Disturbing Surgical Complications at Maricopa Co Shelter

An investigative report that appeared on azcentral.com over the weekend examines several cases of surgeries with “grisly outcomes” at Maricopa Co Animal Care and Control in Arizona.  The most disturbing of these is the occurrence of pets who undergo spay surgery and then have their guts fall out shortly thereafter.  Vets at the shelter reportedly use a “simple continuous closure” where one piece of thread is used to suture the incision with a knot at each end.  If the knot at one end comes undone DOT DOT DOT.  I didn’t go to vet school and I’m very bad at sewing but this is how I sew socks and I can’t imagine it’s a good way to sew up a spayed dog.

Assistant County Manager Rodrigo Silva, who oversees the Maricopa Co shelter, cites the facility’s 0.05 percent surgical complication rate:

“I found no lower case of complications than we have here,” Silva said. “Can we do much better? It is unreasonable to expect zero (complications).”

Fair enough.  Some complications are going to occur after surgery.  It doesn’t necessarily indicate incompetence.  But as a layman, I can’t help thinking that stitching the surgical incision sufficiently closed so the guts don’t fall out is something that should be a given.

In the estimated 111,000 surgeries performed by vets at the Maricopa Co shelter between 2008 and 2013, records indicate that 72 animals had their incisions rupture, also referred to as dehiscence.  That is an alarming number to my mind.

[Melanie Peters, manager and veterinarian at the Tempe Spay-Neuter Clinic] said spay incisions should not just come undone.

“If it is done correctly, it shouldn’t happen,” Peters said. “There’s no reason you can’t do high-volume spay and neuters … without complications.”


She said any clinic racking up dozens of dehiscence cases in less than six years needs to change its operation.

“There should be no expectation of dehiscence,” she said. “I wouldn’t expect all of the clinics in the Valley (combined) to have those kinds of numbers.”

And dehiscence is not the only surgical complication suffered by pets at Maricopa Co:

The records show instances of “blade left in abdomen,” “gauze left in abdomen,” “lacerated spleen,” “incised bladder” and “surgical infection.”

There are cases where animals returned to heat after being spayed. There are cases of abdominal bleeding. The county cites “anesthetic deaths.” At least one animal “died before recovered” and another “died after recovering.”

Gee, that 0.05% complication rate doesn’t sound so swell anymore.

In what seems to be a glaring oversight, the vets performing surgeries at the Maricopa Co shelter are not accountable to the state vet board:

Veterinarians are typically subject to Arizona’s Veterinary Practices Act. But the law makes an exception for pet owners and allows them to treat their own animals.

Maricopa County Animal Care and Control officials maintain the shelter owns the animals that are abandoned to its care. Therefore shelter veterinarians are, in essence, treating their own animals and not subject to state oversight.

That means veterinarians working for county and private shelters cannot be disciplined for mistakes that, if made by vets in private practice, could be punished with fines, probation and license revocation.

The Maricopa Co shelter reportedly has a contract which specifies that the shelter is the legal owner of the animals in the facility.  And since the statute exempts “a person treating an animal belonging to himself”, shelter vets are not answerable to the state board, even when animals they spay end up with their guts on the floor.

This is concerning on several fronts.  First off, why is it ok for owners to perform surgery on their own animals in Arizona?  Secondly, shelter vets should not be exempt from state oversight – practicing veterinary medicine is practicing veterinary medicine.  And why does Maricopa Co have a contract declaring the county to be legal owners of the animals at the shelter?  Shelters are intended to be short term holding facilities for lost pets whose owners are looking for them and for pets in need of new homes.  It is widely understood that the county is merely housing the animals temporarily, not taking ownership of them.

There appear to be some serious flaws in the statutes and county contract which need to be remedied.  Instead, the county created a task force to identify ways to improve conditions at the shelter.  *yawn*  I hope “Keep the innards on the inside” makes the list.

(Thanks Clarice for the link.)

4 thoughts on “Disturbing Surgical Complications at Maricopa Co Shelter

  1. Thanks for covering this.As a former volunteer this is just the tip of the iceberg in this poorly run facility. The director refuses to embrace any kind of no kill methods, and instead, reclassifies all the animals that his officers drag in as “unhealthy and untreatable” to justify killing them. Last year they supposedly had 10,000 “unhealthy and untreatable” animals enter their shelter. What a joke. He’s killed oveer 100,000 animals in his years there.

  2. You know…my vet does internal dissolving stitches on a spay with external regular stitches. That way, even if you have a pet who chews out the external stitches, you don’t have guts on the floor.

    I thought that this method was standard practice because…you know, sense-making.

    I can understand a shelter owning animals in their care – they have to become the legal owner after a certain period of time in order to adopt them out again. But the idea that the vets are not subject to board oversight for their actions at a shelter is unbelievable. I have to now wonder if they are subject to any of the responsibilities for the pets they “own” there? Is there a pet limit in Maricopa? Because if there is, surely they are over the limit. Do they have to have kennel licenses for all the dogs they own?

    1. Yes, even if the ‘shelter’ owns the animals, the ‘vets’ are *employees* of the shelter. Saying the vets own the animals mean the vets also own the shelter, and I would think the taxpayers should not then be paying any money to run it – everything should be paid for by the owners – the veterinarians – including all salaries for any other staff (and their own, of course), all utilities, all property taxes, etc. Where is the proof that the vets are paying these bills? If they aren’t paying, then they can’t be the owners, correct? And since they aren’t really the owners, then they really should be covered under the workings of the state veterinary board. They can’t have it both ways, for cryin’ out loud.

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