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When a pet dies from malpractice

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Changing attitudes about the value of animals is sparking legal debate throughout the country on just how much pet owners should be compensated for veterinary malpractice.

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Philadelphia Rabbi David Siff adopted his two cats, Zorro and Chrystal, back in 2003.

“We adopted them when they were tiny infants. I mean, they looked like little rats. They were the cutest things.”

At the time, David and his wife, Tanya, were struggling with infertility, and the cats, who had always been inseparable, quickly became part of the family.

“They met each other at the shelter, and the adoption agency, they made us adopt both of them together because they were such good playmates.”

When Zorro suddenly fell ill last April, Tanya took him to see the vet. David was out of town, but heard about the visit later.

“He said it was a fur ball, which, when I heard this later, I thought was completely absurd, and I was in shock. But he treated the cat for a fur ball, and Zorro did not get better, he got worse.”

Less than two days later, Zorro died of complications from a urinary tract infection. The couple was crushed.

“I was really upset because the vet completely misdiagnosed him, never took his temperature, never did any labs, nothing for his diagnosis. You know, really just gave him a cursory look over and gave him his diagnosis, and we couldn’t help thinking that if he had diagnosed him correctly, maybe we could have saved his life, could have treated him earlier and saved his life.”

David took the case to the state veterinary licensing board, but they declined to take any disciplinary action. So he looked into suing the vet–briefly.

“It turns out cats are considered chattel, and you cannot sue for more than the value, which would be about 50 bucks at a pet store. So there was just no recourse.”

While Siff could sue for the medical bills he incurred trying to save Zorro’s life, he can’t recover non-economic damages, like pain and suffering, that could apply in human cases. But some advocates, like Animal Legal Defense Fund Attorney Matthew Leibman, are trying to change that.

“It’s an archaic way of looking at animals, but the law is often slow to catch up to how social norms have changed.”

But veterinarians are pushing back, saying a change allowing people to get non-economic damages is riddled with complications, and could actually end up hurting animals. Adrian Hochstadt is Assistant Director for State Regulatory Affairs for the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“It would bring so much uncertainty and endless litigation over some questions that may seem simple, but when you really think about it, you know, who’s a claimant or a plaintiff? What is a pet? How do you measure the emotional bond of one person and his or her animal versus another?”

On a more practical level, Hochstadt says, reform of this kind would forever change the cost of caring for animals.

“If lawsuits are not predictable, we’re hearing from insurance carriers that they may not even insure veterinarians in those markets. So, you know, that is a concern. Defensive medicine, which is estimated to be over 70 billion dollars a year in human medicine, we’d start seeing that, unfortunately.”

Animal Legal Defense Fund lawyer Matthew Leibman concedes allowing pain and suffering malpractice suits could drive up the cost of vet care, but he says it’s not compelling enough to hold back change.

“If we really just saw animals as mere property, we wouldn’t spend thousands and thousands of dollars to keep them alive. We would just discard them and get a new one at the shelter. So the veterinary industry certainly benefits from people having a connection, having a relationship and a bond with their animals. So I think it’s only fair that when they cause that sort of suffering to someone who’s lost a companion animal, that they compensate that person.”

But Hochstadt says we shouldn’t use human medical malpractice, one of the forces behind the high cost of health care, as a model for reforming veterinary care law.

So for now, David Siff is left – without recourse – to care for his remaining cat, Chrystal, who he says just isn’t the same since Zorro died.

“She’s much less interesting now. You know, she has nobody to play with. They used to go around. They used to have wrestling matches around the apartment, and now she just kind of sits around.”


  • stefaniisaquack says:

    The most disturbing part of you Stefani is that you think veterinarians are such horrible people. A great many of them are/were probably alot like you when they decided to go into veterinary medicine. They loved animals and wanted to help them. There are bad individuals in every profession, but I have to say that after watching the doctors I know work their entire lives to help people or pets or whatever it is they do, I feel bad for them when people like you rake them over the coals. Who do you answer to professionally? Is there a board governing your job? It wouldn’t seem so the way you carry yourself. You should think twice or more before you post things on the internet about people and cases you know nothing of. As far as the veterinarians suing people for defamation, you’re next.

  • Elizabeth Hart says:

    Thank you for this excellent article, and commiserations to David Siff.

