Question: I consider my dog to be my child. Does my vet have the same obligations toward her as a pediatrician does to a child?
Answer: When you take your child to a pediatrician, three roles develop: doctor, patient and patient’s parent. Since the patient is a minor, the doctor must rely on you as parent to consent to decisions about the child’s health, and you must rely on him or her as to the propriety of a proposed treatment. Every state has healthcare laws specifically supporting that arrangement and outlining duties inherent in each situation.
When you take your dog to a veterinarian, three similar roles arise—doctor, patient and patient’s owner—and, as a practical matter, much of the same drama is played out. With the vet’s input, you make decisions about what is ultimately done to the dog, and at what cost. No battery of laws applies to that interaction, however, and what qualifies as legitimate medical practice in the vet’s office derives not from healthcare statutes, but from common law contract rules regarding ownership and conveyance of personal property, and from common law tort rules regarding damage to personal property. Purely as custom, we tend to describe the dog as the “patient,” but as a legal matter, dogs do not have the rights that patients enjoy. No matter how we feel, in the eyes of the law, dogs are “objects,” not “persons.”
A vast legal and moral chasm separates dogs from children, and nothing reveals that gulf better than pondering the possible range of decisions that can be made in the two examination rooms. You cannot contract with a doctor to euthanize your child, to destroy or remove parts of his body, to compel one to become pregnant or another to be rendered infertile. You cannot employ a doctor to brand or mark your child for identification or tracking purposes.
You can prevent a doctor from disclosing personal information about your child. You can recover for the grief experienced as a result of a doctor causing the wrongful death of your child. A doctor cannot hold your child hostage until the medical bill is paid. Were you to select a less effective treatment for your child or decline treatment altogether solely to save the expense, while you might not technically violate a law, you would be universally abhorred for your decision. The opposite of all of those things are true with vets and dogs.
Much less of a gap divides doctors from veterinarians in their particular roles, even though large ideological distances separate their patients. Both doctors and vets are subject to statutes regarding neglect and abuse, and both are held to a comparable standard of reasonable skill and care in:
As with a doctor, a financial relationship with a vet is not required for accountability to exist, as both professionals may be held liable for negligence even where the services are provided at no cost. In itself, an unfavorable result does not constitute grounds for litigation, nor does an honest error in judgment made in the course of pursuing acceptable practices. Where alternate procedures are available, neither can be found liable for malpractice when employing medically acceptable techniques.
An expert witness is crucial to prove that either medical professional negligently treated or cared for a patient (however, with vet malpractice claims, plenty of nonveterinarians who routinely tend and treat animals, such as farmers, ranchers, breeders, stable workers, farriers, researchers and even some pet owners, might qualify as experts in helping to set standards of care). Finally, if either a doctor or vet’s conduct is wanton, malicious, grossly negligent or in reckless disregard of others, punitive damages may be awarded. False claims to have performed a procedure, charges for a procedure that was never carried out, performance of a completely unnecessary procedure or the misinterpretation of patently obvious symptoms are all grounds for action, whether the recipient is a dog or a child.
Because the law imposes different burdens on dog owners than on parents, I have found that open and frequent communication between vet and owner is almost more critical than it is between doctor and parent. In both sets of relationships, emotions can and do run hot; in both exam rooms, a human susceptibility to panic over the unknown and a human propensity to assign blame often interfere with the use of plain reason or plain talk. And in both, unequal levels of education between the parties tend to unravel the fabric of what had otherwise been a carefully woven understanding about reasonable treatment. Knowing that there is an imbalance of power, of knowledge and of the application of law should make dog owners particularly diligent about engaging in more talk, not less, about what has been, is to be or could be done.
So to answer your question: While some vets have a better “bedside manner” than others, the proverbial bottom line is that they can treat your dog essentially as a machine to be repaired to the extent that all of the following conditions are true: (a) dogs are physiologically comparable to machines; (b) the law allows vets to do so; and (c) you continue to employ them when they do. As a scientist, I believe that (a) is a poor assumption. As a lawyer, I nevertheless understand that (b) is unhappily correct. As a consumer, I find (c) to be the condition that is within one’s power to change. The marketplace of available veterinarians is expanding daily—you can help shape it by wise use of your pocketbook.