A B.C. dog owner whose sick pet suffered terribly after a veterinarian left it unattended is calling for better rules about overnight stays at vet clinics. The epileptic dog, Nip, had a seizure while caged and alone that left him paralyzed.
“Whatever person opened up the vet clinic in the morning found him thrashing in his cage,” said owner Annette Dehalt, who said she was shocked when she arrived later to pick up her pet.
“He couldn’t even right himself. He tried desperately to lift his head to greet me and he was kind of drooling.”
Dehalt said the Victoria vet, Dr. Malcolm Macartney, had told her Nip needed to be kept overnight for "observation" after exploratory surgery. She said the vet knew her dog was epileptic and prone to debilitating seizures.
“I wanted to take him home,” said Dehalt. “I remember pretty much verbatim what Dr Macartney said. He said ‘No — we should really keep him here in the clinic for overnight observation.’”
She said she presumed that meant someone would be there.
“I wanted to take him home … but at the same time I realized, OK, if that’s necessary, if he needs veterinary supervision ... especially with his seizure record.”
Instead, the dog was left alone for 9½ hours, from when the vet last checked on him at 10 p.m. until morning staff arrived and found him having a full-blown seizure.
If Dehalt had been caring for Nip at home when he had his seizure, she would have been able to respond immediately by giving him medication and rushing him to an emergency clinic.
Owner unaware of suffering
“I was sleeping … while he was thrashing against the metal bars of that cage after surgery — alone in an empty vet clinic — paralyzing himself,” Dehalt said.
“Here I was thinking he was in the best possible place — at the veterinarian clinic, under observation.”
Nip was an active, nine-year-old Australian cattle dog. Dehalt said he was walking fine and playing the day she brought him to Macartney’s clinic, MacKenzie Veterinary Services, in April 2009, for digestive problems.
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She said she had to carry him out to the car the next day — because he couldn’t walk — after she paid Macartney’s $2,128 bill for the exploratory surgery.
“I was not allowed [by the vet] to take my walking dog home the night before,” said Dehalt.
The bill included $89 in charges for "hospitalization" and "in-patient evaluation.'
“What is the point of leaving him at the vet clinic without anybody there?” Dehalt asked.
Nip died three months later, from an untreated cancer growth, which Macartney had failed to inform Dehalt about.
“He was paralyzed — and he had cancer that he didn’t get painkillers or treatment for,” she said.
The vet had removed tumours during the exploratory surgery, but lab tests afterward showed the cancer was likely to recur. Macartney didn’t send the lab results to Dehalt’s new vet until three months later, and by then Nip was near death.
In the meantime, Dehalt was spending countless hours trying to rehabilitate her crippled dog, with help from her new vet. She said it still haunts her that she pushed Nip to try to walk and kept him on a restricted diet, oblivious to the fact he was in pain and dying.
“I was deprived of doing right by a dog that meant everything to me,” said Dehalt. “I can’t imagine how he suffered … that’s heartbreaking no matter how many years pass.”
After Nip died, Dehalt sued Macartney. He settled this year by paying her $22,422, the full amount she asked for.
Part of the settlement was for Nip’s pain and suffering, which Dehalt’s lawyer Graham Jones believes is unprecedented for an animal in Canada.
“Pets are a very significant part of the family for a lot of people and what happens to them and the suffering they experience can easily be passed on to their owners,” said Jones.
Dehalt also complained to the College of Veterinarians of B.C. In its final decision, the college said it advised Macartney to get informed consent from owners before keeping pets overnight at his clinic unattended.
The college, however, found he was not guilty of any wrongdoing or misconduct. Go Public asked several times for an interview with someone from the college, but did not get an answer before deadline.
Macartney admits he made mistakes in Nip’s case and told Go Public he is sorry for how the dog and his owner suffered.
"Of course things might have been different had he been monitored, had I sent him home with Annette or had I sent him to the local emergency clinic for overnight monitoring — they may have been able indeed to stop his seizures sooner than I had," Macartney said.
Vet admits mistake
"In hindsight it was a mistake. I make no bones about it. I am totally responsible for that and I have never denied that. But for me to be able to predict that a seizure would have happened is pretty unlikely … of course I am sorry for what happened."
The vet said his clinic rarely keeps pets overnight anymore, except in exceptional cases. Macartney said if they do, he will either stay at the office to monitor them, or make sure the owners know they will be left alone.
"We make it patently clear that there will not be 24-hour observation, overnight observation," he said.
There are no explicit rules governing overnight staffing at non-emergency vet clinics in Canada. Dehalt wants to warn other pet owners to beware.
“I want something good to come out of this terrible suffering that Nip had to go through,” she said, adding she would like the regulators to adopt new rules.
“There should be 24-hour supervision or else full written and verbal disclosure that there is nobody on the premises.”
Clinic practices vary
Go Public canvassed several non-emergency vet clinics and hospitals in B.C. and found a variety of practices.
Some vet offices said they would never keep a pet overnight, because there is no one there. If a pet is too sick to go home, they said they would transfer it to a 24-hour emergency facility.
Other non-emergency clinics said they do offer "hospitalization" after surgery, but also admitted the animals are left alone.
Dr. Carl Weiss, a B.C. veterinarian who gave an expert opinion for Dehalt’s case, wrote that he would never leave an animal alone the way Nip was.
“If I am concerned about post-surgical complication …I will offer to keep the patient overnight. In most such cases, the client will ask if there will be 24-hour supervision. My answer would be yes, otherwise why would I keep him overnight?”
There have also been calls in the U.S. for tougher rules, after a dog hanged itself on its collar in New Jersey while alone in a cage overnight at the vet’s office.
“Vets are being held accountable more and more,” said Victoria Shroff, a Vancouver lawyer who takes a special interest in laws affecting animals.
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She said complaints are up in general, because pet owners have increasingly high expectations.
“More and more cases are coming forward. I get a lot of inquires about veterinary malpractice, and complaints are up at the veterinary college, which is the regulatory body for vets.”
“I never spared any money or any effort when it came to Nip. He truly was my best friend and I would have done anything for him,” said Dehalt.