Dr. Ernie Ward

“Why don't we just treat it for free?” is a question that many pet owners have for veterinarians, especially in cases where the pet owner can’t afford treatment.

I’d like to start this discussion by reviewing a story that recently broke on I'm a big fan of The Dodo. I subscribe to their newsletter and follow them on social media. The Dodo makes me feel good about the world. Recently, a veterinarian was portrayed in The Dodo after he was supposed to euthanize a dog but decided to save him instead.

A Hero Veterinarian’s Story

A five-year-old dog was presented to a veterinary clinic in South Carolina for a "mass on its face." The veterinarian thought the dog was in pretty bad shape, but he also thought he could save this dog. The owner was given an estimate for what it would cost to treat the dog and declined. The dog’s owner elected to have her dog euthanized.

Instead of euthanizing this dog, as per the owner's request, the veterinarian had her “sign over” ownership to the veterinary clinic. He proceeded to raise money for treatment and successfully treated the dog. Everybody likes a feel-good story and this one certainly warms your heart. It portrays veterinarians as heroes helping animals who can't help themselves.

Man Wants to Re-Adopt Pet after Treatment

I'd like to turn your attention to another story, this one from Iowa. A man surrendered his dog to a local animal shelter and now wants to readopt it. The man claims he surrendered his dog to the animal shelter because he could not afford medical diagnostics and care after the dog was relinquished to the animal shelter.

After the dog was relinquished to the animal shelter, the shelter turned to social media where they raised over five thousand dollars to have the dog cared for and treated. The current co-director of the animal shelter said she was “blown away by the community's generosity” and that there were “a lot of animal lovers out there.”

But maybe there wasn't much love for the owner who wanted to readopt his pet. After he saw on social media that his dog had been treated, he wanted to readopt him. The dog's original owner points out that the shelter raised money from the community, so it didn't cost them anything to care for his dog. He asked, “What's the harm in allowing him to get his dog back?”

He goes on to say that he loves his dog dearly and only wants him back. He said it was a very difficult decision to relinquish his dog to the shelter, but financially he could not afford to give it the care it needed. He also claims that the shelter indicated that the dog was going to be euthanized, not treated.

As you can imagine, social media hasn't been too kind to the owner who relinquished his dog. These two cases raise some very interesting questions for veterinary professionals.

Why don't we just treat these cases for free?

The reason I bring these cases to my colleagues’ attention is because in both cases the owners were required to relinquish or give up their pet in order for it to receive free medical treatment or fundraising to assist the dog. Which is why I ask, “Why don't we just treat these cases for free?” In my veterinary clinics, we never believed in confiscating someone's pet in order to provide treatment. We provided an estimate for necessary services and allowed the owner to make that decision. We either treated the pet or we didn’t. If they couldn't (or wouldn’t) afford to pay and wanted us to euthanize a pet that we felt should not be euthanized, we refused.

As you might imagine, refusing to euthanize certain pets created some tense and heated moments for me and my staff. I felt that dealing with these sorts of potential conflicts (and highly charged emotions) was part of my professional responsibility to provide the best care for the patients that I served. It was also my professional obligation to refuse to do things that I felt were morally or ethically wrong.

In both of these cases, the original pet owners were judged as “unfit” to continue owning their pet. One “signed over” ownership to the veterinarian before free treatment was administered; the other relinquished their dog to a shelter and wasn’t immediately allowed to re-adopt after treatment (if ever). Both situations merit serious questions.


How Do We Judge if a Person is “Unfit” to Own a Particular Pet?

The first question I have for my veterinary colleagues is how do we judge whether or not a pet owner is “fit” to own a particular pet? What criteria are we using to determine if someone should be allowed to keep their dog or cat in these situations?  Do we judge them “unfit” because they aren't currently vaccinated or on certain preventives? If so, what preventive care guidelines are we using? Do we decide they’re “unfit” if they haven’t been examined by a veterinarian within a year?

