Divorce leads to dueling pet owners
Who controls an animal’s care when its owners split up? Things can get nasty, and the veterinarian may be caught in the middle.
For the last 10 years, the Kings have been dedicated, conscientious clients. As a cherished member of the family, their dog Cookie rarely missed a scheduled appointment for vaccines or other preventive care. Recently it was noted that Cookie was overdue for vaccinations and the bloodwork required to renew the dog’s arthritis medication. In response to a second reminder, Mrs King called the clinic to ask that Cookie’s records be placed in her name only and the contact information updated. She diplomatically explained to the receptionist that she and Mr King were no longer together and that she now was the dog’s sole owner. The receptionist was appropriately sympathetic and changed the information per Mrs King‘s request.
The next day, Mr King called the clinic to make the very same request that his estranged wife had made the day before. Unsure what to do, the receptionist staff sought guidance from the hospital administrator, who asked several questions. Were both Mr and Mrs King listed on the client record? Who had signed off on treatment and surgical authorizations in the past? When it became clear that both parties were equally represented in the pet’s records, individual calls to Mr and Mrs King were in order.
The administrator first called Mrs King and advised her of the conflict the veterinary clinic was facing. They wanted to provide Cookie with all appropriate care, but in view of the current circumstances it was not clear who was empowered to authorize that care. When asked if there was a legal determination as to who now owned Cookie, Mrs King said that although there was no legal order giving her full ownership of the dog, Cookie was hers before the couple married so she believed she was entitled to ownership now that they had split up. At this point, the hospital administrator asked Mrs King if she could speak with her estranged husband and decide between them who would authorize and pay for the pet’s treatment going forward. Mrs King declined to speak to her husband about the issue, noting that because the dog was now living with her she was the dog’s caretaker and decision maker. The hospital administrator concluded the conversation without any clear-cut answer as to who owned and was responsible for the dog’s health care.
What to do? The administrator wanted to ensure that the dog’s medical needs were met and that someone was committed to taking responsibility for payment and direction of the dog’s care. It also was important that the clinic not be placed in legal jeopardy. Clinic leadership decided that the practice would consider Mr and Mrs King as co-owners of Cookie until a legal document specifically defining ownership was made available. Until that time, whenever Cookie was presented for treatment, the co-owner who was not present would be contacted and asked to consent to the dog’s recommended care. The only exception to this protocol would be emergency care when time was of the essence.
The hospital administrator knew she had made a good decision when she presented these terms to Mr and Mrs King, neither of whom was happy with the terms but agreed to abide by them. She knew that the sign of a healthy compromise was an agreement in which neither party is fully satisfied with the outcome.
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It is the nature of a general veterinary practice to be a frontline family resource. The emergency contact numbers affixed to a refrigerator door or posted in another strategic household location often include those of the family’s doctor, dentist, and veterinarian. Many veterinarians enter the field not only to care for pets in need but also to avoid the challenges and problems of the families they live with. That is an unrealistic expectation. People and their pets are intimately connected, and that connection extends directly to the veterinarian. Mr and Mrs King are a prime example. This situation was challenging for everyone involved, but it clearly demonstrated just how much people love their companion pets. In the end, as veterinary professionals, what more could we ask for?
Marc Rosenberg, VMD, is director of Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. Although many of the scenarios Rosenberg describes in his column are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors, and employees described are fictional.