The good Samaritan, the bad owner and the microchip


A veterinary team is torn between giving an irresponsible owner back his microchipped dog or letting a Good Samaritan who got him medical care take him in as her own.

Photo: Shutterstock.comMs. Cotswald brought a stray dog to Hess Animal Hospital claiming, in her best British vernacular, that he seemed “a bit unthrifty.” She was a kindhearted animal lover and excellent client. She let the hospital team know that the dog had been roaming the neighborhood for months before she took him in and gave him “a right proper home.”

The veterinary team was told to examine him and do whatever was necessary to assist him. As with all new patients, the dog had a complete physical exam and was scanned for a microchip. The scan turned up an AVID chip. The attending technician called the chip hotline and identified the dog's owner as Sam Reese, with an address about six blocks from where Ms. Cotswald lived.

At this point, the clinic manager called Ms. Cotswald and told her that they'd discovered the chip and determined the identity of the dog's owner. Ms. Cotswald was upset. She went on to say that the dog roamed the streets, was underfed and had fleas before she'd taken him in. In addition, she presented the dog for veterinary services and paid for the care, and she wanted the dog returned to her. She promptly came to the clinic and picked up “her” dog.

Meanwhile, the technician told the microchip company about the dog, and the company reached out to the registered owner. The next day the office manager received a call from Mr. Reese. He'd been informed that the dog had been at the clinic and he wanted Ms. Cotswald's contact information.

The office manager had mixed feelings. A clearly irresponsible pet owner wanted to take his dog from a loving, caring environment. It was time to speak to her boss.

Dr. Hess, after being updated on the situation, advised acting professionally and ethically. He told his team that the clinic could not release a client's private contact information without that person's permission. This meant Mr. Reese would have to call the authorities and ask them to contact the clinic with the necessary paperwork to procure the information.

In addition, Dr. Hess said, Mr. Reese should be advised that the dog was not being cared for in a responsible manner and that this had been noted in the dog's medical files. Finally, he said, Ms. Cotswald needed to be informed that the owner was pursuing the return of his dog.

Several days passed and the police contacted the clinic to obtain the name of the client who had presented the microchipped dog. The team made a follow-up call to Ms. Cotswald advising her of the official inquiry. Ms. Cotswald informed the clinic staff and the authorities that the dog had run away and was no longer in her possession.

Do you agree with the way the veterinary clinic handled the situation? Was the team obligated to contact the irresponsible owner after receiving the microchip information? Or should they have just treated the dog and returned him to Ms. Cotswald rather than getting involved in the drama?

Rosenberg's response

Clinical veterinary practice consists of medicine, surgery, drama and constant advocacy for our patients. There was no doubt that this dog was better off with the Good Samaritan than the irresponsible dog owner. Legally, it certainly was an issue. Morally, it was not.

The veterinary clinic took the proper steps. They informed the dog's owner of the legal process required to access the necessary information. They advised him that the dog was inadequately cared for and noted it in the record. In addition, they assisted the Good Samaritan as much as they possibly could. I might have gone further by encouraging the pet owner to give up the pet and mentioning the consequences of animal cruelty statutes in the area.

Unfortunately, irresponsible owners are a fact of life. As veterinarians we have to continue to call them out on their behavior as well as continuously educate them. It's a fine line to walk. Fortunately, in this case, the “dog ran away” excuse most likely meant he was safely moved to Ms. Cotswald's sister's house.

Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. In his private time, he enjoys playing basketball and swing dancing with his wife. Although many of his scenarios in “The Dilemma” are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.

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