WRAL Investigates

NC veterinary board punishments for accidents, neglect too soft, pet owners say

Posted May 1

— Mike Vaughan's dog, Gunner, was like a child to him. They went everywhere together.

Gunner disappeared in March 2014 while running on land owned by one of Vaughan's friends. Vaughan found Gunner the next day at a local animal shelter after he had been hit by a car.

The dog had a broken leg, so Vaughan took it to Veterinary Specialty Hospital in Raleigh to be treated.

"I (told the veterinarians) 'Go ahead with the surgery,'" he said. "I wanted him fixed so we could start over rehabilitating his leg."

Dr. David Lee fixed Gunner's leg and inserted some hardware – a plate and some pins attached internally – to help the dog heal. At some point after the first surgery, the plate bent, prompting a second procedure to fix it.

Vaughan took Gunner home, but the dog's condition didn't improve. So, Vaughan took Gunner to another vet.

"He called me back about two hours later, and he was like, 'Mr. Vaughan, I don't know how Gunner's still alive,'" Vaughan said. "He's got an infection in his stomach that should have been noticed after his first X-ray."

It was too late. Vaughan had to put Gunner down.

NC board works 'for the people and the animals'

Pets like Gunner are important parts of many families, and when they get sick or hurt, people treat them as they would any family member in seeking care.

As with doctors for humans, though, things can go wrong at the vet's office.

When that happens, the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Board comes in. The board's job is to determine if a mistake was an accident or neglect, which can lead to punishment for a veterinarian.

Executive Director Tod Schadler and attorney George Hearn say the state board handles, on average, 60 complaints a year for the more than 3,000 licensed veterinarians in North Carolina. An investigating committee interviews everyone, pores over medical records and determines whether the vet is at fault.

"This board does not work to protect the veterinary profession," Schadler said. "Our job is for the people and the animals of this state. The profession doesn't enter into it."

Sandra Mariotte is one of the people the board is supposed to represent.

Mariotte took her four dogs to Banfield Animal Hospital in Knightdale to get check-ups. Two were also having dental work.

Banfield misidentified the dogs and ended up sedating two dogs that had serious, and previously diagnosed, heart issues. One of the dogs, Snowball, was supposed to go in for a check-up but ended up having seven teeth pulled and was given medication based on the weight of another dog.

"They switched the two Chihuahuas," Mariotte said. "One being a dark brown, one being a blonde. But they did Tara instead of Trinka. They (also) did Snowball, who's 6 pounds. Coconut, who's 12 (pounds), they gave (Snowball) medications, all the medication for a 12-pound dog."

The mistake almost killed Snowball, and Mariotte said the dog was in intensive care for three days.

"Through the grace of God, he came through it," she said. "I mean, literally, it was a miracle."

Owners say reprimands not enough

The Veterinary Medical Board reprimanded the vets in both Vaughan's and Mariotte's case.

Likewise, they reprimanded a vet who killed an 11-month-old cat named Stampy by injecting it with a euthanasia drug instead of a rabies vaccine – a technician had prepared a euthanasia shot for another cat in the room.

In Salisbury, a vet technician sent out to vaccinate Yvonne Welton's huskies accidentally injected part of a rabies shot into Welton's husband, then put the rest in the dog. The tech wasn't supposed to administer vaccines without supervision. So, the vet was reprimanded and fined $4,000, and the technician received an active 60-day suspension.

For some people, such as Mariotte, the punishments were too light. She didn't want the Banfield vet to lose her license, but she thinks a reprimand for mixing up four dogs wasn't enough.

"No, I was not happy," she said. "But I couldn't do anything about it."

Banfield says the case led to major changes company-wide to increase pet safety.

Schadler and Hearn of the Veterinary Medical Board said accidents do happen.

"There are some people who will never be happy with the outcome of the case unless it was a situation where the vet was barred from practicing for the rest of his life," Schadler said. "But we try our best to give them the best possible explanation of what happened."

When mistakes happen, it's not just the owners who are affected, he added.

"Don't think that veterinarians are not hurt when these things happen – and that's by no means an excuse for things happening," he said.

Vaughan also wasn't satisfied with the reprimand Lee received for the oversight that eventually killed his dog.

"A warning – I don't know what to say about that," Vaughan said. "They took $12,000 from someone for their dog to be put to sleep at the end of the day by (another) vet. That, to me, that just doesn't seem right."

He is now involved in a civil suit to try to get his money back.

"At the end of the day, all this is for Gunner," he said. "​I just want what's right by him, even though I don't have him anymore. I just want what's right by my dog."

Veterinary Specialty Hospital declined to comment on Vaughan's case but said it takes complaints filed with the state board seriously.

"VSH is committed to exceeding the standards set by North Carolina's Veterinary Medical Board," Dr. Herman Jeffer said in a statement. "We value the role the board plays in reviewing cases presented to them and take board complaints very seriously. As a hospital, we continuously evaluate our processes and procedures to ensure we are delivering the highest quality care to our patients and clients."

Pet owners can call the Veterinary Medical Board at 919-854-5601 to see if any disciplinary action has been taken against a specific veterinarian. The board hopes to have all that information available online in the near future.

2 Comments

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  • Charles Williams May 2, 10:54 a.m.
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    My vet is great. They let me see the drugs they use and do it while I'm there.

  • Nancy Deas May 2, 7:30 a.m.
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    Per the Nov. 13, 2014 NCVMB meeting minutes, “Mr. Mickey [then Executive Director] gave a synopsis of N.C. State Auditor’s Report [Oct. 29, 2014] to the Board. … The Board discussed the posting of complaint closing letters on the internet as discussed in the report.”

    If the Board makes disciplinary information available on its web site, it would seem that posting the closing letters would transcend the Board’s long-standing position: “Some state agency web sites provide a listing of licensees or registrants who have disciplinary actions. The North Carolina Veterinary Medical Board realizes that listings of this nature do not give a full understanding of the situation that caused the disciplinary action. Therefore, the NC Board chooses not to provide such information on this web site.”