What to do when you believe a vet has harmed or killed your companion animal


ALDF Suggests: What to do when you believe a
vet has harmed or killed your companion animal

One of the most frequent requests
for assistance that the Animal Legal Defense Fund receives is from people whose
companion animals have suffered injuries, or even death, and who fear that
negligence by their veterinarian was the cause.

Prevention is the Best Medicine

The best way to protect your companion animal is to know
your rights and the veterinarian’s duties. Here are some major points to

1. Seek out a qualified, competent, and caring veterinarian.

2. Do not be reluctant to seek a second or even third opinion regarding the
diagnosis of your companion animal. There are specialists for animals just as
there are for humans.

3. Monitor your companion animal’s stay at the hospital or clinic. Ask
questions if you do not understand what services the veterinarian is tendering.
Trust your common sense.

4. If you suspect malpractice, immediately seek an independent and confidential
second opinion. If your animal has died, preserve the remains and quickly take
the body to another veterinarian (preferably a college of veterinary medicine)
for a necropsy to determine the cause of death.

5. Request all medical records regarding treatment, including x-rays if

6. If you have received a second opinion that supports your
concern about malpractice, immediately seek expert legal advice.

When Malpractice is
the Case

If you suspect that your companion animal was injured by
veterinary malpractice, there are several things that you can do.

First, send a complaint to your state veterinary licensing board. This is a
state agency, usually located in the capital, whose duties include the
investigation of allegations of wrongdoing by veterinarians, including
malpractice. State licensing boards have the power to suspend or remove a
veterinarian’s license, although this rarely happens.

Your complaint to a licensing board should be short, should fully identify
all of the parties, and state the facts as you know them. Demand that the
licensing board investigate your complaint and notify you of the results. A few
weeks after you mail the complaint, call the board and confirm that they
received it and have started the investigation. It is important that all
licensing boards receive valid complaints and encouragement to monitor the
practitioners in their state.

In addition, a complaint should be sent to the veterinary medical
association in the county where the veterinarian practices. Again, demand an
investigation and response. In some areas, the county veterinary association is
not listed in the telephone directory. You can locate the mailing address by
calling any veterinary clinic and asking for it.

A second approach to veterinary malpractice is hiring a lawyer to negotiate
a settlement or to bring a lawsuit. The biggest problem with bringing a lawsuit
is that, even if you win, you usually do not recover very much money. In this
country, an animal is viewed as an item of personal property according to the
law, and most courts limit recovery to the cost of replacing the companion
animal with another animal. Because of the low potential for a large recovery,
most lawyers are unable or unwilling to take veterinary malpractice cases on a
contingency basis, and it is possible that the pet owner would invest more
money in legal fees than can be recovered.

On the other hand, courts have recently begun to realize that a companion
animal is unique and cannot simply be replaced. Courts are beginning to permit
owners to recover the "reasonable sentimental value" of the companion
animals to the individual owners, as long as the sentiment is not
"excessive" or "maudlin." This can increase the potential
recovery from a few hundred dollars to perhaps a few thousand.

If you are not able to afford a lawyer, then consider going to small claims
court, where you can represent yourself. In small claims court, recovery will
be limited to "out-of-pocket" expenses. This includes only the money
you lost already as a result of the malpractice, and does not include loss of
your companion animal’s sentimental value. In any lawsuit, you will still be
required to secure expert testimony as to what act of negligence the
veterinarian committed.

Finally, you must understand that neither complaining to the
state veterinary licensing board, nor filing a lawsuit, will alleviate the
sense of loss that you feel. You must allow yourself to grieve fully. Check
with your local humane society to see whether they offer grief counseling sessions,
or talk with other owners who have lost their beloved animals. Also see ALDF’s
suggestions on Getting Through Grief for some compassionate advice for dealing with your animal’s death.

Also see ALDF’s Wrongful Death
or Injury of an Animal resource guide
for responses to commonly asked

For additional relevant information, see:

Related cases:


Related laws:


Revocation of license:


Contributions for this
article have been provided by Kenneth Ross and Thomas Kanyock, attorneys in
private practice who have handled numerous veterinary malpractice matters.

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