What Does the Law Say about Vets Handling Pets Whose Owners are Unknown to Them?

This story has been gnawing at my heart all day.  A 17 year old Corgi mix named Basie was in her VA yard on November 1st.  The owner, Allen Holmes, was home and in fact, had snapped a photo of Basie getting a drink of water in the yard at 12:06pm.  When he went out to check on her 10 minutes later, she was gone.  Mr. and Mrs. Holmes searched for Basie and posted flyers throughout their neighborhood.  Basie reportedly walked very slowly so they did not think she could have gone far.

As it turns out, a woman had picked up Basie “wandering in the woods”, thinking she was a stray, and brought the dog to her vet.  The vet examined the dog, noting some health problems – which would not be unusual for a 17 year old dog – but also described Basie as alert and responsive.  Then the vet killed her.

Upon learning what had happened to Basie, the owners were very upset.  They asked police to investigate and they contacted the local news:

[Prince William County Police] Sgt. Kim Chinn said they found no evidence of a crime and that both the woman who picked up the dog and the vet appeared to be doing what they thought was right.

When the local news asked the vet clinic for an explanation as to why they killed Basie, a staff member tried to pin the decision to kill the dog on the Fairfax County Animal Shelter, saying the shelter had instructed the vet to kill Basie:

But the Fairfax County Police Department, which oversees Animal Control, says the shelter would never give that advice.  Officer Shelly Broderick says the decision to euthanize, was  the veterinarian’s alone.

There are a number of concerns here to my mind but before anyone tries to blame the killing on the owners, please keep in mind that the article does not detail what the circumstances were in Basie’s yard.  We don’t know if there was a fence, if this was an unfenced, large property in a rural area, or what the case may be.  And whatever the owners were doing with Basie was apparently at least good enough to keep her alive for 17 years which is no small feat.  Mrs. Holmes also mentions that Basie was very clean, had recently had her nails trimmed and had a tooth extracted.  This indicates to me that the owners took good care of Basie.  And perhaps equally as significant, it indicates that Basie’s vet felt she was stable enough for anesthesia in order to have a dental procedure performed.  That fact, along with the other vet’s description of Basie as alert and responsive, makes it very difficult for me to accept that anyone believed Basie was medically hopeless and suffering.  And if no one believed that, how were they “doing what they thought was right” by killing her?

A vet is in a unique position with regard to stray pets in the community for two main reasons:

  1. Some people believe that bringing a pet they find to a vet is a kind option, especially if the local shelter has a reputation for killing animals.
  2. Vets are licensed to have Fatal Plus on hand – and to use it.

It concerns me that the officer who investigated stated no crime was committed.  Is there no law on the books in VA to prevent a vet from killing a pet whose owner has not signed a euthanasia consent form?  Even if the vet thinks the pet is a stray, there is no way to know that for certain.  Shouldn’t the vet be required by law to either turn the pet over to the shelter or at least make efforts to locate the owner themselves if they choose to keep and treat the pet for the legally required holding period (or longer)?  Do you know what the law requires of vets in your state with regard to stray animal handling?

30 thoughts on “What Does the Law Say about Vets Handling Pets Whose Owners are Unknown to Them?

  1. This makes my blood boil. Why are animals not microchipped? Why is there no attempt to locate the owners? What right does the vet have to take that dogs life away? I so feel for the owners. I would be devastated.
    Microchipping is the best way, if the dog loses its collar and id disc the chip is still there. The unique number is registered and the vets or police should hold a scanner. Once a number is located for an animal they should ring the company up who keeps the microchip details and the owner can be notified. THIS SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN.
    Things so need to change.

      1. The article doesn’t say one way or the other on scanning for a chip. But if we assume for the sake of argument that Basie was not chipped, I still feel that unless the vet determined she was medically hopeless and suffering, the vet either should have endeavored to search for the owner (or, if unclaimed, a new owner) or turned the dog over to AC. The decision to kill the dog was made far too quickly IMO and the vet had no right. In killing a dog that is NOT medically hopeless and suffering, the vet is assuming there is no owner, there is no person willing to adopt the dog, and AC would not do its job and hold the dog. I see no basis for any of these assumptions.

