Vet Talk

What Would you do with an Injured Stray? Part 2

The pressure and moral issues can become overwhelming

Published: September 06, 2016

Last week’s conundrum was the stray dog, who we’ve affectionately dubbed Big Bopper, in the hands of our capable Dr. Harbinger after the dog sustained injuries from being HBC (hit by car, in ER parlance), which is not nearly as bad as being HBW (hit by wombat – invariably fatal) or BEBZ (brain eaten by zombies).

He has a femur fracture and a few other bumps and bruises, and we are trying to balance the humane and the financial forays as we slog ahead and ponder our next steps.

If there is no one looking out for poor Big Bopper, his future could be pretty grim – one vet, with a monocled boss looking over his shoulder, may not be able to juggle it all and may end up throwing in the towel. But if people (staff, Good Samaritans, rescues) all work together to raise awareness and keep some pressure on, then something might just happen: something good.

When I have been the veterinarian in this situation, I can tell you that the pressure and the moral issues can become overwhelming. When I have worked in conjunction with kind bosses and energetic and resourceful rescue organizations and individuals, I have felt like I am actually helping out instead of prolonging suffering.

The original Good Samaritan, the lovely Paula with a penchant for chartreuse footwear, doled out funds to pay for the initial stabilization and x-rays but then had to excuse herself from further care. Let’s bid Paula adieu and thank her for doing what she did; before you all take up the pitchforks and start screaming that “She should have paid to fix the dog!” ask yourself how many people you know could fork over thousands at the drop of a hat for a dog they just met (and one the owners could still claim, Scott-free).

We’ll now shift our focus to the good Dr. Harbinger and the decisions he faces. Let’s take a closer look at our patient, Big Bopper.

The Bopper is a youngish male lab cross. Bop has a sweet disposition despite his travails, a highly nimble tail, and seems eminently adoptable. Despite a thorough Internet and bricks-and-mortar search, no hint of his original owners has shown up.

His main issue now is a broken femur. A simple enough thing; for a person, it would mean a one to two day stay in the hospital and hopefully your health insurance (if you are lucky enough to have it) would leave you with not much more cost than your $30 co-pay. You’d limp for a bit and have a cool scar to show your friends — that, and a warning not to ever again try your 6-year-old niece’s pogo stick after four kamikazes and a few Jell-O shots.

But for a dog? It’s a different story. A broken leg can be life or death. The price tag attached to fixing a broken bone can go from a few hundred (“OK, kids, we will skip Starbucks for the next year”) to the thousands (“There goes our trip to Wally World”).

The final price tag depends on a lot of factors: who fixes it, how badly it’s broken, post-operative complications, etc. Big Bopper’s fracture is reasonably simple, and could probably be fixed by any veterinarian with a steady hand and decent orthopedic chops, which Dr. Harbinger does not have (some fractures are complex enough that they almost always require repair by a specialist in surgery, but any vet who wants to can attempt fixing a broken bone; all it takes is the will, and owners who agree to let you do it).

For a stray dog with no visible means of support, however, the future doesn’t look good. There is no county hospital to send him to for free care, and local animal control agencies don’t usually have funds to care for serious injuries. A case of the doggy sniffles, yes, but orthopedic surgery is right out in the vast majority of cases when it comes to underfunded local officials footing the bill. Big hearts, small budgets, in most cases.

The effort to get injured strays fixed varies from hospital to hospital, region to region; some have fairly elaborate networks made up of humane agencies, individuals with big hearts and, hopefully, bigger wallets than county or private shelters, or other animal healthcare workers. Some have no plan. There is little to no legislation that concerns how a stray animal is treated, and the ethics of how veterinarians deal with them can get pretty slippery. They want to do some good, (and every vet I know does some pro bono work) but the financial realities of everyday veterinary practice can intervene.

So what do we do with our newfound friend? He’s lying there, all busted up. The Bopper is on pain meds to be sure, but are they enough? Is there any damage being done by his repeated attempts to rise? At the same time you’re hearing that little voice in your head saying “Am I acting humanely?” the staff is dividing into camps: one wants you to get the dog fixed regardless of the cost, the other camp sees the care of this dog as a direct use of resources (read: money) that might be better directed to them. Maybe they even see their Christmas bonus evaporating.

To make matters worse, Dr. Harbinger’s partner Dr. Doom keeps waving the balance sheet at him and saying “Yarrrgh, Harbinger — when are you going to get that blasted stray out of here? He takes three technicians for every treatment, and our paying patients need those techs! You’ve got 24 hours to come up with a plan.”

