THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Surgical strike: Should owner pay if dog dies?

Losing a pet is always painful, whether its death is the result of injury, illness, or old age. And when the loss is complicated by a dispute over the veterinarian's bill, it's easy for pain to evolve into anger. Take what happened to Sarah Hald. 

Hald took her four-year-old German shepherd, Bella, to Albemarle Veterinary Health Care Center (AVHCC) last January for knee surgery, which her veterinarian, Richard Freedman, had recommended. Freedman gave Hald an estimate that stated the surgery would cost $5,000, which he says she signed. 

Like many doctors, dentists, and veterinarians, AVHCC offers CareCredit, which allows patients and clients to finance expensive procedures through no-interest and extended-payment plans. According to an emailed account by Hald's mother, Sarah Graham, Hald filled out a CareCredit application– but claims the AVHCC office manager told her "it was just preliminary so that they would know if she qualified." Hald also planned to get a second job to pay the bill. (Hald, by the way, is an adult; she works as a paid paramedic in Madison and owns her own home.) 

The surgery was performed on a Tuesday, and at first everything seemed fine. Hald says she called several times to check on Bella in the following days, and the only concern was that she wasn't eating well. That wasn't unusual, however; her appetite always decreased when she was away from home. 

Bella was scheduled to be discharged on Monday, but because of Hald's work schedule, she arranged to pick the dog up on Tuesday. On Monday evening, however, Hald got a message saying that Bella wouldn't be ready after all, because the wound "wasn't closing well" and the dog would need to stay for a few more days. But on Wednesday, she died. 

Graham claims her daughter was "devastated and then shocked" that Freedman still expected her to pay for the surgery.

Graham and her husband got involved at that point, and told Freedman that Hald would not pay for the surgery. They also said that they wondered what had caused the systemic infection.

Shortly after Bella's death, Hald says, Freedman called to ask her permission to perform an autopsy. He had vaccinated Bella prior to the surgery, and Freedman said that after talking to the vaccine's manufacturer, they were thinking that Bella might have had an adverse vaccine response. This didn't get confirmed "one way or another," he says, but added that it "doesn't look like" it was the cause of death.

Graham claims the family heard no more from Freedman until, in June, Hald got a bill from AVHCC for $1,500; the balance, $3,500, had been charged to CareCredit. This came as a shock to Hald, her mother says, because she had not authorized the charge. 

Freedman says it wouldn't have been a shock if Hald had read the letter he claims he sent by certified mail on March 1. According to Freedman, post office records show that Hald was notified on March 9 that the letter needed to be picked up and again on March 20, with no response. The letter was then returned to AVCHH.

Freedman asserts that Bella's death "had nothing to do with the surgery" and that it simply wasn't possible to pin down the cause of the systemic infection that set in afterward.

I spoke with veterinarian Donald Bergstresser, who said that one option for a pet owner in a similar situation would be to request an independent autopsy. The state charges $77 for this service at the Lynchburg office of the Department of Agriculture's Animal Health and Welfare division; Virginia Tech's school of veterinary medicine is another option. As for ever determining what caused the infection that killed Bella, unfortunately, it's too late now.

Hald has disputed the $3,500 charge to CareCredit, and Freedman says he hasn't yet taken steps to collect the $1,500 balance. So for now, at least, the entire amount is in limbo.

If Bella had been a human, Freedman asks, would anyone expect the cost of her care to be written off when she died? In the complicated– and often painful– matter of deciding whether to proceed with expensive surgery or other treatments, that's a question worth bearing in mind.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second St. NW, Charlottesville 22902.