Pet owner who gave up ailing pup was told she must pay to get it back

  • Article by: LORA PABST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 15, 2009 - 11:21 PM

In weighing costly treatment, she signed the dog over to the veterinarian's office.

Pat Bergstrom held Holly, the mother of the litter of Shih Tzu mix puppies

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Pat Bergstrom watched over her tiny 3-week-old Shih Tzu puppy as its taut stomach heaved with each labored breath. A few hours later in the veterinarian's office, Bergstrom was weighing whether to pursue costly testing or let the puppy die.

Then the vet suggested another possibility -- turn the puppy over to the animal hospital and it would try to save the animal.

"I can't afford thousands of dollars, what else could I do?" Bergstrom said. "I just signed through my tears."

Dr. Adam Hurlbut, the owner of Kelley Animal Hospital in Lexington, said his office believed Bergstrom wanted it euthanized.

"[W]e decided that in order to save the life of a potentially treatable 3-week-old puppy, we would offer Ms. Bergstrom the option of legally surrendering the puppy," he said in a statement. The dog recovered and was placed in an adoptive home, but now Bergstrom has filed a complaint against the vet, saying she was misled about the puppy's condition.

As tough economic times continue, the number of sick pets "relinquished" to veterinarians increases. The confrontation between Bergstrom and Kelley Animal Hospital is an argument against the practice, veterinary leaders say.

John King, the executive director of the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine, said he strongly discourages veterinarians from taking over pets from owners, but he acknowledges that might require vets to euthanize an animal that could be saved.

"Often times it comes back to bite them in the backside," he said.

No other options

Late on a Friday afternoon at the beginning of June, Bergstrom, a special education teacher from Blaine, noticed that one of the puppies in the litter was struggling to breathe and appeared to be in pain. She hurried to the Kelley Animal Hospital before it closed for the weekend.

The puppy lay in her lap on top of a hot water bottle as she discussed the possible causes with Dr. Lisa Heitmiller. Hurlbut and Bergstrom disagree about what was said, but copies of the patient records from Kelley Animal Hospital show what options were presented.

The record lists four options: take the puppy to the University of Minnesota for an ultrasound, give it medication for the pain and take it home, sign the puppy over to the clinic, or euthanize the animal.

Hurlbut said Heitmiller was not able to make a diagnosis without further tests, so she presented as many options as she could to Bergstrom, including taking the puppy home to monitor it. While Hurlbut said Bergstrom asked to have the dog euthanized, she vehemently denies that.

"The way she phrased it made me feel like if I left with that puppy, it would die," Bergstrom said. "I felt I had no other options."

On June 5, Bergstrom signed a two-line form that concluded: "I understand I am signing over my rights to Kelley Animal Hospital because I decline any further medical treatment for my puppy."

A few days later, Bergstrom said she received a voicemail from Heitmiller saying that the puppy was doing much better. The records say that Heitmiller was still unsure what caused the puppy's distress, but that she suspected nasal congestion and labored breathing caused by gas.

Bergstrom said she was confused because she thought the puppy would die without extensive medical treatment. She hoped Heitmiller would offer to return the puppy so it could be with its mother and siblings.

Hurlbut said his office manager did offer to return the puppy to Bergstrom if she would pay for the care the puppy had received when Heitmiller took it home, but Bergstrom refused. From Bergstrom's perspective, since she had already paid $220 for veterinary care, she said she thought it was ridiculous that she would be asked to pay more.

Three days later, the animal hospital sent Bergstrom a letter saying that the puppy had been turned over to a new home.

Bergstrom has filed suit in Anoka County Conciliation Court seeking more than $600 for the cost of the puppy, the puppy's medical care and court costs.

She's also considering a complaint with the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine.

After hearing about Bergstrom's case, King said if she brings her case to the state's veterinary board it will go through an investigative process, just like every complaint, to determine if any action against the veterinarian is warranted.

"What this comes down to is money and who is going to spend it and who's going to take the risk to care for the animal," he said. "That's the unfortunate horrid situation that animal owners and vets are placed in in these types of situations."

He said pet owners need to be prepared to pay for veterinary care and make tough decisions based on the information the vet can provide at the time. Vets can make the choice to treat an animal for free, he said, but they can't save every pet that shows up in their clinic.

Lora Pabst • 612-673-4628

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