After you’ve rescued a puppy from a nasty foreign body to the tune of an easy-handed bill for $800 the owner claims he left his wallet in the car. He then tucks Fluffy under his arm and skedaddles, never to be heard from again. That was a couple of years back. (This, after I did him a “favor” on the bill as those of you whose pets have had foreign body surgery can attest.)

This scenario has played out for me more than a couple of times. It’s a riff on the old “dine and dash” technique. But in veterinary medicine it’s not really akin to the “burger-hold-the-pickles-and-up-charge-me-for-the-mash-instead-of-fries.”

Nope. These are typically big bills we’re talking about. And, in case you’re wondering, it’s considered every bit as illegal as lifting a necklace from the jewelry store. But in our case it’s called “theft of services,” not “shortage.” (btw, we suffer “shortage,” too, we just call it, “Heartgard walking out the back door,” instead). 

One of my enterprising colleagues decided to take matters into his own hands this week when he suffered the veterinary version of the “dine and dash.” After one of only two appointments of the morning decided to try the “I left my wallet…” trick, he decided to try his luck with law enforcement. A police officer intervened and the bill was [almost] immediately paid.

“Cool!” I said. Next time this happens to me I’m going to give it a go!

And why not? I reasoned. Theft is theft, whether you’re losing inventory or getting held up at the Quickie-Mart. Why should the fact that a service was provided mean you’re more entitled to abscond on your bill? Would you leave your dentist without paying? Your hairdresser’s? Why wouldn’t you cough up your doc’s co-pay? Or remunerate the nanny.

But the reality is that the powers-that-be aren’t always so attuned to the plight of the distressed service provider as they were in my colleague’s case. That’s because theft of services is hard to prove. Sometimes it’s your word against hers…

…and she says you “stole her dog” or some other such false nonsense.

Next thing you know the news media is at your door instead of the police. (This happened to one of my fair-minded colleagues.) Or perhaps the “client” claims he has no money and says he promises to pay in X days, in which case the cops disappear, satisfied with having “resolved” a common dispute.

In either case, it’s sometimes difficult for veterinarians to prove we were truly swindled—especially when an adorable kitten is obliviously curled up in a happy little ball in the alleged evildoer’s arms.

And then there’s the legal way to commit theft of services: Just pay with American Express and dispute your bill for whatever reason. I’ve never heard of AmEx declining to side with the cardholder…ever...which is why so many service providers refuse to accept AmEx.

This happened to me when a client refused to pay for a life-saving blood transfusion after a severe flea infestation. She took her cat home, happy as a clam, only to call back a few days later claiming she never authorized the transfusion and on those grounds was disputing the entire bill. AmEx debited our account without bothering to call. Nice.

So you know, we handle cases like this every week at my hospital. It’s true that few are so egregious as the above examples, but it’s not rare for a regular client to continue to rack up our receivables based on “I’ve been coming here for thirty years.” Sure, it’s our fault for continuing to see them with an open invoice from the past—but I don’t own the place so I can’t really put my foot down, right?

I know you Dolittler readers would never do such a thing. I also recognize that there are some legitimate reasons for refusing to pay your vet bill. And I’m still leery of calling in the cops, much though I love my colleague’s tale of the deadbeat’s comeuppance.