Every vet hospital has plenty opportunity to turn its unused cages into Adoption Central. I mean, why not give back to the community by using surplus space, material and staff time to place as many pets as possible?

It’s a goodwill gesture that makes staff happy, gives your clients cause to know how much you really care about animals and puts a huge smile on your face when your matchmaking efforts actually pay off.

At our hospital we place about one abandoned or stray pet every couple of weeks. Just yesterday our beloved Shakira (a small breed, eight-week pup someone dumped on our doorstep) went to her new home. Pretty, tiny, young and vivacious as her namesake, that one was easy to place—she lasted barely over a week before being snapped up.

Dumpings are one thing—you have to take ‘em. If they’re small we keep them in house. If they’re large and adoptable, we foster them at home (I take in about one a year, on average). If they’re absolutely unadoptable (very ill, aggressive, etc.) we call Animal Services…and everyone cries when they get picked up… Most, however, are easy enough to take on.

Adoptions of the abandoned are one thing…but sign-overs are another can of worms altogether.

Sign-overs occur when clients bring you pets they can no longer care for or whose treatment they cannot afford. Hospitals have the option of drafting a document that allows us to take over ownership of the pet to do as we like with them.

In these cases we’re free to treat them, take them home, give them away or euthanize them if we can’t alleviate their suffering or cure their disease. They belong to us now.

Though sign-overs are a humane option for placeable, treatable pets, lately it’s been getting to be harder for vet hospitals to do without cracking open that proverbial box of wigglies.

Vet hospitals all over the country have increasingly been treated to high-profile cases of supposed veterinary malfeasance when they take on this legal maneuver on a pets’ behalf.

Here’s a scenario: A dog is riddled with fleas, requiring a transfusion (or three) to nurse him back to health. The owners can’t afford it so they agree to sign him over to the hospital.

A week later the dog is living with a technician who fell in love with him. She paid for the basic materials for his care, her own dog provided blood for the transfusions and she’s in love with her new baby whose life she helped save.

Meanwhile, the previous owners have come back to the hospital saying they’ve changed their minds. The tech doesn’t want to give up the dog. He was poorly cared for by them. She’s offering an infinitely better home and she knows it. Her stance is etched in stainless steel. She’s willing to risk her job over it.

But the former owners are unrelenting. They call the local TV news and next thing you know the story’s out that X hospital steals dogs from their clients. Your clients make the phone ring off the hook, perhaps wondering how you, their vet, could have become so cruel when you’ve always been so caring…

A myriad of variations on this theme exist, some of them less exculpatory of the veterinarian than I’ve presented here, but most describe a situation where the vet was just trying to help the animal. Check out this recent story. And this one.

So it was that when a three year-old Dachshund come in last Wednesday, down in the rear with no deep pain (for over a week!), I’d had to fight with myself over having her signed over.

I didn’t know these people. They might change their minds next week and want her back. And I didn’t know whether she’d ever walk or not. So I gave up the battle by resigning myself to the euthanasia the owners had decided upon.

In a less contentious, less legalistic world I’d have taken on her care, as I did for another Dachshund four or five years back in almost the same exact condition. Those owners never called again. But it always worried me that they would and that the new home he’d gone to would suffer the separation and the knowledge that he’d had to return to a lesser home. Or that I’d be accused of having stolen him, forged their signatures, whatever…

It’s in these cases that veterinarians and hospital managers have been forced to adopt policies against sign-overs. The abandoned are hard enough to deal with and that’s where we should expend our energies. Sign-overs often simply serve to prove the axiom: No good deed ever goes unpunished.