    I am in Australia and have faced similar problems because vets are largely unregulated. Users of veterinary services have little consumer protection – this is a serious injustice.

    My dog died in September 2008 after a vaccination which I subsequently discovered was unnecessary. My dog should not have had the vaccination at all because modified live virus (MLV) core vaccines for serious diseases such as parvovirus are likely to provide long duration of immunity, probably lifelong.

    My dog had already been unnecessarily revaccinated for many years of her life. Repeated vaccination with MLV core vaccines, annually OR triennially, has not been proven to be necessary, and actually puts pets needlessly at risk of an adverse reaction to vaccination for no benefit.

    Vets continue to push unnecessary vaccination as a means to lure pet owners back to their surgeries – it is a money spinner. I have been campaigning on this problem with other concerned pet owners for the past two years.

    The Australian Veterinary Association has now issued a reduced vaccination policy, but this is still not good enough, and even this unsatisfactory response continues to be ignored by many veterinarians because there is no effective consumer watchdog monitoring these people.

    Australia’s respected consumer issues magazine, CHOICE, recently took up this matter, here’s the link to the article:

    I have prepared extensive, fully-referenced research and correspondence on the problem of unnecessary vaccination of pets. For example, please refer to my earlier paper “Over-vaccination of pets – an unethical practice” , and my open letter to the Australian Veterinary Association dated 6 May 2010 which includes discussion on evidence-based medicine and vets’ professional and ethical responsibility:

    Unnecessary, and possibly harmful, vaccination of pets is a prime example of over-servicing in the veterinary profession. This is a massive multi-billion dollar international scam. It’s about time the spotlight was shown on this issue.

    • muttlover says:

      Elizabeth, I am very sorry for your loss. Thank you for speaking out and helping other pet owners to become educated. Many of us in the US now use a reduced or a minimal vaccination protocol, and many good and ethical vets are promoting these “new” practices. For example, see, a site created by a vet. The other issue that’s very important is food. Pet food, especially the cheaper varieties, can be downright harmful for pets, considering that many kinds contain inappropriate amounts of carbs, wrong types of proteins, unhealthy meat by-products unfit for human consumption, and so on. Again, many vets, as well as laypeople, are promoting healthier diets for our dogs and cats, but many vets continue to recommend pet foods of poor quality, including certain prescription diets. This can be very confusing because there is no one authoritative source of information on these topics and pet owners have to wade through inordinate amounts of information in order to make best decisions on behalf of their pets. Best of luck to you in your work.

  • Timothy says:

    Speaking as a vet who was trained in the UK (where vets can be sued for “emotional” costs) who now works in the US (where we can’t)…

    Animals have “worth” far beyond their financial replacement cost, and this value should be recognized in any lawsuits regarding malpractice. I have no fear of such lawsuits, and they do have the potential of driving the few bad apples from the profession.

    It is however sad to see the typical vet-bashing comments above. Half the internet dialogues bashing vets criticize us for failing to run the appropriate tests, and the other half criticize us for running tests purely to make profit… which is proof that finding the correct balance for every presentation and every different owner’s expectations and financial situation is hard!

    There are about 77.5 million pet dogs and 93.6 million pet cats in this country… if only 1 in 10 visits a vet for severe illness each year, and a serious mistake happens in 1 in a 1000 cases, then there will be over 17,000 terrible stories like the one above each year. Even if there was only a mistake in 1 in 10,000 cases, that would still be over 4 disasters every single day. So yes, there are disaster stories being reported all the time, but try to temper your hyperbole about how awful we all are.

    • muttlover says:

      Timothy, no one is “bashing” vets. What is being “bashed” is the system that fails to hold the BAD ones accountable, which results in a true lack of incentive for all vets (other than their inner sense of ethic) to practice safely. An inner sense of ethic, while there is no substitue for it, is a poor choice of tools for ensuring safety for our pets. Just as no one is “bashign” vets, no one is trying to say they are all bad, so no reason to take it so personally. Some maturity acquisition is perhaps in order here. “Try to temper your hyperbole…” Really? Are you the one who will educate us on this topic? Kind of condescending, I’d say. My pet was killed by vets who didn’t do their job correctly. If a better system of vet accountability reduced incidence of harm from one in 1000 to one in 10,000, and my pet lived as result, I would happily “temper my hyperbole.”

