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Can a vet legally hold a pet if owner can't pay the bill?

Discussion in 'Cat Health' started by ziggy'smom, Oct 21, 2011.

  1. ziggy'smom

    ziggy'smom Thread Starter TCS Member Alpha Cat

    Feb 15, 2010
    I'm doing an internship at a vet clinic and there is a situation I'm wondering about and find rather strange. A client brought in a stray she had found and the clinic accepted that cat. Because the poor kitty is extremely skinny they did a bunch of tests on him and started treatment. Three days later the person who found the cat located the owners who had posted on some website when the cat went missing. It turns out he's been out for a month and a half and probably has not been able to feed himself which is why he's so skinny.
    The owners came into the clinic to get their cat, that they wanted, back but at this point a bunch of treatment had been done and the bill was $180. The clinic wasn't charging for everything they had done but they were charging for the testing and meds, I believe. The owners didn't have the money and somehow the cat was given up to the clinic. The owners were really sad about that but just couldn't come up with the money. The clinic rationalized keeping the cat when they couldn't pay the bill by saying that had he gone to a shelter there would also have been a fee to pick him up from there. But even if there was a fee it's not $180.

    The cat is being well cared for now and will be rehomed but I just think the whole situation is sad and unfair. I understand that it costs a lot of money to care for a cat and that at any time the cat could need $180 worth of vet care and if the owners don't have that then maybe they can't care for the cat. That is the opinion of the clinic anyway. But for a lot of people $180 is a lot of money and nothing they can just come up with just like that. In my opinion that doesn't mean that they can't provide a good home for THEIR cat. Ideally every pet should be in a home where the owners can afford needed vet care but I don't think that just because you don't have the money right now that you should not be allowed to get your cat back. They didn't ask for all that blood work and stuff to be done and I don't think they should be faced with having to pay it or lose the cat they've had for six years who they clearly missed and have looked for.

    This family is apparently an immigrant family who speaks limited English and I can imagine felt that they had no choice but to give up their cat. But I'm wondering if legally they would have a choice. This situation is settled. The cat is staying at the clinic for now. But I'm wondering if, in a situation like this, the owners would decide to challenge the clinic's demand to pay the bill or give up the cat if they could get their cat back? Can a vet legally refuse to give back a pet if the bill is not paid? Especially if the owners didn't authorize the bill to be run up in the first place?

  2. rafm

    rafm TCS Member Super Cat

    Jul 29, 2011
    I don't know about legally but ethically, yeah, I'd have a problem with that vet. Could they not have set up a payment plan with this family? Couldn't they have tried something to get this animal back to its family?

    I know that I return any unused medications back to my vet when we lose a kitty so that they can provide those meds to another family that may not have the financial resources we have. I'm thankful our vet is open to that.

  3. mrblanche

    mrblanche TCS Member Veteran

    Jan 28, 2008
    My guess is that the folks would not have paid more than the first payment to the vet if there had been some arrangement made. Once the cat left the office, what's the vet going to do? Repossess the cat?

    Here's my take on it. The vet did the cat (and the owners, and the finder) a kindness by taking the cat in when they had no prospect of getting paid for working on a stray. The vet's office doesn't work for free. It can't. Someone has to bear the cost of the treatment.

    In addition, the vet may have had some perception that the cat had been neglected and wanted to save it from that. Who knows?

    Now if we could just get the emergency room to do this with the kids that come in clearly neglected.... [​IMG]

  4. ldg

    ldg TCS Member Veteran

    I find this situation really odd. It was wonderful of the vet practice to take in the stray cat - I guess.

    The way we wound up with Flowerbelle was that a couple found a dying white kitten in a liquor store parking lot. Her eyes were glued shut, she was badly sunburned, she'd been attacked by something, she was starving. Gary happened to be at the vet when they brought her in. The vet practice says, we're so sorry, we're not a shelter. (Now they have a list of foster networks and shelters with phone numbers available - they didn't at the time). They said that to leave the kitten there for care, they would have to accept financial responsibility for her. They recommended they contact shelters for help.

    Well, they were going to put her back where the found her, and Gary intervened. That's a different story...

    But it seems to me the person that found the cat and brought it to the vet should have been responsible for her care. Either that, or the vet practice, having accepted the cat, should have been responsible for the cat! It's a very happy happenstance that the cat COULD have been reunited with its owners. But had they not been found - who would have been financially responsible for the cat?

    IMO, the owners of the cat are not responsible for this. It would be wonderful if they could have afforded it, and this was no issue. But it highlights a problem... and, IMO, is a reason why vets aren't shelters. Shelters are non-profit, a vet wants to get paid at least cost for the services.

