When Paula gets there, the receptionist asks her to fill out the paperwork while a technician gets the box out of the car so the doctor can examine the dog as soon as possible. The receptionist tells Paula the exam fee is $92, and Paula lets them know that this is not her dog, but a stray she found on the side of the road. The receptionist’s pierced eyebrow lifts a bit, but she says nothing.
The exam room door swings open, and the doctor invites Paula in to talk.
Dr. Harbinger begins by explaining that Big Bopper has no ID, no microchip. Nada. He has asked the receptionist to check with the local humane society, online and in the lost section of the newspaper, and nothing has surfaced to lead to an owner. Since Paula is the closest thing to an owner, she will be making the decisions.
Gird your loins.
The dog’s injuries are serious, but not immediately life-threatening, he tells Paula. Based on his physical exam, Big Bopper has at least a broken femur (the long bone in the thigh) and may have pelvic fractures (that’s the squooshy crunch she felt when moving him). He also has some nasty road rash on his side and a few scrapes and cuts. There are many other injuries possible, and he runs through the list with her: ruptured bladder, internal bleeding, collapsed lung, etc. He has already injected the dog with medication for pain, and now wants to know how you would like him to proceed. He hints that the clinic’s finances for dealing with severely injured strays are “limited,” but doesn’t elaborate on what that really means. The dog’s pain is controlled to the point that he does not feel that he is suffering, and the known injuries are fixable with a good quality of life in the future unless complications develop.
Dr. Harbinger estimates that the basic workup to establish the extent of the injuries will cost about $600 and will entail X-rays and some lab tests. Big Bopper will also require wound care, antibiotics and IV fluids. The femur will cost about $1100 to repair if he does it and probably about $2200 if it is done by an orthopedic specialist. He says it cannot be splinted or allowed to heal on its own. Amputation is another option and costs about half of what a femur repair costs at either facility. Just treating the dog for pain and observation overnight (with no additional tests for degree of internal injury) will cost about $300.
He also tells Paula that she can decide whatever she wants to do, including nothing. She can just walk away and leave the dog in his hands. Or she can pay for the dog’s care, in the hopes of adopting him. The owners, if found, have the option of doing whatever they like – they can take the dog home after Paula has paid to fix the leg…if that is the only serious injury…if they ever show up.
You can see how these situations can get mighty sticky mighty fast!
Paula started this night with a glass of merlot and some tasty scampi a la puttanesca, and now she’s in this fix! Quelle bummer!
What would you do?
A) Say “Thanks, Doc – nice lab coat. I’m tail lights!” and head out of the clinic.
B) Say “I want to help this dog, but I can’t afford any of that” and offer to pay for the exam fee and the pain injection (about $125 total). His fate after that is unknown.
C) Say “I will pay $300 for pain control and monitoring tonight and wait to see if the owners show up tomorrow.”
D) Say “I will pay for all his care here, and fix the leg if need be. I understand that the owners can claim him anytime, but I am gambling that they won’t.”
E) Say “Tomorrow I will pull the dog out of the ER and take him to my regular vet.”
F) Say “Amputate the leg.”
G) Some other option I haven’t thought of.
Obviously, there are a lot of ways to go with this scenario.
Option E, taking the Bopper to your own vet, speaks a lot to how much people trust their normal veterinarian and don’t like to have emotionally charged and potentially expensive scenarios go down at the ER. I can totally understand this; one of the biggest hurdles we face in ER medicine is establishing trust with clients and getting the point across that we are not incompetent crooks.
From most people I’ve talked to about this, most responses can be summed up along the lines of “Option X...for sure. I think. Maybe. Depends.” That typifies the confusion and second-guessing that goes on in these situations. Everyone is different, and everyone has a certain set of variables: finances, availability of rescue organizations. Even the hour of day or day of the week (when is payday?) play a role in the decisions.
In my experience, walking away is the option that most good Samaritans pick. The dog isn’t left on the side of the road to die in pain, and for the moment the pain is controlled. Humanity and wallet are both preserved.
What would you do?
For the sake of discussion, let’s go with C: pay for immediate care and see if the owners show up tomorrow.
Next week: Part II.
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.