      • Timothy says:

        “things that happen are preventable if the vet even cared”
        “The vets … are outright, deliberately lying”
        “the vet industry is using these scare tactics and trying to brainwash us”
        “to keep vets free to practice NEGLIGENTLY, CARELESSLY, and without accountability, as they do now.”

        You’re completely right. There is no-one bashing vets here at all. Thanks for correcting me, you’ve made a very strong argument.

        • muttlover says:

          Saying that the VET INDUSTRY is working to protect its own interests at the expense of ours is not vet bashing. Saying that they SYSTEM allows vets to practice with no accountability is not vet bashing. It is an attempt to bring the problem into focus. Saying that all vets are incompetent crooks would be vet bashing, and no one has done it in response to this article. The fact that you can’t sort out these issues doesn’t suggest to a great analytical ability on your part. The fact that you take so personally when the users of your profession’s services point out the deficiencies in the SYSTEM that operates your profession suggest a need to grow up a bit.

      • stefaniisaquack says:

        Well Muttlover, I tend (shocker, I know) to agree with Timothy that you are in fact “bashing vets.” He may not “educate” you on this topic, but I will kindly do so. I understand the AVMA and veterinary medicine beyond all of you guys put together. The fact that you passive aggressively attacked Timothy in a statement that made no grammatical sense is somewhat funny actually and a testament to how you try so very hard to sound so “educated” yet you know so little about any of this beyond what happened to you personally. That’s the problem with all of you. Googling crap on the internet is not a sound way to find reliable facts although I understand that is Stefani’s forte. The statement in which I am referencing is the one that says something about “doesn’t suggest to….” Not only are you making a dig at Timothy, you made a pretty blatantly poor grammatical statement in trying to do so. Timothy admitted upfront that he doesn’t agree with the current laws and is all for eliminating bad apples because he has nothing to hide. He also gave actual statistics showing just what I have said. Mistakes happen. There are some bad apples. Good for you is you want them gone and want to raise awareness, but you are going about this in a VERY counterproductive manner. It’s somewhat akin to when PETA pulls up to a warship in a rickety ole piece of crap boat and yells through a megaphone. You’re wasting time and money, and in the end, you are turning people off because of how you are saying things and the way in which you are approaching these matters.

    • Stefani says:

      I don’t share your impression that fully half of all online criticism of vets is related to complaints about NOT running tests, and the other half is complaints about them running unnecessary tests. That statement itself is hyperbole, because there is quite a bit of online criticism for things such as: botched surgery, failure to refer, practising beyond skill level, misdiagnosis, drug overdoses, innapropriate drug use (e.g., metacam orally in cats, overuse or imprudent use of rimadyl etc. in dogs, cow-strength xylazine being used on companion animals), mismanagement of diseases including diabetes, declaring diagnostic conclusions based on radiographs that are of such poor quality they can’t be read, and don’t forget actual physical abuse of patients, wrong-patient euthanasia due to preventable indentity mixups, holding and killing pets for unpaid bills, failure to notice/interpret/discuss/treat for conditions indicated by abnormal bloodwork (i.e., a patient has abnormal and worsening kidney values over a period of years that are neither discussed with the owner nor addressed), inhumane euthanasia methods with or without owner consent (fully conscious heartsticks, killing with chemicals rather than approved euth drugs), “losing” patients through unsecured areas resulting in animals never being recovered or worse, being found dead . . . the list goes on. All of these are complaints I have found online usually more than once. Therefore, your statement that 50% of online complaints about vets are complaints about failure to run more tests and the other 50% are complaints about being charged for unnecessary tests is innacurate, misleading, and hyperbole.

      • stefaniisaquack says:

        Everything you say Stefani Olsen is hyperbole it seems. Meloxicam is an appropriate off label use to treat a cat for inflammation. When did you get your medical license to know these things? Oh wait, you didn’t. That will never happen bc there is not a vet school in existence that would allow someone with so much hatred toward a profession to gain entrance into it. You still have no comprehension that mistakes happen. Not everything is negligence or malpractice. What is “cow strength xylazine” btw???!! Maybe you should learn to spell before you post outlandish statements about things you know nothing about. Also, the *vast* majority of complaints are completely ridiculous made by people as yourself that don’t know how to practice medicine or even know half of what you are referencing. Do you honestly claim you have reviewed every single claim sent to every single medical board? I can most assuredly answer that for you as “no” because there is no way for you to see these complaints if they are thrown out before being placed on an agenda for review. Do something productive rather than bitch on the internet all day long. You’re pathetic.