    The vet should either have the person dropping the cat off take financial responsibility, or not expect remuneration when they do a good samaritan kind of thing. And they should have a list of shelters/foster networks/rescue orgs available with the contact information. [​IMG]

  5. MoochNNoodles

    MoochNNoodles TCS Member Veteran

    Apr 30, 2005
    Where my cats are
    Wow that is sad!!

    I can see where the vet's office is coming from; but I think I'm with Laurie on this one. Because they didn't ask. They couldn't have expected to find the owners. They probably should not have taken the cat; or should have helped the people who found her get her to a shelter that could help.

  6. sweetpea24

    sweetpea24 TCS Member Alpha Cat

    In Ontario, a.clinic cannot legally withhold someone's cat if they are unable to pay the bill. All we really can do is send them to collections. Keep in mind that in a typical situation, the client.is told the approximate cost of treatment or signs an estimate. If.they sign it, that.means they have agreed to the treatment AND to pay the estimate amount.

    However, in this particular case, the owners didn't have an estimate to sign. So this complicates things.

    At my clinic, we don't take in strays. We refer to the humane society. They are responsible for the cat's care. This avoids situations like the one in your clinic.

    I don't think your clinic had the right to keep .the cat because they didn't have agreement from anyone. It seems they jumped the gun in doing the tests....mind you, depending on what tests were run, maybe they were taking precautions in case the cat had a contagious illness. Why didn't they give the cat to a shelter? On one hand, they did the owner a.favour and accepted the cat. Since they didn't know if the cat had an owner or not, they shouldn't have expected payment.

    However, (again) if the owners aren't able to pay $180, should they really be caring for a cat? I know that sounds cruel but if a clinic did a $180 favours for everyone, it wouldn't survive. What if they had found their cat on their own and it had been attacked by another animal and needed care? A laceration repair would cost considerably more than $180. What if the other animal had rabies or some other communicable disease? What if he cat developed hepatic lipidosis because of lack of food? I suppose then they would have a choice in whether to treat or not but if they didn't treat, I would think that would border on cruelty.

    What a tough situation. I sympathize with those who are financially strapped but as someone who works in a clinic, I have seen the tears and heard the promises when we've offered a payment plan (and the owner has signed a contract), and we see no payment. In one case, a woman owned five cats two of which were not fixed. So of course, the female got pregnant. The.woman told me none of her cats are vaccinated because she couldn't afford it. Her cat needed a.c-section. So we offered to do the c-section and spay for $300. That is the cost of a small dog spay at my clinic. Her son promises and signed a contract that $100 would be paid each month for the next three months. That was back in December 2010. We have yet to see the money even though they repeated their promises.
    But, I think your clinic jumped the gun and really shouldn't have expected payment even though they didn't charge for everything. They could have waited a.week to see if the cat was going to be claimed. But maybe they felt that if the family can't pay $180: then maybe the cat should be rehomed to someone who can. Ugh.

  7. gareth

    gareth TCS Member Top Cat

    Dec 19, 2003
    In the UK this cannot happen. The vet can refer the client to a debt collection agency or to the courts, but cannot hold an animal hostage.

    If someone actually tried to do that with my cat then I suspect my toys would have an "out of pram experience" and a drama would unfold.

  8. ducman69

    ducman69 TCS Member Top Cat

    Sep 18, 2010
    In Texas, animals are considered property, and I believe the courts would be lenient on holding the property until payment is made, as either a written or verbal contract is in place (both of which have equal strength). After all, if I took my car to the body shop, and tried to pick it up without paying them... no way the court would side with me.
    A veterinary clinic is a business. If its not profitable, then it goes out of business. Its that simple. So, no, they can't work for free and hope that just maybe they might get paid in the future.

    Having worked at a hospital for human patients, I can guarantee you that 99% of the time the people that can't pay up front and don't have insurance don't pay... ever. Working the night shift, at least half the people coming in were just gang bangers or illegal aliens, they can't pay, and that is the reason that medical care is so expensive as the one person we can charge has to pay for the other two people we couldn't bill. The cash has to come from somewhere.

    If I were a vet, to avoid my services being habitually abused, I could either:
    1) Turn away sick cats until payment can be verified
    2) Heal the sick cats, but hold them or adopt them out if the owner won't take financial responsibility

    I would definitely side with the latter option, as that way at least the cat is doing well and the owner if it at all cares about the animal will pony up the cash when held, and if not is probably not financially secure enough to be able to provide proper care for the cat in the first place.

    The other option of course is to do like our people hospitals and just absorb the financial hit and try to pass it on to all the other innocent people that have always paid their bills. This is usually not fair and renders the clinic noncompetitive in the long term... which we figured out, our hospital closed down and all the nurses were laid off that couldn't be reassigned to other hospitals.

