vet board

Corey Rosier, Hannah Berryhill their son, Jackson Rosier, 14 months, are with their dog, Roxie, 3 years old. When Roxie was around six months old and had a scratch on her eye, Corey and Hannah took Roxie to veterinarian Dr. Badr Oweis in Catonsville. They did not have a good experience with the vet. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / March 15, 2012)

When William Gunn sought medical care for his pit bull-Labrador retriever mix Smokey on a Sunday morning, one of her front paws was bleeding uncontrollably. The family's regular veterinarian was closed that day, and he didn't know where else to go, so he paged through the phone book and wound up at the Catonsville practice of Badr Oweis.

Gunn, a city wastewater supervisor who lives in Poppleton, told the vet that he had been walking Smokey when she cut the paw, probably on glass. He thought stitches might take about 30 minutes, but Oweis told him she would likely need anesthesia and it might take a while.

More than seven hours later, the 1-year-old dog left the vet's office with an ovariohysterectomy (spaying), no pain medication and an infection that would swell to the size of a tennis ball and spike a temperature of 104.2 degrees. Her paw had been wrapped in padding and masking tape. Oweis handed Gunn a $588 bill.

"I went to church and asked people to pray for my dog," recalled Gunn's wife, Yvonne, a retired Baltimore high school math teacher. "She was dying; I was devastated."

Smokey survived, but the Gunns' experience illustrates the problems Marylanders can face in seeking care for a pet. The Gunns complained to the state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners about Oweis, and their case was one of three in 2010 and 2011 that resulted in a series of fines and suspensions against him. Though Oweis has disputed the allegations and said Gunn authorized the surgery, his license remains suspended.

Since late 2007, the state board has suspended the licenses of seven veterinarians and revoked one vet's license. In two cases, the board found that vets used their position to access prescription drugs. In other cases, the board said vets provided inadequate care, failed to conduct proper tests or kept poor records.

The board investigates an average of 87 complaints a year, in addition to random, unannounced checks at least once every two years of all practices and hospitals, according to executive director Laura C. Downes. In nearly two-thirds of the cases, the board takes action — ranging from a letter of reprimand to a license revocation, she said.

Although Maryland's board is considered to be relatively assertive, experts say that across the country, penalties are low and often inadequate. Some animal-rights advocates say the laws providing remedies when a pet has been harmed or mistreated by a veterinarian are outdated in most states and fail to recognize that, to many, a pet is truly a part of the family.

"This is a classic example of the law being decades behind the reality in society," said Scott Heiser, senior attorney and director of the criminal justice program at the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund. "Views have changed markedly over the years. ... What's the value of the 5-year-old mutt that you got from the pound that comforts your children during a thunder and lightning storm?"

The Gunns want state regulators to step up efforts to protect pets and their owners. William Gunn said the complaint process was slow Oweis' discipline came more than two years after the 2008 visitand the outcome lenient.

"A person in the medical field that takes care of animals, you would think that they are beyond reproach," he said.

Oweis defended his medical treatment to the state board, testifying that Smokey was aggressive and contending that Gunn authorized him to spay her. He said he gave the dog a tranquilizer before the surgery that also controlled pain, and testified that pain medication after a dog is spayed is not necessary.

After conducting an investigation and hearing testimony, the board determined that Oweis spayed Smokey without her owners' permission, performed major surgery without follow-up pain medication and failed to properly record the treatment.

Oweis said in an interview that he did not want to discuss the situation for this article. He wants to practice again, but board officials said he is not in compliance with the orders against him and has not paid his civil penalties or attended required education sessions.

Maryland's oversight efforts

Thomas Armitage, president of the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association and a practitioner for 31 years, said vets are very concerned about animal safety and humane treatment, and take an oath to that effect when they enter the field.

Those ethics are the center of their professional careers, he said.

When something goes wrong, discipline falls to the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, which is made up of five veterinarians and two consumer advocates appointed by the governor.

Based in the Department of Agriculture headquarters in Annapolis, the board and its three inspectors are charged with overseeing the state's more than 2,500 veterinarians, who work in roughly 500 practices or in government, research or the military. Board members receive $100 a month and mileage reimbursement; the board president receives $150 a month.

"I think the consumer has significant weapons in their arsenal if they are unhappy with what their veterinarian has done," said board president Chris H. Runde, a general practitioner with a hospital in St. Mary's County.