I’ve never been comfortable with this situation (and who would be?):

A client walks in with a pet you haven’t seen in three years. His coat is a carpet of fleas. He’s lost half his body weight. His teeth are rotting out of his skull. The client confesses the pet’s been sick for three months.

“But he only just got really bad this week and my wife doesn’t want to pay any money if you can’t promise us he’ll get better.”

Meanwhile, the pet is suffering from severe abdominal pain, can’t keep down any food or water, and obviously needs immediate medical attention. What would you do?

In my case, here’s the plan:

1) Offer an estimate for the very vague condition we call, “acute abdomen.” This includes everything from X-rays and lab work to hospitalization, fluids and antibiotics––with the possibility of surgery built right in. And no guarantees. 

2) If the client can’t afford (or won’t pay) any of that, provide fluids, antibiotics and surreptitiously snap off a free set of X-rays.

3) When that doesn’t help you much, discuss euthanasia. 

4) Right about then is when you make the offer: “Look, your dog is suffering. That’s obvious. I can tell you don’t want to euthanize an animal just because you can’t afford this kind of care. Would you consider legally relinquishing him to our care? We promise we’ll do our very best to care for him and to find him a new home.” 

Ouch, right? For me, that last question feels wrong on so many levels. 

Consider: What right do I have to play the veterinary demi-god?...to decide who gets care and who gets put down?...to ask to take someone’s pet away under duress?...because I’ve decided they can’t properly take care of him?...or just so I can find him a new home that I deem more acceptable?

The arbitrariness of it all haunts me. Worse yet is that, in the end, I have no idea whether I can save this dog or not. 

That’s why, in many ways, asking owners to “sign over” their pets to our care feels more like an inadvisable, money-dumping, morally fraught spin of the roulette wheel than the act of charity it’s billed as. 

But what’s my alternative? Let them all die? Let this one go home to suffer because his owner can’t make up his mind or can’t bring himself to do the right thing? 

After all, most everything in life is arbitrary. Whether I step on this ant or that one, whether a baby is born in Kinshasa or Kansas, whether I adopt this one or let him die...

That's the reality of sign-overs. But that doesn't mean I have to surrender myself complacently to the act of making someone an offer he can't refuse.