  9. ldg

    ldg TCS Member Veteran

    This isn't an applicable comparison though. This problem would be... you left your car in a shopping mall parking lot and couldn't remember where you left it. You left the keys in it, and some good samaritan drove it to the body shop, because it had peeling paint and the engine didn't sound right when they started it up. The body shop took the car, ran diagnostics and fixed it up without requesting that the person who dropped it off be responsible financially for the car. Then they ran the plates, contacted you, and told you if you wanted your car, you'd have to pay for it.

    You didn't have money for that in your budget, and the car was still running, and the body work was cosmetic. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with your car.

    What should have happened is that the good samaritan should have called the police, who would have run the plates and contacted you. You would have then gone to retrieve your car. Perhaps it was towed, and you had to pay a fee. But that fee would not have been the same cost as repairing your car.
    otto purraised this.

  10. ziggy'smom

    ziggy'smom Thread Starter TCS Member Alpha Cat

    Feb 15, 2010
    I don't think this issue was really about the money. When the clinic accepted the cat they didn't know if an owner would be found or not so they accepted the cost. When the owners were found they just didn't want to give them anything for free. Now that the cat has been surrendered to the clinic it's going to cost even more and the clinic will eat that so it can't be about the money.
    Apparently this clinic does this once in a while. They have taken in some strays and litters of kittens, fixed them up and placed them in homes. They don't take any cat that is brought in though. This one was brought in by a good, long time client and the clinic did her a favor by taking the cat.
    I think they did the right thing taking the cat and not having him taken to a shelter. Around here the only shelters that will take a cat on short notice are town or county pounds or other high kill shelters and the cat would have gotten little care there. He could very well have been euthanized too since he was so skinny. A shelter don't have the money to figure out if the cat is skinny because he hasn't eaten and just need some food and time to get better or if he's skinny because he's sick and will need a bunch expensive vet care. They just stay on the safe, cheap side and euthanize the cat just in case. So if you want to help the cat you don't take him to one of these shelters.
    Had they demanded that the finder pay the bill the cat would probably not have been left there and would have been taken to the pound so I think the clinic did the right thing by not demanding that either.

    What I think they should have done is eaten the bill just like they are doing now or just charged the owners for their actual, tangible costs. Giving 100cc of sub-q fluids doesn't really cost the clinic the $30 they charge. It costs less than a dollar. The blood work is done in house and doesn't cost that much either. I understand that there are other costs involved like staff wages, rent and upkeep of the building but those are things that are paid regardless of whether or not the cat is there.
    They didn't want to bill the owners because they couldn't be out the money. They wanted to bill the owners out of principle that they shouldn't get all this vet care done for free since they benefit from it. They also didn't think that the owners could properly care for the cat since they didn't even have $180 for necessary vet care. I can understand that and I agree that if you're going to have a pet you have to be able to give them what they need. But then again I'm not sure if that's the vet's office's decision to make. And they don't know if the owners are maybe just facing a temporary hardship and would normally be able to pay for vet care. This cat is a beloved family member and he's wanted. The family shouldn't have to lose their cat because they don't have $180 right now for a bill that they didn't run up. I would be devastated if I was in that situation. What if your cat got out, got hit by a car, was brought to the vet and had a $1000 surgery and then you were told that you have to pay the $1000 bill or you can't get your cat back because the vet thinks that you're not a good enough owner if you can't pay for the surgery he thought was needed?

    I also think it's unfortunate that this cat will now take up one of the few homes available for adult cats, and one of the very few who will adopt a black cat, when he already had a home and there are so many other black cats out there that have no other options.

  11. auntie crazy

    auntie crazy TCS Member Top Cat

    Feb 4, 2006
    Payment of necessary vet care = responsible cat owner. And knowing the price of standard tests, I'm betting the $180 wasn't a standard "over-the-counter" cost, but was scaled down to the bare minimum.

    First - the actual care was for only $180 dollars, not a grand. Second - I'd find a way to pay the $1000, thank the clinic for saving my cat, thank the woman who cared enough to take the time and effort to bring my cat to someone who would care for him, and then ensure my "beloved" cat was safely inside for good.


  12. ldg

    ldg TCS Member Veteran

    [​IMG] I think it's very sad the clinic is deciding who's worthy of owning a cat or not based on an ability to pay at that particular time. There may well be another vet that would let them make payments if there were ever an issue and kitty needed care.

  13. presto

    presto TCS Member Adult Cat

    Aug 6, 2010
    New York City
    If an owner cannot (or will not) pay $180 to retrieve their pet, then they are not fit owners, and should not keep animals in the first place. I strongly reject the "animals are property" argument, even though it is law in most states, if not all. If the owner wants to enforce his/her legal rights, than file a lawsuit. In the meantime, if I were the vet, I would find the animal a good home. If and when I am taken to court, the very worst that can happen (as per that stupid law) is that I would have to pay the "market value" of the animal (which isn't much).