  2. I know in my hospital (New Jersey), a ‘stray’ brought in by a non-owner has to legally signed over to the hospital. At that point the animal becomes hospital property and we can dispose of them as we see fit, including euthanizing.

    For example, my cat JJ was brought in as a ‘stray’- he was very underweight, had a severe infection of feline herpes that had caused his eyes to prolapse, and was generally the saddest little cat you ever saw. The young woman who brought him in signed him over with the understanding we might opt to PTS. In fact, that’s exactly what we were going to do- until he attacked my hand and I decided he wasn’t done fighting.

    This is obviously a VERY different situation, but in theory JJ could have been an owned pet that had gotten lost for some time, or an owned pet that was neglected. But no, there was no law stating we had to attempt to find owners before making a decision as long as we had that paperwork on file.

    1. So the non-owner has the legal right to sign over ownership of the dog? That doesn’t make sense to me. I’d hate to think that someone would find a pet of mine, bring it to a vet and sign my pet over to them. I want my pet!

      1. Basically…yeah. I know that with JJ that’s exactly how it worked. We had a number of ‘strays’ pass through, or animals that were, say, hit by a car and brought in by a non-owner. I don’t remember any that we euthanized, but we would commonly treat and rehome with a hospital staffer or send to AC. There were a few were the owner themselves called and located their pet.

        I remember watching Animals Cop in AZ on Animal Planet, and the ACs could euthanize animals right in the truck. There was a dog that had hit by a car and had a broken leg, and they euthanized right there because it was a ‘stray’ even though they had absolutely no way of knowing that.

  3. I’m still trying to comprehend the whole story but the main question so far is, why did the Vet euthanize the dog? In our area Vet’s usually don’t euthanize treatable animals. Do we know what the Vet found during examination? Did the people that took the dog to the Vet agree to the euthanization? Did the Vet even ask this people regarding euthanization?

    1. The vet supposedly killed the dog b/c AC told him to. Which AC denies. My guess: The vet didn’t think anyone capable of paying a vet bill was likely to come forward for the dog and didn’t want to bother dirtying a cage and a water dish for what might end up as a non-revenue generating patient.

      1. There are still too many “white spots” in that story. I just think if I would find a dog, Why would I take him to the Vet right away? I would take the dog home with me and then try to find the owner. I would take a stray dog to the Vet if it really would be obvious that the dog is in pain. So, why did the people “rush” the dog to the Vet? Why did the Vet euthanize the dog? That are the 2 questions I would like to find answeres for.

      2. I’m sad to say that many years ago, I worked for a vet who did this. Even though it’s been a long time, I still remember 2 of the pets she killed shortly after arrival. I’m sure she killed others – I left after a few months.

      3. Peter,

        Around here, it’s apparently common to take a dog that you find to the local vet to see if they recognize him/her. It’s also common for people who have lost pets to call their vet and let them know that the dog is missing (which is…weird, but ok).

        They say the dog had neurological issues – the woman finding the dog may not have known that there was a house nearby and thought that the dog might have been injured, hence the trip to the vet. Not everyone can recognize the difference between “walking funny because is old” and “walking funny because was hit by a car”.

        And I can definitely understand the owner taking the dog’s collar off. When my beloved Maggie dog got to be almost 19 years old, her collar was “too heavy” for her and she was happier without it.

        The vet here really jumped the gun. How does a vet have the right to kill any dog off the street?

      4. It’s pretty common here in northern California to tell vets about lost pets, too – my old vet advised people to do it, not only because people usually *did* report lost pets to him, but also because it wasn’t that unusual for pets lost in a neighborhood to be brought in to one or another of the local vets. These days, I gather from my current vet that it’s fairly common for people to bring her strays to be scanned.

        At any rate, I’ve never been to a vet clinic that didn’t have lost pet notices up.

