Don’t worry, I’m not about to out some underground society where vets don black robes and bird-like masks at midnight before foisting poor Fluffy into one another’s arms like a hot potato. It sure sounds a heck of a lot sexier than this sport’s daytime reality—and yet the real version might surprise you more than my pulp-fictional one.

Yes, vets sometimes play “hot potato” with pets. We tend to pass cases around when things get messy—either with owners (yes, people can be difficult) or with their pets’ complex medical conditions.

Most of the time this common form of patient shuttling is a benign undertaking that sends a sick pet in the direction of a specialist. But sometimes, pets suffer from a “get this case out of my hospital at all costs” kind of a maneuver—one usually employed as a protective measure. We all do it to some degree.

And that’s where things get gooey. When you know your patient’s caretakers can’t afford a specialist, where does a pet go when you refuse your services?

I have two of these cases in hospital right now. One is an intact male cat owned by two teen boys and their non English speaking mother. They’d been to two hospitals before ours and the lowest estimate they received for his life-threatening urinary obstruction was $800. But $100 was all they had to offer. Euthanasia was the only alternative they’d received—and the lowest estimate for that procedure was $150.

Let’s be honest—no one wanted to deal with the trickiness of this situation at 5 PM on a Friday. At the time, I was in surgery. I wanted to go home, too. I wanted them to go to the emergency hospital across the street and leave me in peace with my known-quantity, after hours emergencies. My receptionist begged (she’s a sucker for kids of all ages). I relented when I heard the cat was nearly dead. I offered to do what I could for their $100.

The second one? The worst kind of situation: An owner-agent (the true owner was out of the country). The pet had seen two vets before me. He’d had surgery a week ago for a foreign body in his stomach. And now the wound was horribly infected. Great.

This dog’s regular vet had not wanted him released. To his credit, he was doing all he could to treat the infection (a not-uncommon complication after gastrointestinal surgery). Unfortunately, though, the owner’s agent had lost faith in his veterinary skills subsequent to the serious infection, so she carted her friend’s dog over to her own vet.

The second vet did bloodwork, took X-rays and diagnosed peritonitis (a widespread abdominal infection which carries a poor prognosis without extreme intervention). Given the situation (owner out of town, severe disease), her vet refused to treat the patient. He expressly stated that 1) a specialist was necessary and 2) he did not want to be blamed for any complications arising from a second surgery. (By the way, this vet is a very smart guy—I know him well and he’s always got the right answers for situations like this.)

And that’s when this case hit my doorstep. I knew the owners’ agent through a good client, so I felt somewhat secure in knowing my recommendations would be respected and the bill eventually paid (a girl’s gotta eat). But I still had nothing but misgivings about taking this case on. I urged her to see the dog’s first vet again. She said she’d rather take him home to die in peace. What am I supposed to do when presented with that kind of information? I want door number two, the one the second vet picked. Isn’t there another one of those out there?

So now I’ve got two hot potatoes in the hospital, one which can’t pay and one which distinctly resembles a lawsuit in progress. My colleague (who happens to own the practice where I make my living) asked me some pointed questions when he observed both these cases today.

“Why us?” was the upshot of his uncomfortable interrogation. “I dunno,” I replied, “but I couldn’t say no so…why not?” He quoted the rising tide of lawsuits and the burgeoning cost of our supplies before caving: ”Yeah…why not?”

Actually, I could conjure up a dozen reasons why not. But I was too tired to argue with myself or with anyone else this week. You may have noticed how late this post is today. Yesterday’s came in late, too. When you start to see that happen, you know I’m tired.

At 5 o’clock today I met the owners of the now-recovering blocked kitty. I was exhausted. I’d gone home at 2 PM to take a much-needed nap and I wasn’t looking forward to meeting anyone anywhere. But when I finally got it together to unlock the back door for this little guy’s family, I was feeling a bit more human.

I showed them to their still-living, now-purring creature and that’s when all three of his owners got down on their hands and knees (I swear!) and cried at my feet in extremes of gratitude. Though I was somewhat shocked by this emotional outpouring (only in Miami), I have to admit to feeling some pride in my work. And why not? It’s not every day you get treated to such a gushing display of appreciation. It sure don’t pay the bills…but every once in a while it’s worth more than 800 bucks.

Now, if the Karmic formula holds true, this little dog with the raging peritonitis will survive his ordeal, too. We’ll just have to wait a few more days to see if this hot potato cools…