Somehow, you think he must have been deeply scarred by whatever accident caused him to have his right hand replaced with that hook and gave him that pegleg. At least his parrot is friendly.

Time, it seems, is running out for the Bopper and at the moment Dr. Harbinger has no plan.

Monday Morning, 9 a.m.

Dr. Harbinger’s phone rings. It is his college roommate, Dr. David. Dr. David has a general practice across town and Dr. Harbinger sees him as a colleague, not a competitor.

“Harbinger, I heard about your stray problem from your sister, and I want to help. I bought some new orthopedic instruments when we were at that conference in Miami and have been itching to try them out. Problem is our budget is tight, and I can donate my time but not hard costs. I’ll help you out, but I estimate it will still cost about $300 in anesthetics and materials.”

Dr. Harbinger has no skills when it comes to bone fixery, but Dr. David can put all the pieces in the same room and close the door and presto! It’s fixed.

Dr. David’s got one of those little angels on his shoulder, and things just seem to go right for him in the surgical suite. Dr. Harbinger should have thought of him sooner. Well, at least he has an in with a surgeon who can do the heavy lifting. Now he just needs a source of funds and a home for Big Bopper. Maybe Dr. David can...

“No good, Harbinger! I know what you’re thinking, but I just can’t adopt this poor beast. I’ll fix the busted flipper for you, but I can’t take him home afterwards.”

Dr. Harbinger cannot take Bop either, as he already has a full house of dogs and cats, many with missing parts. One more will capsize the boat.

Dr. Harbinger decides to call another old friend.

He has known Eustace Tilley for the past six years; he saved her dog, Wallace, after he had a nasty bout of pancreatitis. She is one of those tapped-in people who just seem to know everyone. She works as a bomb squad technician during the day, but runs a loose (some would say ragtag) association of animal lovers on the side, and has bailed Dr. Harbinger out of similar situations in the past. She carries a bit of a torch for him, so he prefers to keep her at arm’s length.

“I think I can run it up the flagpole and see who salutes,” she tells him.

She knows that funds for this sort of thing have dried up with today’s economic realities, but she is pretty sure she can get him some help. Declining her third offer of dinner this month, he hangs up and goes about his afternoon appointments.

Monday afternoon, 3 p.m.

Eustace has come through! She has worked the network and came up with a young couple who just lost their dog last month. They are ready to try four-legged love again, and with the description he provided Eustace of the Big Bopper, they think this could be the one. They agreed to come by this evening and meet Big Bopper on their way home from work. They have also agreed to pay Dr. David for the surgery if he agrees to do it at cost. Dr. Harbinger calls Dr. David and schedules the surgery for the next afternoon, then rushes to let his boss know the issue has come to a happy conclusion.

A muffled “Yar!” is all he gets out of Dr. Doom, who then he stomps off on his pegleg, muttering something about a mizzen-mast and barnacles.

The next day, Big Bopper's bones get fixed by Dr. David. Everything goes as planned. His recovery is short, uncomplicated, and complete. The couple brings him back to Dr. Harbinger for the two-week suture removal, and thank him for making their household whole; something had been missing since their dog died, and the Big Bopper has helped fill the void. Where there was an empty bed, there now is a comfortable dog sleeping by his family. Where there was an empty space by the hearth, there now is a dog with a scarred gimpy leg who’s getting better. Their gratitude is almost palpable and, for a time, makes a dent in the drudgery of Dr. Harbinger’s day and staves off burnout for the time being. It was a long road, but it was worth it.

And that ends our hypothetical injured stray conundrum.

I must admit, at the outset of these situations in real life I don’t often have much hope. It’s not unusual for stray injured dogs to end up euthanized, another casualty of our society's throwaway attitude towards animals. I have seen many similar situations end in a far more depressing manner than this one. The sad endings are not usually due to greed, stupidity, or meanness; they’re usually just due to a subspecies of sloth and laziness called apathy.

I still think that there is more than just apathy out there, and some hope is warranted. There are people who will still get involved, network, and solve problems. It takes communication, organization, and passion but it can be done.

There are people who will give of their time and money, and then work together to help those less fortunate than themselves, no matter how many legs the unfortunates have, and no matter if those legs are broken. I wish they all turned out like this, but in the real world they don’t usually do that. Luckily, since I wrote this, I got to pick the ending.

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

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.