        • C says:

          I tend to not take seriously those who make comments like “You’re pathetic.” You have no idea who this person is or you wouldn’t be talking this way. She might not be a veterinarian, but she has a lot of knowledge. Blindly trusting vets or any medical health care professional with your loved one’s life is not the best idea. I should respond to anyone using a screen name stefaniisaquack.

          On those allowed to enter vet school, are you kidding? Have you heard of Dr. Koller, DVM, who was allowed to continue to practice after multiple charges, etc. You can look it up. Stefani absolutely could enter vet school if she wished.

          Enough said.

        • C says:

          By the way, I meant I shouldn’t respond to rude people like you.

      • stefaniisaquack says:

        Actually, “C” (i.e. Stefani or one of her friends), I do know who Stefani is and unless she goes through a rigorous amount of coursework, I can’t see how she could possibly enter veterinary school. I made it very clear that there are “bad” people in every industry. You are pointing out one and making an argument to prove that a person not qualified can enter into a program. That makes no sense. This doctor you speak of had to have qualifications at the time of entering school. What he did after is another story. Listen to who you want, but you obviously *did* listen to me because you responded. You’re not fairing well in this debate at all. I still contend that veterinarians DO NOT go into this career to hurt animals. These ridiculous websites such as “Vets From Hell” etc ARE pathetic and full of hatred. Raise awareness all you want, but you have no idea what these people do for others and pets. Who would you use for your pet care if you continued with all of this and it negatively influenced the industry, thus causing less people to enter into it OR be able to afford to practice? I sure hope computer specialists don’t think they can just google treatments and start making diagnoses and treatment plans for themselves. An example of that is the comments I made above regarding using off label meloxicam or metacam. Also, “cow strength xylazine”…. what is that? You don’t know what you’re talking of and I encourage people to go to the ones that do when they find themselves in such a situation, not google a bunch of “hyperbole” as it was put earlier and think you know what you’re talking about. It is truly obvious you don’t.

  • Cat Guardian says:

    I am sorry for the Rabbi’s loss. It was unnecessary and could have been avoided. I read of hundreds of these vet mal. cases monthly and 99.9% of the things that happen are preventable if the vet even cared and took due diligence. Malpractice insurance costs them about $300 per year. Ins costs will NOT go up, they will actually go DOWN if more vet did the right thing from the start. The public is not stupid and doesn’t believe these scare tactics.

  • Stefani Olsen says:

    Study shows that “tort reform” (limiting malpractice liability) unlikely to significantly reduce healthcare costs. Also shows so-called “defensive medicine” not a significant cost factor. Keep in mind that vets, like human doctors, get paid on a fee-for-service basis, rather than a pay-for-performance (health outcomes) basis, so they have a financial incentive — quite aside from a liability incentive — to continue running as many tests as possible.$

    • stefaniisaquack says:

      Wrong- majority of veterinarians are paid on salary unless they own the clinic. You’re also comparing apples to oranges for a number of reasons, but mainly M.D.s have insurance to contend with. There is veterinary insurance, but it is indemnity insurance (not like human health insurance) and makes no bearing on treatment.

  • Stefani Olsen says:

    Please see Chris Green’s article, “The Future of Veterinary Malpractice Liability . . . ” here:

    In particular, please read pages 174-180, with special attention to the results of the analysis (done by an AVMA insurer) of the likely impact allowing non-economic damage recovery would have on insurance rates, and the subsequent pass-through cost to pet owners, which would be a mere pennies a year.