    I am outraged by the notion that someone can't/won't pay $180 to retrieve their "lost" cat. I am also suspicious of the extent to which this "owner" even tried to find the cat. If the owner had instead TAKEN the cat to the vet, and subsequently conceded that they could not afford to pay the bill, that is a completely different matter.

  14. ldg

    ldg TCS Member Veteran

    The cat was lost, and the owners DID post trying to find their lost pet.

    We know nothing about the situation of the people's whose pet it was. When you get fired, have health problems and lose your insurance but don't qualify for medicare, let's see how you feel about having $180 lying around handy. Should we expect everyone who's down on their luck to rehome their cats?

  15. ducman69

    ducman69 TCS Member Top Cat

    Sep 18, 2010
    We should expect everyone who can't afford even a mere $180 medical bill to not expect the service for free at the expense of the clinic and/or all the other fur-families using their service, and for the vet to try and find a more financially stable caretaker that can afford to properly care for the cat's needs (food/shelter/healthcare).

    Getting credit for $180, unless already ruined by reneging on a string other promises ruining their rating, shouldn't be that difficult for someone that really cares for the cat and is in a position to take care of it IMO.

  16. ldg

    ldg TCS Member Veteran

    Well there have definitely been times when Gary and I didn't have $180 on hand to pay, and would have had to wait a couple of weeks if they weren't willing to make payment arrangements, and I think we're damn good kitty parents. When life takes a turn for the worse, your credit card is usually maxed out shortly after making payments. We don't have friends we would feel comfortable borrowing money from, and family can't help. We've already sold everything we can.

    But waiting a couple of weeks wasn't an option, and would only have made the bill go up.

    We've worked with our vet for 10 years, and they know that if we can't pay now, we can pay later, so even though we're down on our luck, our cats don't suffer lack of proper care. These people didn't have that opportunity. They didn't choose that vet, they didn't choose to have their cat go missing.

    If a vet is going to get into the rescue business, they should base their decisions on whether or not someone is a "fit" owner on more than just someone's ability to pay $180 right then and there. Did they ask for current vet references?

    Just because someone is on a fixed income or has become unemployed is, IMO, no reason to deny returning a cat to its home.
    lotso'cats purraised this.

  17. ducman69

    ducman69 TCS Member Top Cat

    Sep 18, 2010
    But a veterinarian and clinic are specialized in healing cats.

    They aren't specialized in making financial loans and setting up and enforcing payments and collection agencies and the like.

    There are plenty of businesses however that ARE specialized in setting up loans with payment plans, and these are the people you would approach to borrow the $180 from to pay the vet, not the vet themselves.

    Payday Loans, QuickCash, Horizon, SecureCash, and other such guys are in that business. Most major banks have short term sub $1500 loans available as well. Heck, I remember hearing radio commercials for income tax refund advance loans. [​IMG]

  18. ldg

    ldg TCS Member Veteran

    Which is exactly why they shouldn't be in the rescue business. The person dropping off the cat should be made to be financially responsible. If not, they should be told to contact a shelter.
    otto purraised this.

  19. crumbandharvey

    crumbandharvey TCS Member Adult Cat

    Aug 5, 2011
    Ridgewood, Queens

    Your cat runs out the door, you search for it at least enough to put an online posting up (and likely more than that), and weeks later you find out your cat is at a vet you don't know and you owe them $180? If the vet expected payment for the services rendered for the at that point "stray" cat, the vet should have gone to the good samaritan rescuer. It is a complete fluke that the owners were found. Will the new adopting family be expected to pay the $180 bill now? I expect not. So the new family will likely only pay an adoption fee. The vet will eat the cost. Why couldn't the vet do the same for the ACTUAL owners?

  20. ducman69

    ducman69 TCS Member Top Cat

    Sep 18, 2010
    The cat was emaciated, out for over a month with next to no food as I understand it.

    Yes, the vet could have simply said, "no I'm not going to nurse this cat back to health before payment". If Wesley or Buttercup were turned away, frankly, I would be pissed. I would much rather veterinarians help sick cats when they can and worry about payment after. And if a vet had rescued my cat, I would be very thankful they did everything they could to nurse them back to health, and it wouldn't even cross my mind that I could collect them and not pay for the very reasonable medical cost.

    Lesson learned for responsible pet owners is that you also need to have some way to identify your cat so that when found people CAN call you. Wesley and Buttercup are microchipped and tattooed, and when there is a possibility of getting out (vet trips or guests over) wear ID'd collars w/ my contact info.

    Pet ownership entails a certain bare minimum level of responsibility.

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