These criteria are important. Obviously, if an animal is suffering due to neglect or harm, then the appropriate animal service officers should be contacted. In the case of the owner wanting to readopt his pet from the shelter, what criteria are being used to judge if this person should be allowed to re-adopt his dog?

I'm not saying that either of these cases have been mishandled or did anything wrong. I'm simply saying that we, as a profession, need to consider these issues very carefully.


Are We Confusing Pet Owners?

Ultimately, I think these cases potentially confuse the public on the role of free or discounted pet care. Veterinarians go to extraordinary lengths to provide free or heavily discounted care in certain circumstances, while for other pets they may charge thousands and thousands of dollars.

You can see how this is potentially confusing to the public. “If you really loved animals, you wouldn't be charging me so much money.” “I know how much you care for animals; therefore, please do this for free.” “You love money more than animals.” These are just a few of the comments that have been thrown at me over the last 25 years of clinical practice. There are no easy answers to this dilemma, but we must consider carefully how veterinary professionals interact with the public and what messages we send.

The Pain of Relinquishing a Pet to Provide Treatment

I believe that if an owner relinquishes a pet in order for it to be treated for an illness or injury, they must truly care for that pet. Imagine how heartbreaking it must be to sign over your pet to someone else, just so it can be treated. Imagine the judgment and shame that that person may feel from our profession.


Should Veterinarians Confiscate Pets to Treat Them for Free?

I believe that if you're going to treat an animal for free, you should consider not confiscating the pet in return. If you believe the animal is suffering or is neglected or harmed in any way, you should notify the appropriate officials. If you're going to seek fund raising and outside assistance, simply tell the owner.

My main question is, should we be confiscating these animals? Should we, as veterinarians, be judging whether or not a person should have a pet? These are tough questions with no easy answers, but it's a discussion we should be having. Because ultimately, I believe this is confusing pet owners.

How Do You Make These Decisions?

How do you handle these situations? Do you have owners “sign over” and relinquish animals to you in order to provide free treatment? If so, how do you judge whether or not that person is fit to care for that animal? Do you ask for their bank records to determine if they can afford a pet? Do you examine a paycheck? Do you ask for veterinary records or recommendations? Do you investigate if animals neglect or abuse charges have been filed against them? Have you notified officials when you've been concerned that animal neglect or abuse occur? What else should we be asking in order to make informed and thoughtful decisions? Should veterinarians be making these decisions at all?

It's only by critically analyzing our actions and sharing our perspectives that we can solve complex problems such as this.

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Our Goal: Eliminating Economic Euthanasia

My goal is the same as yours: I want to do everything in my power to eliminate economic euthanasia of the pets I love to serve. This is why I work so closely with many animal charities; I'm a strong advocate for pet insurance and I do everything in my power to educate the public on proper pet care.

The reality is we must charge a fair price for our veterinary professional services. This doesn't mean that we provide inferior quality, but we also need to make sure we're able to work within individual client’s budgets.


The Challenges of Veterinary Medicine

Being a veterinarian is challenging: Keeping up with advances in medicine and surgery, effectively communicating with clients and colleagues, and dealing with a patient that can't directly communicate their problems to us. Add to that mixture, tensions around money and finances, patient quality of life, and how you can have a life outside of our profession. All of these challenges (and more) make veterinary medicine a very unique profession.

I know this can be a contentious topic, but it's one we don't talk about as a profession. This is a topic that should be discussed within organized veterinary medicine, at continuing education opportunities, and in the treatment area of your clinic.

This dilemma is real, and the consequences are potentially significant. As our profession grows and evolves, issues around cost of care and ownership will become paramount. Help keep this conversation progressing. Share with your friends and family on social media. Talk about it with professional colleagues and ask some of your trusted clients what they feel about this topic and where the boundaries should be. Thanks a lot for listening to my thoughts. Now, I'd like to hear yours.


The two cases referenced in this video:

1) Vet Was Supposed To Euthanize Dog — But Decided To Save Him Instead:

2) Man wants to re-adopt dog he surrendered after shelter pays for surgeries: