After the ratting-on-a-vet post from earlier this week I received an interesting story courtesy of a fellow vet. It detailed the subject of his own brush with a nearby state’s Veterinary Board a few years ago. Here’s the story, paraphrased, with some identifying details altered:

Vet sees a new client with a young black shepherd. After congratulating the owner on her stunning dog, vet innocently asks where said client sourced such a gorgeous creature. Client confesses to having found the dog. No microchip. No tags. No tattoo. And no signs, client says, when vet asks. Strange.

The next day calls flood every vet practice in town looking for a dog matching this one’s distinctive description. It seems a pet sitter lost the dog while bathing it two days ago. The owners cut their vacation short to come home and scour the city for it, personally calling every animal hospital first in case someone had hit it with their car or tried to determine whether it carried a microchip (this was in the days before microchips were as commonplace).

Vet then calls the black shepherd’s client and leaves messages to say he’s likely found the dog’s true owners. After a day or two of no returned phone calls, the dog’s owners arrive personally with signs to place in the waiting room. Vet tells father and young son he knows who might have the dog but that she’s not returned his calls. Vet hands over the telephone number, thinking he’s done good deed. The family is elated at the break in the case.

The family can’t get this woman to return their calls. They find the address using the number and arrive on her doorstep. She calls the police.

Eventually the dog is returned, but not without a fight. Client calls the Veterinary Board to file a complaint against the vet. Vet Board “investigates” and vet is sanctioned for disclosing client records without consent. It’s just a $500 fine but it’s also a mark on his public record and an embarrassment to him (lots of vets read the Board’s bulletins recording veterinary transgressions like this). And it’s just plain unfair, he thinks. After all, he did the right thing for the dog’s real family.

In retrospect, he wishes he had called the Board to find out how to handle such a case. “I wish it had been them the ones to see this kid’s face in my waiting room,” he writes.

Today’s more widespread microchip use makes this scenario easier to sort out, you might think. But they also add another level of complexity:

Say the dog had borne a microchip vet discovered upon first visit. Would it have helped to have this number in hand? What’s a vet required to do if he suspects someone of having stolen the dog? Call the police? Let the microchip registry know? What if the “owner” claims the microchip is registered to her? How would we ever know? Unfortunately, “stealing” pets is still a simple business, microchip or not.

We’d like to think that we vets would always do the right thing by the real owners but if this vet’s case is any example, getting involved must be done through appropriate legal channels. Having the true owners subpoena your records is costly, but it might’ve been the only avenue in this case.

Vets are not enforcers of the law. We’re not required to act in these cases. But we, more than others, are in a far better position to intercede. Too bad that in this example, as in so many others I’ve discussed here on Dolittler, the truism holds: no good deed goes unpunished.