Last Spring in Miami several individuals were arrested for importing puppies found to have been hiding drugs—inside their bodies. These puppies are often forced to ingest large, indigestible capsules filled with drugs (usually heroin or cocaine) or have large bags surgically implanted in their bellies. Cruel and cowardly, this method of drug smuggling has become popular lately.

Here’s a personal story, from a vet’s point of view:

The US Customs official arrives unceremoniously and unannounced (no uniform, no polite phone call) just a badge and a random dog in a large crate in the back of a truck.  And he’s definitely got no warrant.

"This one’s a drug suspect and we need definitive confirmation by any means necessary." he says authoritatively.

Um—well—who's the legal owner? Why is there no warrant? Is this legal?

Think, Maria Full Of Grace, or rather, her pooch. And what Officer Friendly effectively wants is for you to tranquilize, anesthetize, then surgically explore Fluffy for any evidence of drugs in her body.

The suspect: one very scared-looking female Rottweiler with a recent scar on her abdomen. She’s been vomiting, has a high fever, and the incision site looks nasty. In other words, this is a big, fresh, dirty, red wound with no sign of effort to keep it clean. In fact, it looks like someone tried to hide it: no clipped hair, tiny stitches, etc.

So what am I supposed to do? In fact, this was not my case. But it could have happened in any hospital in Miami that day.

The doctor in charge of the case told Customs he’d be happy to use any non-invasive technique to make a determination (bloodwork, ultrasound, X-rays, etc.) but that, without a warrant, he could not treat the animal—even so much as give an antibiotic for the obvious infection.

Sad as that sounds, this is what the law says you have to do. The animal is someone else’s property. Customs told you so.  And you can’t make her well without the owner’s say-so any more than you can pick up your neighbor’s cat and have it neutered without her consent. A vet can be liable for the infraction (even if Fluffy lives and prospers) or worse; he can lose his license to practice medicine.

Had Joe Irresponsible walked in and said: "This is my dog, Fluffy. She had surgery in Columbia yesterday and now she’s sick. Fix her." You’d be more than a little suspicious but, what the hell, you’d love to save the dog and he’s willing to pay. You’re completely in the clear, unless you find a stash of drugs and don’t report it.

Had Customs walked in and shown you they were legally in possession of the dog, you’d be happy to do the work, as long as it`s in the dog`s best interest. Customs would then assume liability for any repercussions that might apply to this search and seizure—including loss of property, if she doesn’t make it.

Good Samaritan laws apply to some cases: If you run over a pet of your neighbors’ but can’t reach them immediately, you can make a good-faith effort to provide emergency care on their behalf. But if the government takes your sick dog at the airport, puts you in a holding cell, and tells a vet to look for drugs—now that’s another story; you might want to sue or discredit whomever had a hand in your misfortune.

It’s a sad story, but this happens in Miami more often than we know. I’d like to think Customs could find a legal way to make this process easier for veterinarians. We’d love to play a role in ending a practice that needs to be abolished but not at the risk of our professions.

Addendum: One of my clients, a recently retired Customs agent, informed me that dogs can be legally subjected to any medical procedure if any evidence exists that they might be smuggling drugs. They legally take possession of the animal for the time it is under surveillance. Unfortunately, Customs needs to be more diligent about bringing documentation to veterinarians that proves they are the legal custodians of the animal—and a check to pay for the procedure when services are rendered.