    The vets — in spite of Hochstadt’s statements — must be well aware of the fact that allowing noneconomic damages would have a NEGLIGIBLE effect on their insurance costs as well as the pass-though cost to consumers. I believe that in continuing to make this argument they are outright, deliberately lying. I believe that they are just trying to stop the truth from coming out. The truth being — there is a LOT of veterinary malpractice going on out there, it is basically business as usual for a lot of vets, and they want to be allowed as a profession to let that kind of behavior continue. If non-economic damages recovery was allowed, it would establish a cause of action. That in turn would mean more lawsuits against vets. These lawsuits would be very hard for plaintiffs to win, as all malpractice cases are. But the outcome of this on a larger scale is that through cases being heard in the courts, the TRUTH WOULD COME OUT about the widespread quality issues in veterinary malpractice. I believe THAT is what they are really afraid of — not the cost of liability insurance, which they KNOW (although they refuse to admit this) is very little now, and would continue to be very little even if non-economic damages were permitted. Not even about losing cases. But the TRUTH coming out.

    I have not seen Hochstadt present credible quantitative evidence that his assertion (that allowing emotional damages would caused vet liability insurance to skyrocket, and with it the cost of vet care) is true. All I heard when he spoke was anecdotal statements (some vets might leave the state, one insurance rep told me this, I “heard” etcetera). Not a very credible argument.

    On the other hand, plenty of quantitative evidence exists that insurance costs would NOT rise prohibitively, and that the cost of vet care would also NOT rise prohibitively, if non-economic damages were allowed. For example, non-economic damages have been recognized in Florida. And lo and behold, vets still practice in Florida. They still buy affordable liability insurance in Florida, and pet owners still have pets and afford vet care in Florida.

  • muttlover says:

    It is really sad that the vet industry is using these scare tactics and trying to brainwash us. Changing the status of companion animals will not have a significant effect on the cost of vet care. The cost is already high, and it’s not due to the cost of vet mal insurance, which is dirt-cheap as of now (like $300 a year for a $MILLION worth of liability. Vets just want their cake (us to spend the money as if our animals were not mere property) and want to eat it too (when they harm our animals, to claim that they are mere property). It doesn’t work that way, Mr. Vet! If you ate your cake, you have none left. Even kids know this. This hypocrisy is very unsettling.

    • stefaniisaquack says:

      NO ONE is trying to brainwash you!!! Do you also believe in conspiracy theories in addition?? Seriously, things happen. You are picking one industry and you are bashing them because you had an unfortunate event. If every one of you had your performance and mishaps taken to a board or published all over the place, maybe you would think twice before saying these things. Because this is how things are done, you are seeing them. It is unjust to compare professionals of governing boards to the rest of society that has no one overseeing them. Mistakes happen. If someone is maliciously performing malpractice, then by all means, go to town on them. I don’t believe that is the case for the majority though. If that were true, there would be a whole lot more dead animals. I can assure you too that these boards do nothing to protect veterinarians. Their sole intent is to cover their own butts by “protecting the public” and they do it at all costs. Get ready, because there will be all sorts of suits coming from these doctors soon because they are fed up trying to do their jobs only to be persecuted by people that experienced one bad awful mistake- but they are just that- mistakes.

  • Stefani Olsen says:

    Rabbi Siff, I really stand with you and your wife in crying out for some kind of action in these cases.

    It is a travesty that the veterinary boards do nothing. But your case is not unique in that respect. Approximately 90% of all complaints are dismissed in most states.

    Hochstadt is full of it with those assertions about the rising cost of vet care. I saw him in a legal seminar last month, and he had no realy hard facts to back up this “fear tactic,” while the animal advocate lawyer Chris Green, had concrete facts showing that non-economic damages recovery would NOT cause a substantial rise in either the cost of insurance or vet care.

    BTW, for what its worth, malpractice awards isn’t what has driven up the cost of human health care, either. In states that have implemented liability caps, costs have NOT come down (Texas, California). Insurance company profits, pharma profits, continue to soar though, while the quality of US healthcare falls to nearly the bottom of the industrialized world.

    This is just a scare tactic Hochstadt and the AVMA are using to keep vets free to practice NEGLIGENTLY, CARELESSLY, and without accountability, as they do now.

    I will post links for you to see that I am telling the truth. And as Barbara said, David please contact the Companion Animal Protection Alliance at: We’d like to talk to you.

  • Barbara says:

    David, Contact a grassroots organization of people just like you.

    We need to gather strength in numbers and resources to change this!

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