PHOENIX — Every year, tens of thousands of us show up at animal rescues and shelters to adopt our next pet, but what do you do if the animal you bring home is sick? Who pays the vet bills?
ABC15 has heard from several residents who are voicing concerns about having to face hundreds of dollars, in some cases thousands, in vet bills after taking home a sick pet.
Upon talking to at least two dozen Valley rescues, ABC15 has learned policies vary from rescue to rescue. There are no state or even best practice guidelines rescues have to abide by.
There is no agency you can file a complaint with, you are on your own. Some rescues will take a sick pet back or help you with medical expenses, some won't.
This is an industry with no oversight or regulation, and every rescue plays by their own rules. It is up to you to make sure you know what you're doing.
Joanne Powers, a Phoenix woman who adopted a 5-month-old puppy from HALO Animal Rescue, said she learned a tough lesson after her experience.
Powers says when she showed up to pick Rosie up at the shelter, all she was told was that Rosie had the "sniffles". From day one, Powers said she felt something was not right with Rosie.
After several trips to the vet, Powers and her husband were told, it was best to euthanize Rosie, as tests for distemper and Bordatella came back positive.
Powers says she just could not bear to be in the room.
"My husband held her in his arms and watched the light go out of her eyes," said Powers.
Now she questions why the rescue where she got Rosie from did not run more tests on a dog that already had symptoms of respiratory problems and soft stool.
Heather Allen, President of HALO Animal Rescue says, like every animal that comes into their care, Rosie and her brother Maverick were given vaccines, de-wormed, and received medical examinations. Allen said respiratory problems were common in a shelter environment.
"Unfortunately, distemper is something that takes a few weeks to develop, where symptoms go from what the common cold looks like to much more severe issues of pneumonia and neurological issues," said Allen.
Allen said they will send pets home with medications sometimes, but it was also up to the adopter to choose whether to take that pet home or not.
This is not the first complaint ABC15 has heard about HALO.
In March 2017, Angel Gonzales reached out to ABC15, saying he too had taken a sick dog home, without being aware of how sick his pet really was.
"Ten hours later we get up to go to work, he's got stuff running out of his nose. He is not really moving. He won't eat, he won't drink," Gonzales described.
Less then 24 hours later, his veterinarian informed him that their pet Remy had severe pneumonia, and it would cost about $700 to treat the dog.
A quick search on Yelp reveals similar stories.
One person writes that he was not informed about a dog's kennel cough when they took the pet home. Another states they were told the dog had no medical issues, only to find out the dog had a tumor and cystitis. The person stated they could not afford the $2,000 surgery their pet required.
Allen says dog ownership comes with financial responsibility, and their staff reads medical waivers aloud to everyone who adopted animals at HALO.
She went on to say that after learning about Rosie's distemper, HALO staff tested 19 other dogs that had similar symptoms, and found three of them had tested positive for distemper. Those dogs were euthanized.
They also reached out to the family who had adopted Rosie's brother Maverick to find out how he was doing.
The family told Allen the dog had been sick, but they did not know why. That is when staff informed them the dog should be checked for distemper.
It turns out Maverick too had distemper, but his family was able to save his life, and the family was grateful that HALO had called them to inform them about what Maverick's mystery illness could be.
Allen called the incidents reported on Yelp, and through Powers "rare," so ABC15 asked her if they were so rare, why not reimburse those customers the medical bills they had to incur for the pet they had just adopted?
"Because it would be too expensive to do that. People would want you to refund them if they have a worm or something. It would be too expensive to do that," said Allen.
She added that HALO would take any pet back if they were not a "good fit" for the family, even years after the adoption if necessary, but they will not refund the adoption fee. If the return took place within 10 days, they will give you an exchange voucher that is good for 30 days, so you can pick out another animal.
Powers says after her attorney sent the rescue a demand letter, she got her adoption fee of $405 back, but not the additional $5,000 she spent in trying to save Rosie's life. She stresses though, that money was not the reason she wanted to speak out.
"To completely wash your hands of all of us who spent thousands and thousands of dollars to say, 'Nope, you walk out of here you have full financial responsibility,' is probably something only an unregulated industry can get away with," said Powers.
Here is what you should do when you adopt your next pet from any rescue:
- Make sure you read all contracts you sign very carefully.
- Ask questions about the dog's medical history, what they have been treated for, what medications they were on, even if the dog is not on that medication anymore.
- Ask if you can get a medical evaluation of the pet through their vet or your own.
- Make sure to find out if they will help with any medical expenses if the dog is already sick or on medication, and what their return policies are if you are not able to care for the animal. Many rescue dogs will come with health problems, so make sure you are able to provide that care before you adopt.
- Consider getting pet insurance. Some rescues work with companies that offer discounted rates for the first few months.
Editor’s Note: We reported that there is no oversight or regulation of the rescue animal industry. A more specific statement is that the rescue animal industry is unregulated except in cases of abuse or neglect, in which a rescue organization could be investigated by a law enforcement agency. In addition, there is a state law requiring sterilization of animals before they can be released from a county, city, or town pound or from an animal shelter.
Editor’s Note: HALO says it sent a $405 adoption fee refund before receiving a demand letter from Powers’ attorney.