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When Your Pet Dies Unexpectedly At The Vet's
Posted by J. Diane Parrish, Esq. on Aug 1, 2003 - 5:21:00 PM

UNITED STATES—Most veterinarians are conscientious professionals that do an adequate job. But many, too many, are either incompetent or so focused on making money that the care our animals receive is compromised. Irresponsible cost-cutting (e.g., anesthesia and post-surgical monitoring assigned to minimum wage "techs," single-use surgical equipment used twice or more, little or no maintenance of equipment) and unnecessary surgeries unconscionably sold to over-anxious owners too often result in the death of a best friend—a horrific loss made worse by the burden of guilt. This tragedy occurs largely because there are no real consequences. The profession does not police itself and the Veterinary Medical Board rarely revokes a license. Permitting veterinarians to practice with impunity puts all of our animals at risk. Creating accountability through legal action is the start of a solution.
Photo by Brittany Crouse

Taking these steps following an unexpected death can help ensure that accountability:

1. If you are informed of the death by phone, go to the hospital immediately. Take a friend and a towel or blanket large enough to carry your animal. Ask to be taken to see him/her immediately. Do not take no for an answer.

2. Request all medical records, including those from prior visits. If you’re refused because "it takes time," tell them you’ll wait. When you get the records, look at them. Make sure they’re all there, including invoices. Write down the name of the person who gave the records to you.

3. If the vet wants to talk to you, postpone it. Make an appointment for either later that day or the next day at the latest. Take a pad of paper, a pen and a friend. Ask your friend to pay close attention and to make a record of the conversation immediately upon leaving. Have him/her sign and date it.

4. Ask the vet for the following information:
    * the time and date of death
    * efforts to resuscitate the animal
    * ask to be shown exactly where he/she died. If the animal was found unconscious and there were attempts to resuscitate, ask to be shown where she/he was found. Observe the conditions and contents of the room and/or kennel.
    * what caused the death
    * which staff, if any, are registered veterinary technicians
    * names of all staff involved in treatment of your animal

Pay special attention to the vet’s demeanor during the conversation. Note any signs of nervousness.

5. Get the names of everyone that was on duty during your animal’s stay. Talk to those you can and see if any sound like they are holding something back. Note those that seem particularly sympathetic or annoyed.

6. DO NOT LEAVE THE HOSPITAL WITHOUT YOUR ANIMAL. Do not consent to a necropsy (autopsy)---even if the vet offers to do it for free.

7. Have a necropsy done by a separate vet, preferably one out of the immediate area.

8. If they will not release your animal until you pay the bill, pay by credit card. Then contact the card company immediately and advise them not to pay because the value of the services are in dispute.

Do not be afraid to show your emotions, but do not make threats of any kind.

No amount of money will bring back a beloved animal or heal the pain of loss. But making the veterinarian accountable is likely to prevent future suffering.

The materials contained in Speak! are intended for general information and should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice or opinion. Readers are urged to consult legal counsel concerning particular situations and specific legal questions.

Ms. Parrish dedicates her practice to developing the rights of companion animals—including the right to competent and compassionate veterinary care. She can be reached at


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