Why don't veterinarians treat animals for free?

“Why don't we just treat it for free?” is a question that many pet owners have for veterinarians, especially in cases where the pet owner can’t afford treatment.

I’d like to start this discussion by reviewing a story that recently broke on TheDodo.com. I'm a big fan of The Dodo. I subscribe to their newsletter and follow them on social media. The Dodo makes me feel good about the world. Recently, a veterinarian was portrayed in The Dodo after he was supposed to euthanize a dog but decided to save him instead.

A Hero Veterinarian’s Story

A five-year-old dog was presented to a veterinary clinic in South Carolina for a "mass on its face." The veterinarian thought the dog was in pretty bad shape, but he also thought he could save this dog. The owner was given an estimate for what it would cost to treat the dog and declined. The dog’s owner elected to have her dog euthanized.

Instead of euthanizing this dog, as per the owner's request, the veterinarian had her “sign over” ownership to the veterinary clinic. He proceeded to raise money for treatment and successfully treated the dog. Everybody likes a feel-good story and this one certainly warms your heart. It portrays veterinarians as heroes helping animals who can't help themselves.

Man Wants to Re-Adopt Pet after Treatment

I'd like to turn your attention to another story, this one from Iowa. A man surrendered his dog to a local animal shelter and now wants to readopt it. The man claims he surrendered his dog to the animal shelter because he could not afford medical diagnostics and care after the dog was relinquished to the animal shelter.

After the dog was relinquished to the animal shelter, the shelter turned to social media where they raised over five thousand dollars to have the dog cared for and treated. The current co-director of the animal shelter said she was “blown away by the community's generosity” and that there were “a lot of animal lovers out there.”

But maybe there wasn't much love for the owner who wanted to readopt his pet. After he saw on social media that his dog had been treated, he wanted to readopt him. The dog's original owner points out that the shelter raised money from the community, so it didn't cost them anything to care for his dog. He asked, “What's the harm in allowing him to get his dog back?”

He goes on to say that he loves his dog dearly and only wants him back. He said it was a very difficult decision to relinquish his dog to the shelter, but financially he could not afford to give it the care it needed. He also claims that the shelter indicated that the dog was going to be euthanized, not treated.

As you can imagine, social media hasn't been too kind to the owner who relinquished his dog. These two cases raise some very interesting questions for veterinary professionals.

Why don't we just treat these cases for free?

The reason I bring these cases to my colleagues’ attention is because in both cases the owners were required to relinquish or give up their pet in order for it to receive free medical treatment or fundraising to assist the dog. Which is why I ask, “Why don't we just treat these cases for free?” In my veterinary clinics, we never believed in confiscating someone's pet in order to provide treatment. We provided an estimate for necessary services and allowed the owner to make that decision. We either treated the pet or we didn’t. If they couldn't (or wouldn’t) afford to pay and wanted us to euthanize a pet that we felt should not be euthanized, we refused.

As you might imagine, refusing to euthanize certain pets created some tense and heated moments for me and my staff. I felt that dealing with these sorts of potential conflicts (and highly charged emotions) was part of my professional responsibility to provide the best care for the patients that I served. It was also my professional obligation to refuse to do things that I felt were morally or ethically wrong.

In both of these cases, the original pet owners were judged as “unfit” to continue owning their pet. One “signed over” ownership to the veterinarian before free treatment was administered; the other relinquished their dog to a shelter and wasn’t immediately allowed to re-adopt after treatment (if ever). Both situations merit serious questions.