I'm going to take a moment here and just mention something unrelated to the major point of this article. The fact is, in the USA right now, in most jurisdictions, pet dogs and cats are valued as property (this may be changing, as a recent ruling in Texas ascribed "special value" to pets, but for now, it's generally true). This limits the liability of the veterinarian, in general, and makes our liability insurance much more affordable compared to that of, say, an OB/GYN, or your favorite neurologist. This is nice for veterinarians, and helps us to keep our costs down. If or when the legal climate changes, and pet owners become more likely to win larger judgements against veterinarians, insurance costs will rise, and veterinary costs will rise, and pets will get less care because people won't be able to afford it. But that should all be covered in a separate and much more depressing blog post than this is intended to be.
So some time last year, I read a case in one of these PLIT newsletters about "Dr. B."
Basically, someone brought their cat to Dr. B for a routine exam and vaccines. The owner helped the tech weigh the cat, and when the cat got off the scale, the owner thought it might be falling and moved to redirect it. The cat at that time bit and scratched the owner's hand. The technician cleaned and wrapped the hand for the owner, and Dr. B told the owner to seek medical care from a physician. The owner then left with the cat. Within 24 hours, the owner’s hand became infected, and it failed to respond to treatment quickly. At that time the owner called Dr. B and requested Dr. B pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses. Dr. B reported this to PLIT and consented to settle; claim review was performed, and it was determined that it was BELOW THE STANDARD OF CARE TO LET THE OWNER ASSIST WITH HANDLING THE CAT DURING THE EXAM, and they recommended settlement. Long story short, this ballooned into a big deal because the owner's hand was very badly injured and needed to have multiple specialists involved and trips to the ER and home nursing care and so on. In the end, PLIT paid over $22,000 to the cat owner (and the cat owner's health insurance company, which had pursued subrogation) to close the claims.
"OK, well, that sucks for them," you might be saying right about now. "Why are you telling me this story, Dr. VBB? And why is that bit about the owner assisting being below the standard of care in bold all-caps, anyway?" you inquire. Well, I'll tell you why. This concept of owner handling and/or restraint of the pet during a veterinary office call comes up every day in my office. It is the rare client who willingly lets go of his or her pet and allows my staff to restrain it! Every day in my office we have something like this happen:
Me: [walks into room. owner is holding pet in arms or on lap.] Hi there! Good to see you! Can you put Fluffy on the table for me?
Client: Sure [puts pet on table]
Me: OK, I'm going to examine Fluffy now. You can talk to him and stand where he can see you though. [I'm starting my exam]
Client: [keeps death grip on Fluffy, who looks very suspicious of the entire scenario]
Me: Actually I'm going to need you to let go of Fluffy for the moment, ok? I might startle him and he could lash out at you and you could get hurt. [I'm continuing my exam]
Client: Oh, Fluffy would NEVER do that! He loves me! [squeezes pet close to chest/face and grins, pet lifts lip and snarls]
Me: OK well I'm going to move Fluffy over for a moment so I can listen to his heart [put stethoscope on pet's chest, try to keep out of reach of teeth]
Client: Fluffy is SO GOOD [pats pet's chest rhythmically] oh and doctor I wanted to tell you this really important thing
Me: [stops ausculting] what? sorry, I was trying to listen to his heart. and please don't pat him while I'm doing this ok? It makes a lot of noise.
Client: oh, sorry doctor. [continues patting pet's chest]
Me: Well, I need to draw some blood. My nurse here will restrain Fluffy.
Client: Oh, I can do it [maintaining death grip and squeezing pet against chest]
Me: I'm sure you can, however I can't allow it. It's really safer for everyone if my nurse does it.
Client: But Fluffy will be scared if I'm not here! [maintains death grip]
Me: Actually lots of pets calm down when their anxious owner steps out, so if you want to leave that's fine, but you can stay too, I just need my nurse do the actual restraint.
Client: Don't wanna.
Client: How dare you say I can't hold my own pet! It's an outrage!
Me: Well, you know, if Fluffy is surprised or hurt, he might bite, and if you get hurt-
Client: I don't mind if he hurts me!
Me: That's good to know, I mind if you get hurt, and also if he hurts you during this exam in my exam room, it's a big liability and I will be the one who did not reach the standard of care, which requires me to provide adequate restraint by a staff member in order to protect you from injury.
Client: well I would never sue you
Me: I'm sure you wouldn't, but I still need to reach the standard of care here....
and then either they laugh it off and agree with me and we go ahead, or they get really pissed and claim I am some horrible person who only cares about legal technicalities and not animals.
I just don't want to end up in the PLIT newsletter, here.