      5. I head straight to the vet upon finding a stray pet if I do not find ID on the pet and/or do not recognize the pet. My vet can and will scan for microchips, which may help me return a pet to his or her family.

        Most of the time I don’t need to take that step, but sometimes I do.

        I have never signed a found pet over to a vet.

  4. What a sad sad commentary on that vet. Someone would have possible taken that poor old dog and let him live out his final days in a safe place if only they were offered a chance to do so. Are we so numb to suffering and cruelty that it just doesn’t occur to us that kindness is the humane way? Why are people so quick to kill? I suppose it’s just easier to kill and forget. Shameful!

  5. Wow, sounds like convenience killing on the vet’s part. I’ll bet his examination found the dog to be “old” and that was enough for him.

    Those poor owners. And that poor woman who found the dog and thought she was doing a kind thing only to find out that she brought the dog directly to her death.

    The vet’s actions may not have been criminal, but they were unethical. If I were the owners, I would pursue this with the board.

  6. Hi Shirley, I found this http://www.avma.org/advocacy/state/issues/euthanasia_laws.pdf

    and this

    It sounds to me like the vet is allowed to kill an animal if it is sick- there doesn’t seem to be any definition of how sick the animal should be. However, there is also a law which states that all reasonable efforts must be made to find the owner within 48 hrs of picking up a stray ($50 fine).

    I assume these laws were written in conjunction with the assumption that US vets would adhere to the code of ethics http://www.avma.org/issues/policy/ethics.asp I have to finish an essay for assessment so I haven’t got time to read this in depth but from what I can see there is a lot of wriggle room for vets.

    I’m so sorry for Basie and her family. It looks to me like the AVMA is just as much of a chook raffle as many of the other animal organisations in the US :(

      1. Of course they are, I should have put two and two together. No wonder they manage to spit out such stellar vets as Sara Pizano, Stephen Tower and the like. What a shame the first rule isn’t do no harm :( This stuff is making me physically ill.

  7. So far as I can see – bearing in mind I’m no expert – the only California law that approaches this is that regulating veterinarian-client relations – which includes a clause allowing vets to treat a pet whose owner is unknown, and thus with whom they have no VCR. However, search as I might, I can’t find anything that specifically addresses emergency euthanasia of pets. There are regulations that cover emergency euthanasia of livestock, but so far as I’m aware they require that the animal be in severe distress.

    A pet abandoned at a vet clinic – left for two weeks or more – by the owner can be killed if a new owner cannot be found – but I think the business practices regulations do require an effort be made to place the pet.

    However, a vet can *refuse* treatment to an animal in distress, if I remember aright – there was a case some years back, when a policewoman in Oakland found a badly injured dog and tried to get treatment to stabilize him, only to be turned away from more than one vet until she finally agreed to put any charges on her credit card. As I recall, in the ensuing media fracas it was stated that the vets had none them broken any law.

    1. I know in New Jersey we can’t refuse emergency care for lack of payment. So we could refuse, say, a spay, but not a hit by car dog. But we aren’t required to do more than then minimum, which might be stopping the bleeding and giving pain killers, but we aren’t required to actually do surgery.

  8. I do know that for the City of Fairfax animal control, there is a veterinary hospital that acts as a holding center. Fairfax County Animal Control, however, has its own shelter, and I am having trouble comprehending how they would tell a vet to kill a dog, unless this dog was at the shelter and it was the shelter’s vet.

    I would absolutely not be surprised if Fairfax decided to kill this dog, though. I volunteer for a no-kill rescue that pulls dogs from Fairfax all the time, and I can tell you that that shelter is staffed by a bunch of idiots. They wanted to kill a weim puppy for being too active. IT’S A WEIMERANER PUPPY. Of course it is active (this dog was pulled and is in a good home)! We also tend to take a lot of tiny dogs from them, because they want to kill them for being “too shy”. Funny how those dogs do just fine at the rescue. I was also told that the person who does the behavior evaluations is a huge guy who will hover over the dogs, and then decide they need to die if they get scared, which a lot of them do.

