Human/Animal Bond

To Help or Not to Help

She couldn't legally be treated without the owner's permission

March 24, 2017 (published)

homeless cat BigStock

I’m one of those people who can’t walk away from an animal that needs help. That’s how I ended up taking care of three abandoned (formerly homeless) felines who chose my backyard for their new home. It’s the reason I’ve shown up at the UC Davis Veterinary School more than once with some form of baby wildlife in a shoebox. It’s also how my neighbor’s tabby ended up dying in my living room, curled up in my lap, on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t legally be able to help an animal in need when I come across one.

Coming home from grocery shopping, I spotted my neighbor’s cat Mimi lying in the gutter with her nose pressed to the pavement. Cats are weird, I know. One of mine thinks it’s comfy to cram herself into a basket that’s way too small for her and take a nap. Another one likes to curl up in the skimmer net on top of the hot tub cover instead of on the cozy, warm cat bed that’s three feet away. But even though I had often seen Mimi just kicking back in the street, this time seemed different. As cars passed between us, she would slowly raise her head to watch then lower it again. When I got closer I could see she had a lot of green gunk coming out of her nose and eyes. I scooped her up gently and held her to my chest, noticing that although her belly was round, the rest of her felt like nothing more than a furry skeleton. She cried out as if it hurt, but I couldn’t tell if she’d been hit by a car or had any injuries. She was having a lot of trouble breathing through the green gunk. Her owner Rick was not home and his voicemail box was full. I had no idea who her veterinarian was so I just Googled nearby emergency clinics. Didn’t stop to unload the groceries, just got in the car and headed for the first open clinic I found.

The veterinarian looked at her overall condition, felt her abdomen, and said he was pretty certain that she had a large tumor in there, in addition to the raging upper respiratory infection. I was hoping there was something he could do to make her more comfortable until Rick could come for her. I was surprised when he said that he couldn’t do anything at all - not because she was too sick, but because I wasn’t Rick. Legally, he explained, he couldn’t treat her without her owner’s permission. He couldn’t even allow her to stay at the clinic and wait for Rick to come and request treatment. So, after another dozen unsuccessful attempts to reach Rick, I took her home with me. I wrapped her in a clean towel, petted her, and talked softly to her. A couple of hours later she took a last ragged breath, let out a final meow, and then went still.

In Mimi’s case, even if the veterinarian was legally able to treat her at my request, I’m not sure what could have been done other than end her suffering, and I can’t say I’d have been comfortable having someone else’s pet euthanized without them even having a chance to say goodbye. In the end though, I’m just glad she didn’t have to spend her final moments alone in the rain.

In a way, the fact that I knew who her owner was worked against me. If I hadn’t known her owner, and she wasn’t microchipped or wearing a collar with identification, it’s likely that I could have claimed her as a stray and taken responsibility for her care. If her real owners turned up later, they could still reclaim her.

As it turned out, Rick and his wife came home about an hour after Mimi passed. He’d forgotten to turn the ringer on his phone back up after church and never heard my calls. Rick was heartbroken to hear what happened and grateful that I’d tried to help her and that I stayed with her at the end. It had been a couple of weeks since he’d seen her (she’s an outside/garage kitty that they inherited when they bought their house over 10 years ago). According to Rick, Mimi had a ‘cold’ the last time he saw her, but since she had still been eating, acting normal, and looked otherwise like her usual self, he wasn’t yet very concerned. Like most of us would be, he’s now kicking himself for not taking her to her veterinarian when he first noticed she had the sniffles.

So what should you do if you become aware of a neighborhood pet that’s in need of medical attention or other help? First of all, if you know you’re one of those folks who just can’t walk away and hope someone else does something, it’s a good idea to forearm yourself with knowledge of local laws on the subject. If a situation does come to your attention, try not to make assumptions  about the owner before you know the full story. Give people the benefit of the doubt. The most important thing is to help the pet, and time is usually of the essence so you don’t want to waste time judging and accusing when you don’t have the facts yet anyway.

Always keep things on the up-and-up! You can most likely help without breaking the law, and except for some extreme cases, without incurring the wrath of your neighbors.

Naturally, the first thing you should do is try to let the owners know about the pet’s condition before you do anything. You may learn that the owners were simply not prepared for the financial and other responsibilities that go along with pet ownership. Could be that sweet, purring, little fluffball grew up to be a furniture scratching, urine-spraying, furry menace, and to save their sanity (and their furnishings) they just let Mr. Fluffy roam the neighborhood and mostly fend for himself. Maybe they didn’t realize that cute, clumsy oaf of a puppy would get to be over 100 pounds and have an insatiable taste for shoe leather and the flesh of their guests, so Fido spends most of his time alone in the backyard. There are dozens of circumstances that may lead folks to realize that they can’t handle pet ownership, or care for a specific animal. In the best case scenario, when that realization hits they’lll do what’s best for the animal, but sometimes that doesn’t happen.

If it turns out the owners are unable to help their pet for whatever reason, you can certainly offer to help them with a ride to the veterinarian’s office, money for an exam, or whatever you’re comfortable with. They may even be willing to relinquish the pet to you entirely, giving you the opportunity to provide any needed care and/or find a suitable home, if you don’t want to keep it yourself.

If the owner isn’t willing to help the pet or won’t accept your help, you may feel tempted to do so without their consent, but remember there is a fine line between being a good Samaritan and being a pet thief. The Animal Legal Defense Fund  has suggestions for the best way to help a neglected animal.

If you don’t know who owns the pet, or suspect it is a lost or stray pet, the Humane Society offers these guidelines on how you can help.

If you find a pet that needs help, but simply don’t have the time or the resources to provide veterinary care or find a new home, you can always contact your local animal control agency or a nearby animal shelter for assistance. Sometimes, being a good samaritan is complicated, and it’s hard to know what is the right thing to do, not to mention whether doing that thing might get you in legal hot water.

1 Comment

Dr. Laurelle Danton
April 6, 2017

Being as I am a "country veterinarian", a lot of injured animals are brought to me, mostly HBC or shot --- both pets and wildlife.  I have to get permission to treat the wildlife, but if there are no tags, collars or microchips, I assume it is a stray, as most of the owned animals are patients of mine.  Living near an interstate highway, lots of pets are "dropped off" under the mistaken thinking that these manhandled pets will be OK to survive in the wild.  Nevermind the cars travelling at high speeds, the coyotes and other dangers these animals are not able to fight off, much less understand.  So, I treat them, if feasible, or humanely euthanize them if they have major untreatable injuries.  Wonder if it's any easier in the Big Cities????

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