    Weilding the power of life and death over defenseless animals must make them feel like a god.

  9. Oh and as to whether vets can or will euthanize strays brought to them, I guess a crappy vet will. A lot of them though take in strays all the time, fix ’em up, advertise for donations to cover costs, and then adopt them out.

  10. I’m sure I have mentioned these stories before but here is my experience working for a vet many years ago WRT this topic:

    A good sam brought in a found dog to the clinic and left her there w/the vet’s permission. The dog was very skinny and did not look cared for. The vet immediately killed the dog. 30 minutes later, in walks a family holding a leash and collar saying they were out searching for their lost dog when they ran into the good sam who told them they could find their dog here. As it turns out, the family’s child was seriously ill and had been for some time. Consumed with the child’s illness, the owners admitted they had not looked after the dog as well as they should have but they still loved and wanted her. The vet told them she had killed the dog. The wife was angry at first then broke down in tears and wanted to see the body. The husband could not bear it and walked out.

    Another time, a caring postal worker brought in a cat she found on her route who was laying in a driveway in the sun, unable to move and panting in the heat. There was no one home at the house where the driveway was located, and no way to know if the cat lived there. The postal worker was worried the cat would not make it w/out immediate vet care so brought her to us and left her there w/the vet’s permission. The vet immediately killed the cat. Not wanting to pay for disposal of the body with the rendering service she used for other dead pets (since this was not a paying client’s pet), she called AC to pick up the body. When AC tried to decline, she threatened to take the cat’s body across to the 7-11 and dump her at the front door, to force AC to come out. No idea if the owners (if there were any) ever found out what happened to their cat. I left not long afterward.

    1. In both those stories, the vets were obviously not the best of people. But it sounds like the owners failed those pets as well. If you have a sick child that consumes your attention to the point that you cannot take five minutes to set a bowl of food in front of your dog every day, rehome the dog. It is NOT ok to let it starve.

      My family had mostly outdoor cats, and we paid attention to the weather, and if it was going to be very hot, we brought our cats inside. Cats are actually built to survive in a desert climate (well, except Persians and Main Coons), so if it was so hot that cat was in heat stroke, that says something. Even if you don’t want to bring your cat inside, there are ways to provide for it so that it says warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

      Of course, that cat could have been a feral/stray cat for all the good samaritan knew. As far as I know, this euthanizing of stray animals comes down to a vet’s personal choice. I have not seen any laws in my state that say anything about vets taking in strays either way. I do know a lot of veterinary offices that take in strays, fix ’em up and adopt them out, like I mentioned before. You get into vet school based on whether or not you can pass organic chemistry, not based on whether or not you are a compassionate person.

  11. This is a really lazy and crappy vet. The exam, combined with a little logical thinking and compassion should have led to the conclusion that someone might be looking for this dog.

  12. Aha, I found something in VA’s State law about just this very subject.

    “A. If a licensed veterinarian is called or by his own action comes upon an animal that is sick or injured and the owner of such animal cannot be immediately located, then the licensed veterinarian, in his professional judgment, may treat, hospitalize or euthanize the animal without the permission of the owner. The veterinarian shall make such reports and keep such records of such sick or injured animals as may be prescribed by the Board of Veterinary Medicine, including the information required under subsection B of § 3.2-6557.

    B. In no event shall a licensed veterinarian who has acted in good faith and properly exercised professional judgment regarding an animal be subject to liability for his actions in: (i) acting in accordance with subsection A; or (ii) reporting cases of suspected cruelty to animals.”

    1. Good sleuthing! One part I’d like to learn more about is “make such reports…as may be prescribed by the Board of Veterinary Medicine”. Is this merely a reference to creating records w/in the clinic or does it mean something else? It’s the “in his professional judgment” part that gives the vet carte blanche to kill any found pet, such as Basie, since the law specifically exempts the vet from liability.

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